Cody James: The Dead Beat

This is a book which came to my attention twice. First, like most bloggers I receive requests (especially from small presses) to review books, and the publisher of this book, Eight Cuts Gallery Press, asked if they could send me a copy some time ago. I declined (as I do to most such requests) because I had too many books awaiting attention already (as most of us do). This month, however, the book was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, by public vote. The orgiastic praise for the book on the Guardian review site and Amazon made me curious, and knowing it was short and could be had inexpensively (I paid £2.14 to download it to my iPhone as a Kindle ebook), I decided to have a go.

The Dead Beat is set in 1997 in California, and narrated by a young man called Adam. He’s a slacker, a user, a loafer: a deadbeat. He surrounds himself with like minds. They have “shitty jobs.” Their “laundry situation [has] reached critical mass.” You get the idea. James writes from experience: “three of the characters are me, the fourth was a friend of mine, and all the other characters are people I knew and hung out with.” She wrote the book in five days “and then wound up in hospital on the sixth day on an accidental overdose.” Some of Adam’s friends in the book, such as Sean, attain a distinction as characters, others – Xavi, Lincoln – tend to run and blur. Some dialogue – again like Sean’s run-on ramblings – has a ring of truth to it and chimes with the reader. The exchanges are necessarily banal, but they lack the blank poetry of Tao Lin, the satire of Bret Easton Ellis, or the life and zing of Bukowksi or Fante.

There are heartfelt passages in The Dead Beat, as when Adam rails against Lincoln’s demands of their friendship (“I held our situation in my hands, that breaking thing, cutting me”) – it sounds as though James wrote it from life. The empathy with the characters, the balance presented in their shapeless lives, are the book’s greatest strengths. But art is not made from sincerity. And in particular, when you choose to write about a setting as hackneyed as this, there needs to be some transformative power, some alchemy, which I didn’t detect. This is not to say that there’s nothing to see here. There is an amusing passage on how users of different drugs revile one another, and social observation in how workers in low paid jobs “can’t afford to fuck up” with “sick days or mental health days.” “You screw up, you lose your job. It’s simple. Only rich people are allowed to fuck themselves up. They’re the only ones with the room to fall.” There is even a nice splice of satire and characterisation when Adam watches a TV ad for a spurious health drink as he knocks it back. “The ad ended with an incredibly telegenic old man turning to the camera, blue can in hand, and a caption appeared below, which read, ‘Improve the quality of your life.’ I took a sip, thinking, you and me, old buddy.” And James writes well on Adam’s response to art as he looks at a painting while recalling the soundtrack to I Pagliacci.

The weaknesses in James’s writing stand out clearly. She has a maddening habit of using alternatives to “said” (“he concurred,” “he answered”, “he yelled,” “I sighed”) and of adding adverbs to dialogue description (he commented disparagingly). She hammers home significant points – the significance of the Hale-Bopp comet, repeating plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose several times in a couple of pages (and even translating it), and the same with the phrase “life is beautiful.” This is all first person narrative, so perhaps it’s Adam who is so clunkingly unsubtle, not the author. But there are no other indicators that we should view him at a distance (empathy, as I said, is strong), he’s often articulate, and dullness of mind – or frazzledness of mind – can be portrayed more subtly. The need to over-explain extends to the likes of Adam saying “It reminded me of what my mom used to call ‘nervous laughter’ – laughter at inappropriate moments.” If the book comes from life, then we could compare it in memoiristic terms to John Healy’s The Grass Arena: a book not well-written, but powerful because it brings powerful truth. But The Dead Beat is presented not as a memoir but a work of fiction, a work of creativity and imagination.

How does this all balance out in the end? I don’t regret reading The Dead Beat, but nor do I recommend it. But we are being asked to believe, by Amazon reviewers and those who voted in the Guardian Not the Booker Prize, that this is a masterwork of sorts, and being asked to pay money for it (though the publisher is also offering a free PDF at the time of writing). These claims made for The Dead Beat are the most surprising thing about it. It’s sometimes enjoyable, with some nice moments and some weak ones. But there is nothing remarkable in literary terms. The milieu has been done before, and better, by many writers (as above) and most notably, the brilliant Denis Johnson. There is no deformation of language in The Dead Beat, no structural innovation, no sense of exploration. Next to something like Blake Butler’s There Is No Year (published, incidentally, by a mainstream press), this is Catherine Cookson.

Some Amazon reviewers try to second-guess criticisms of the book (perhaps an acknowledgement that such criticisms are not without foundation). One says, “It’s a style that I’d assume will polarise opinion; I’d also assume that the author wouldn’t want it any other way.” Critical considerations don’t get much less relevant than trying to predict what others will make of it. Why would James’s unexceptional style polarise opinion? The same reviewer says “James doesn’t write to please the purists.” How would he know? What purists? Another reviewer rightly says the book is “riddled with adverbitis and overwritten” but then adds (without further clarification) “that is the point, I think.” And another draws the following unforgettable comparison: “A writer to whom she’s arguably comparable is Flannery O’Connor […]. O’Connor was famous for her Catholicism, and James is a self-avowed Satanist, but both are astute observers able to capture the human condition concisely.” Tastes differ, of course, but these are the sort of orgiastic songs of praise which no disinterested reader can take seriously.

