The Neon Lights are Veins
Publisher: 280 Steps
Review by James Pate
I’ve always been drawn to stories about misfits and rebels, individuals existing on the outer fringe who radically take their lives into their own hands, for good or ill. Struggling artists, street-level visionaries, punks, insomniacs, wanderers, the obsessed and the damned.
Nolan Knight’s The Neon Lights Are Veins (280 Steps) is a Californian crime novel teeming with misfits. There’s the protagonist, Alvi Drake, whose legendary days as a skateboarder are behind him, and who is tormented by a painful family history involving a conniving, crazed mother and a recently deceased wife. There’s Mongo, a transvestite dreaming of fame and adoration in a city where she knows the odds are against her. And there’s Faye, a recent arrival to Los Angeles who is struggling against the myriad social forces pushing her toward a life of prostitution. There are others too, in this social orbit – most of the them living in a crumbling apartment building called the Hotel Lafayette -- and taken together, they made me think of Andy Warhol’s Superstars of the late 60s and early 70s, whose drug and sex fueled lives created a micro counterculture. Knight clearly has sympathy for these characters. Neon is one of those noir novels where the so-called deviants are actually the good guys. Even the fetishists are treated with good humor, presented not as sickos but as people with unusual sexual appetites. Knight has a Rabelaisian interest in the diversity of human nature.
The bad guys are the ones after money and power and control. Ray Satin is the ringleader of a group of very violent men who make small fortunes through drugs and pimping. Satin is vicious – his weapon of choice is the screwdriver, which he uses on both men and women, strangers and relatives – and he views other people as rungs on the ladder toward greater wealth. He is a dangerous combination of psychopath and narcissist. As he tells his men early in the book, “Money, power and monopoly—that’s the goal, gentleman—in that order.” When we meet him, he has started to make inroads with the police and City Hall, a move he hopes will pay off with a near total control of the Los Angeles underworld.
There are two factors at work against his grand designs, however: his nephew Rocco, and Alvi Drake. The nephew is sickened by the cruelty of his uncle’s world, even though he participates in that world by helping his uncle literally bury the bodies. He dreams of a more everyday life. While on the campus of UCLA, he imagines himself as just another student. Knight writes, “He reclined the seat and shut his eyes, envisioning dorm room summer nights, intellectualism sandwiched by beer pong and togas. All those great things the movies had promised.” Rocco is trapped in a Tarantino movie but wants to be in a Linklater one. As the story progresses, Rocco’s desire for escape starts to run counter his uncle’s desire for underworld dominance. Alvi Drake, in contrast, is an outsider to Satin’s world. He is looking for a missing ex-girlfriend named Gabby. His quest takes him into a grim, treacherous network where no one but his most immediate friends can be trusted.
Part three of the novel is titled “The Underground Web,” and, like the best of Californian noir, the novel reveals the shadows and back room deals that dwell beneath the sunshine, beaches, and mellow vibes. Knight’s Los Angeles is a double-sided coin: a haven for rebels like Alvi and Mongo, but also a Gothic terrain of nihilistic power grabs.
The last third of the novel is a fragmented, explosive showdown between these two spheres. It’s not giving too much away to say that things do not always go well for the more sympathetic characters. Knight’s novel is strikingly bleak in places, and the more familiar plotline of the good guys handily winning certainly does not apply here. But this pessimism is one of the best elements of the novel, giving it an unexpectedly tragic dimension.
For all of the book’s fatalism, though, Neon is not a depressing work. The narrative has an amphetamine-like intensity. And Knight’s language sings with a streetwise poeticism reminiscent of Hurbert Selby Jr., Lou Reed, and Richard Price. When Alvi walks into a barbershop, he heads “past the candy cane spiral, into the lair of man. Ricky Nelson crooned. Smut rags and nickel pulps cluttered the magazine rack; Lawrence Tierney and Killer Kowalski sneered from mint green walls.” Rocco strolls the through the grounds of UCLA and thinks it is “the Monica Vitti of college campuses: lean, tan, Romanesque—hypnotic to the human eyes.” In The Neon Lights Are Veins, the language is constantly surprising, bouncing around on the balls of its feet.
The publishing history of Knight’s book is an odd one, to say the least. 280 Steps, a Norwegian crime press founded in 2013, published Neon this past winter. A few months later, 280 Steps suddenly ceased to exist. The last time I checked, there were only seven copies of Knight’s novel left to buy online. I hope the book gets re-issued shortly by another press. It’s a fierce, bold work, and deserves a wide readership.