A swirling, name-dropping, drug-fueled, hypersaturated whirlwind of a novel set against the New York City of the 1980s and '90s, Kobek’s latest (I Hate the Internet, 2016, etc.) is a gritty coming-of-age story with quiet heart.
After the gruesome deaths of both his parents (“my mother killed my father, or was it my father who murdered my mother?”), a gay high school grad from small-town Wisconsin shows up in New York City, wanders into a squalid squat, christens himself Baby Baby Baby (just Baby, for short), and meets a rich girl with yellow sneakers who will immediately and forever change his life. Adeline, who speaks with the self-consciously stilted diction of an old Hollywood movie star—a grating habit, both for the reader and, presumably, for her friends—is a Parsons freshman, an ebullient poor-little-rich-girl with an alcoholic mother and a dead dad. Without thinking twice, she invites Baby to come live with her in her dorm room off Union Square—“you’re a sailor without any port of call,” she tells him—and the two fall into a fast and complicated friendship. As the years tick by—from Reagan to Bush to Clinton—Adeline and Baby, both artistic and, in their own ways, ambitious, come together and fall apart and come together again as the city pulses around them. The book’s tertiary characters read like a who’s who of the times: gay sci-fi writer Thomas M. Disch lives in their building—an early role model for Baby, who will also become a science-fiction writer, though he doesn’t yet know it—but also David Wojnarowicz, Bret Easton Ellis, Norman Mailer, and Dorian Corey of Paris Is Burning fame. There is a prolonged period, in the late '80s when Baby becomes a Club Kid, thereby making the acquaintance of both Michael Alig and the man, Angel Melendez, whom Alig would later murder with a hammer. But to the extent that there is propeller to the book, besides the passage of time, it is the bond between Baby and Adeline, which outlives even their own shifting identities.
Pleasantly nostalgic if occasionally exhausting; an ode to a city—and an era—long gone.