During the nominations phase of the Not the Booker Prize, James’s publisher said that they had sent out copies of The Dead Beat to the Guardian for review and didn’t get a response. They also commented on the difficulties for small presses in getting their books noticed by the mainstream cultural press. Those are problems I have a good deal of sympathy with, believing that small presses are where much of the most interesting writing is appearing these days. But I also believe that publishing books like The Dead Beat in its current form will add to that difficulty rather than alleviate it.


  1. I have very little interest in the book itself, but this was a most interesting piece John. You’re right to highlight the profoundly negative impression that cheerleading of the type this book has attracted can create. I know that those posting on eg Amazon and Not The Booker mean well, in the sense they want the book widely publicised and read, but the sense of personal investment over-riding sound critical appraisal is inescapable.

    As an aside, I really liked Tao Lin’s first, Shoplifting from American Apparel. I duly bought his follow-up, Richard Yates, but I found it unbearable and gave up after 50-odd pages.

  2. Having read your review, I will not read this book. Had I read the other referenced reviews, I would not have read this book. But my opinion, at least, is irrelevant to the potential popularity of such a work, as is, no doubt, your careful critique. Those who posted positive Amazon reviews clearly liked it; those who may enjoy such a work will most likely respond positively to those same reviews. Publishers will go on publishing good and bad books, because there’s an audience for both, and perhaps a bigger one for the latter sort; small presses too. And, so long as there are a few worthy titles each year, I don’t think there’s too much to be worried about. That is, until the “good” authors decide there’s much more money to be had from “bad” writing. But that’ll never happen, will it?

  3. I’d hardly call my review of The Dead Beat on the Guardian review site, copied from my Amazon review which originated on my BookRambler blog on 16 October last year as “orgiastic” – I thought it was balanced and thoughtful.
    I’m trying to build up a critical bibliography and I’m being selective about books I review or write about. This holds true for print and the blogosphere. Whenever I select a book for review here’s what I do:
    I read it all the way through to get a sense of what happens and how it fits together. I then read it again, this time, critically, asking questions such as, does it convey what it’s attempting to do; does it all work together, such as, character, dialogue, setting, language, tone and rhythm. I then go back through the text to select quotations that will give a flavour of the author’s style.
    I’d like to point out that I was neither drunk nor frenzied during these readings nor when I was writing, editing or posting the review to the blog, to Amazon or to the Guardian review site.

    I read Adam as a flawed writer – p. 19 [of print edition] “An hour later, I was in my room. I had some time to kill before we were supposed to leave for the show and I wanted to try and get some writing done. […] Xavi came in […] ‘hardly anyone has written a good book for decades.’ ” [… Adam writes] “This block was seriously fucking with me.”
    The language and twisted grammar combined with the witty parrying between Adam and Xavi about the value of contemporary literature are key to understanding Adam’s skewed view of the universe and his skewed view of literature and it’s through his very uneven writing that this is conveyed to the reader.

    I hope this clarifies my review for you.

  4. Oh the purists, so often outraged and yet nobody can ever point to an example of their outrage. They’re very convenient the purists. It’s a bit of a shame they don’t actually exist, but possibly that’s actually helpful given the role they fill in book marketing.

    “I held our situation in my hands, that breaking thing, cutting me” – overwritten. That breaking thing, really?

    Actually, that’s a bit unfair. Any book can be made to look silly by taking a single line out of context.

    He seems very close to the material. I’d be curious to know how he’d approach another book, less personal.

    Otherwise, while your review is ultimately somewhat scathing (“Next to something like Blake Butler’s There Is No Year (published, incidentally, by a mainstream press), this is Catherine Cookson”) it’s scrupulous. Relevant comparisons are made. You take it seriously. I’m not sure the publishers could ask for more.

    The Not the Booker is fun to follow, but it’s too much of a logrolling exercise for me to actually participate in.

  5. Hi John,
    This is an excellent review of, apparently, a very bad book–bad, at least, in that it is so poorly written. It is to your credit that you maintain such a generous composure in the face of sophomoric effort. What clinches the case, for me, are the examples of grossly over-written narration. I could not hope to be so even handed.
    (I have to admit I recently responded, in exasperation, to posted reviews of fiction by a soon to be published author, who couldn’t put even a single coherent and meaningful sentence together in her reviews, by asking whether her up coming book would be released before, or after, she graduated high school. I hemmed and hawed for days, but I couldn’t apologize, or retract an honest question.)
    The publishing industry, it sometimes seems, has gone almost completely over to the dark side. We assume they always wanted to “sell” books, but that they had a care that the books should meet some minimum standard to qualify for their attention. I think that bar has slipped considerably lower. Whether this is due to poor editorial control or simply bowing to the economic fact that foolish, rebellious and ignorant people have money too, I don’t know. In either case,it clearly reflects a diminished respect for the quality and value of good writing.
    It is a regrettable trend, and perhaps a dangerous one–given the power of the market to ‘make reality’. It says something about the need for editors with integrity, also.

  6. It’s nice to read a fair review. I haven’t read the book, but just appreciated your effort in reviewing it.

    Kevin Chamow

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