In the midst of the 1992 LA riots, a conflicted exotic dancer shambles toward an epiphany about adulthood.
This debut from award-winning poet Carter is an unexpected gift. The story of a stripper, her stoner boyfriend and their dying neighbor as they try to survive the Rodney King riots is not a pretty tale, but it’s told well. The author infuses her period piece with shades of post-punk cynicism and the caustic, abandon-all-hope vibe of the grunge years while drawing characters who fit well into the book's gritty ambiance. Our entree into this sordid world is Gwen, a girl your mother would like, a graduate student and aspiring poet who came to Los Angeles seeking adventure. Unfortunately, she finds herself playing “Stevie,” a mechanically erotic nude dancer at the Century Lounge. She’s no pawn, and Carter goes to great lengths to show how Gwen owns her sexuality but also that it’s a means to an end. Gwen genuinely loves her boyfriend, Leo, a self-described performance artist who dresses as a Revolutionary War soldier—not to busk, but to hock his crappy music demos. Their superqueer neighbor, Count Valiant, adds not only to the ensemble, but also the period vibe, as he’s living, quite dramatically, with AIDS. As Gwen finds she’s pregnant, Leo, living out his Peter Pan arc, decides to march into East LA waving a flag of surrender and dragging his reluctant girlfriend behind him. “That’s what you did when your best friend was dying and your boyfriend was planning a stunt that, were he to follow it through, could get him arrested or beaten or killed the very next morning,” Carter writes. “That’s what you did when your city was burning, the city in which you’d lived and dreamed and loved; that’s what you did when you had just this night.” Poetic but rarely uplifting, Carter's novel is a fable for those who remember the bad old days.
Hard choices for an unconventional heroine who wants the magic in her life to be real, not illusory.