A name like writer James Boice’s no doubt washes up waves of adulation. His partner-in-assonance is a certain modernist master whom Boice, at 29, surely knows something about. The Good and the Ghastly (Scribner, 288 pages, $25), a wicked new novel, is the kind of towering bildungsroman-cum-crime fiction carnival that is both entertaining and well-crafted — something we’ve come to expect from writers like Chuck Palahniuk, but don’t usually get these days.
For all its explosions, the book isn’t mere spectacle for spectacle’s sake. Often contemporary imaginations of literary violence sink into the page-filling, glittery sands of ersatz — but James Boice, quite the contrarian, has conjured a brutal, sharp diamond in the literary rough. The Good feels fresh and urgent while culling themes as old as the Bible and as zeitgeist-y as The Sopranos: the neo-noir crime epic. Boice has certainly eaten his cultural vegetables; at the same time, he isn’t afraid to spew them up to create a pulpy piece of work that is contemporary and allusive. It’s enough to satisfy readers in need of instant gratification as well as those less ravenous who prefer to sip and savor.
The Good and the Ghastly is a mad picaresque, the story of antihero Junior Alvarez’s rise and fall as criminal overlord. It is the 34th century. Seminal cultural artifacts were lost in some kind of nuclear devastation centuries before, so Sarah Palin and Oprah are among this world’s spiritual and intellectual pundits. Someone called Kevin Lithis is the new Jesus Christ. Everybody believes Stephen King wrote the works of Shakespeare. Ikea tables are considered antiques. But down in the underbelly, an implacable race to power wages between the Italians and the Irish as Josefina, a good mother turned hardened revenge-seeker, sets out to avenge the death of her son — one of Junior’s victims — by assassinating Junior and his unctuous underlings. And how far she goes I won’t say, but it does involve, in one scene, a bazooka, a baby, and a priest’s garb. Yeah.
A peak at the epigraphs inaugurating The Good and the Ghastly give a real sense of Boice’s literary antecedents. There are quotes from Faulkner, Shakespeare, Stephen King, and the OJ Simpson trial. With this mixed bag of chestnuts as synecdoche, Boice traverses the furrows of the high- and lowbrow in his novel. At once, The Good deserves the literary fiction crown and yet, it is also, in its own right, a piece of glorious trash. It is ugly and sensational, yet Boice is an evocative writer who knows what he’s up to.
With no degree to speak of, he has made himself something of a literary wunderkind. When Boice began writing, he “purposefully wanted no formal education,” he explained to me in an e-mail. “I did not want to be a proficient and well-executed writer. I wanted to be a writer who writes in blood. I wanted to live on the margins of decency and write things that were dangerous and true.” After dropping out of college, he moved to San Francisco and holed up in a room at the Halcyon Hotel on Jones Street, writing, drinking coffee, listening to Blood on the Tracks. Now, he lives in New York City and “life is good. I’m happy as a pig in shit.” And he should be. He already has two novels — MVP and NoVA — under his belt. This third entry is set in northern Virginia, where Boice is from. “I feel it is a microcosm of America, the quintessential American place,” he said. But here, NoVA is run by gangsters.
“Part of the impetus for the book was to sort of acknowledge our culture’s twisted relationship to gangsters,” Boice said. “We glorify them. We do. We love Scarface and Goodfellas and The Godfather. It’s fucked up that we do, because gangsters are evil motherfuckers.” Boice says the best writing is “the work of the subconscious.” Guy’s got a sick subconscious.
Like The Godfather, Boice creates a kind of ensemble piece, oscillating between a few different characters and third- and first-person while also generating a universe peppered with striking verisimilitude. Pop cultural references abound, and Boice’s prose contains an arsenal of neologisms — “smuck” is the new “fuck,” Visa rules the world, and Bar With Pool Table is Junior’s haunt. Boice’s invocation of particular brand names and coinages — reminiscent of Anthony Burgess, Bret Easton Ellis, or more recently, Junot Díaz — underscores the kind of fully imagined, multifaceted literary universe that would sate science fiction or fantasy nerds. And like those contemporaries, Boice is doing satire here, although it never feels heavy-handed because the mores of this literary world mirror ours. The year 3348 isn’t looking so glamorous after all.
The novel’s balls-to-the-walls violence, in scenes that glide as giddily as Scorsese’s camera, has a point: “Violence is not fun to think about, but it exists and has a way of interrupting your peace and penetrating your isolation out of the blue whether you want it to or not,” Boice said. “I believe in describing violence in a violent way. Otherwise you’re not telling the truth.”
Great works of art are always something of a mystery, and Boice leads us unflinchingly into the dark while cutting believable characters out of cardboard archetypes, right down to their flesh and bone (literally). Boice saves his most packed punches for last, where he rains down a reckoning upon Junior and Josefina. But all the while, Boice sidesteps easy moral punctuations in favor of ambiguity and open questions. In the end, it’s like a brick through a windshield.