Newcomer Ludington takes an uninhibited romp through Deadhead subculture.
In a narrative spanning the 1980s and ’90s, 18-year-old Deadhead Jason Burke, who as a youngster traveled the world from Bucharest to Beirut, now tours the country, sometimes solo and sometimes en posse, selling silk-screened T-shirts and acid blotters to fellow groupies at rock concerts. Ambivalent about the future and partially dependent on his mother, Jason comes in contact with a variety of drug-dealers, hipsters, dropouts, and an enviable assortment of lovers. He’s kind of like Denis Johnson’s “Fuckhead” figure in Jesus’ Son: an inquisitive brainiac reduced by drugs to esthetic addict, consigned to examine a world gone mad with honesty, sympathy, and lyricism. If a story is devised as a wanderer’s quest, and the meaning lies in the searching, then the trivialities of existence can be a valuable resource if the language and characters remain interesting, which they mostly do here. The problem becomes: How long can you continue caring about people who don’t care about themselves? Jason, luckily, is likable and smart. His journalist father was murdered by Syrians for alleged espionage, allowing for many guilt-ridden reflections and personal inquiries. Throw in Harry, an alcoholic ex-friend of the father’s who’s dying of emphysema; Melanie, a one-armed high-school lover with a detective hot on her trail; acquaintances dying of AIDS and overdoses; a child named Jason who may be Jason’s own; and a heroin addiction; and you’ve pretty much stapled down the plot highlights. The real story, however, lies in Jason’s individual journey, in moments of loss and understanding, change or the rejection of change.
Deft and inscrutable accuracy of emotion, intimately drawn characters, and earned insights: an impressive first.