I was 19 and floating aimlessly in that post-high school miasma of uncertainty and misdirected angst. I was helping a drug dealer sell stolen jewelry near the beach when my friend Ricky showed up and invited me to hang out. We could go for a walk or pack a bowl or visit someone else or drive around or get food because everything was more or less the same to us and everything sounds good when you have no plans and nowhere to be. We ended up visiting and older, wiser friend; a man whose wild days had ended and who now worked as a mechanic for an airline. When we showed up, he said “Look at you two, killing dogs all day.” I didn’t know what he meant, so he explained his old man slang. His generation used “killing dogs” to refer to smalltime thug behavior, heathenish conduct, purposeless wandering, hoodrat stuff. I loved the term. At the time, my love for books was already strong, so I stood there nodding, thinking I’d love to read a novel exactly about that, a novel about youngsters with no direction messing up and growing up and laughing at death. Time passed. A lot of time. Some folks made it out alive and some were caught by the drugs or a bullet. I forgot I wanted to read about that life. Well, this week, more than a decade after that day dog-killing day, I read that novel. It’s titled Heathenish. Author Kelby Losack wrote it, and I love him for it.
Heathenish is one of those rare novels that relies more on a strong main character than a clear plot, so it’s better to approach it with just a vague idea of what it’s about. The narrative follows Baby Boy, a youngster who is just shy of 21 years of age but who already has kids, a job, a busted relationship with the mother of his children, and a life packed with enough anguish and mental problems to make him sound much older. As he drifts between his home, parties, cars, his job, and wherever else life takes him, the only constants are heavy drug and alcohol abuse, the impermanence of most of those around him, and a combination of anger and sadness that he tries to keep quiet simply because he can’t pinpoint its origin or come up with a way to make it disappear. When the life he’s leading lands him in the hospital with a shattered stomach and weighing 95 pounds, Baby Boy starts seeing things a bit more clearly, although what that means for his lifestyle may or may not be a different story.
The first thing that becomes clear about this novella is that it is autobiographical. Losack shares almost everything, including tattoos, with the protagonist. This means that some of the most painful parts of the narrative are infused with an authenticity that cuts to the bones and makes them unforgettable. There are many such passages like that in the book, but the ones that hit hardest are those in which the children are involved:
Anjelica stops punching me in the ribs and wipes her tears and snot on my shirt. She looks up at me, says, “Try harder.” Then she closes her eyes against me, and I channel all the thoughts I can’t articulate into my chest, hoping the rhythm of my heartbeat speaks to her somehow, says the right words that I could never say.
Between short chapters, clipped dialogue, and scenes that only focus on a few details, Heathenish barrels forward with the speed and intent of a wild animal fleeing a wildfire. There’s friendship, all kinds of drugs, guns, music, kisses, fights, screams, and too many brushes with death, and Losack treats all of it with the same surefooted prose and authentic voice. The result is a novella that demands to be read at a frenetic pace while ignoring your surroundings. This, more than a novella about people doing bad things, is life distilled; a wonderful slice of life that possesses a universal quality that’s lacking from most contemporary crime fiction narratives.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Heathenish is not that its author survived to tell a thinly fictionalized version of his early 20s, but that he managed to squeeze a strange, colorful poetry from his cathartic process:
I lie on the ﬂoor like a fetus in the womb of a demon as people dance and drink and pop pills above me, my night owl pupils absorbing too much laser light/black light/strobe light, my heart rate synced up with the cymbals of a trap beat.
Heathenish accomplishes two important things: it signals the arrival of a potent new voice in crime fiction, and it proves once again that Broken River Books is one of the top indie presses because it constantly publishes great known voices along new (and newish) gems like Losack. If you’ve ever felt lost and broken, if you’ve ever looked for the ephemeral relief of an altered state of conscience to escape something you don’t fully understand, then this is one novella you can’t afford not to read.
by Kelby Losack
Broken River Books; 154 p.