Sex, drugs and self-awareness amid the 1980s punk scene, in an idiosyncratic second novel from Hillsbery (War Boy, 2000).
Abandoned by junkie parents, Rockets trades the custodial embrace of the state for homelessness and hustling in Hollywood even before he hits puberty. He finally feels a sense of belonging in the L.A. punk scene that produced X, Flipper, The Circle Jerks and The Germs. Indeed, the story gets its title from a Germs single and its impetus from the 1980 suicide of the band’s front man, Darby Crash. It may be morning in Reagan’s America, but it’s always dark in underground L.A., and Rockets’ existence is a nightmare—enlightened only occasionally by fragments of sweet dreams—until he’s saved one golden California morning by lesbian folksinger Phranc. The author mostly refrains from easy pathos in depicting his almost-30 protagonist, but he fails to bring Rockets to life, in part because the boy’s history remains mostly obscured, and in part because the narrative voice is thoroughly unconvincing. Hillsbery’s prose ranges from cutely opaque to merely cute, and it never seems to match the language available or likely to be compelling to a punk-rock kid 20 years ago. Instead, Rockets talks like a biker or a beatnik or a Tin Pan Alley songsmith. His stream-of-consciousness is unintended kitsch—and immensely wearying. Hillsbery achieves his only moment of real beauty or truth in his opening pages when Rockets offers a list of everything he hates. In the midst of this childishly nihilistic—and, therefore, truly punk—catechism, Rockets exclaims that he detests poseurs, which is to say that he is disgusted when external presentation fails to match inner reality. That being the case, it’s difficult to imagine that he would have any use for What We Do Is Secret.
May have some ethnographic value as a name-dropping record of early L.A. punk, but overly clever and utterly unpersuasive as a novel.