Drugs rule, in another ho-hum study of contemporary anomie.
Dazed and bleeding, a guy stumbles along the California beach toward Malibu. He makes his way deliberately to an empty beachfront house and enters through the crawlspace and a wooden panel. This might be an okay hook, except there’s no follow-through. We return periodically to the guy in the house, but not until the end do we learn what brought him there. Instead, we get his history (most of it recent). His name is Hayward Theiss, he’s in his late 20s, and he’s just driven cross-country after breaking up with his girlfriend Helen, who’s been in and out of mental hospitals with an unspecified illness. Hay stopped off in Tucson to attend a concert of Kimmel’s, Kimmel being a songwriter/guitarist and Hay’s old college roommate: he has talent but also a bad attitude, willing himself to fail. Also at the concert is Will, who was in middle school with Hay back in 1980. Will is a freelance journalist with a book coming out, and he too is self-destructive (and enjoys needling strangers). As for Hay, he’s driving to LA to produce a show for public television about new American music. These three are the story’s principals, though none is well defined. Hay puts away astonishing amounts of liquor while the other two, Hay slowly realizes, have become heroin addicts. Nothing much happens, though every so often, first-novelist Brumbaugh, a music industry veteran, cuts away to memorialize Annie Oakley, the legendary sharpshooter and an old flame of Hay’s great-grandfather (and one of Brumbaugh’s ancestors). What a wrong move. The writing about Annie, based on the historical record, is clear and to the point, much in contrast to the foggy limbo inhabited by the present-day characters. Further, the remarkable Annie underscores the smallness of Hay, Will, and Kimmel, making it a case of Annie and the three dwarves. Eventually, there’s a drug-related death, and Hay emerges from that house.