Review: The Dead Beat, by Cody James

REVIEW: The Dead Beat, by Cody James (Eight Cuts Gallery Press, 2010)



“Art and lit are lack-lustre now. Passion replaced by facile intellectualism. Throwaway culture resulting in throwaway art.” [@codyjames77: Tweet: 20:52; 15 Oct. 2010]


‘I’m pretty sure I wanted more out of life than this’ (The Dead Beat)

Crafted out of a time during 1997 when comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the night-sky above San Francisco, The Dead Beat is pitch-perfect in its portrayal of the frenetic aimlessness of restless minds for whom the most pressing issues are getting the laundry done and fretting over ‘trying to decide what to do’.

It would be easy to dismiss this slim but certainly not slight novel. The diseased text is riddled with adverbitis and over-written to the point where every major point is driven home so that, WE GET THE POINT. But, that is the point, I think. The protagonist/narrator Adam is a drug-addled, blocked writer who lives among the detritus of revered literary revolutionaries in a cockroach-infested house in Berkeley, San Francisco. He draws his three housemates from the ‘s’ for ‘stereotypical slacker’ in the new writer’s manual-: Lincoln, a manic-obsessive who stalks Mia, the ‘ordinary’ girl up the street, Sean, a suicidal bisexual, and Xavi, whose OCD consigns him to a living nightmare in their boarded-up hovel. Adam works a ‘crummy job at the record store’ and tries to write. When he’s high, he’s abusive and picks fights with his housemates. Crashing down, he’s crippled with guilt and self-loathing and he self-harms. He suffers hallucinations and paranoia, is plagued with ‘The Spiders’ and ‘little black animals’ and the strains of ‘a whole classical symphony’ that plays loudly inside his head.

‘My brain was racing so fast that it felt like I was standing still, kind of like those old, cheesy depictions of time-travel, or kind of like comet Hale-Bopp’.

Resonances to the Beat Generation add both texture and depth to the story. Adam’s self-portrait is straight from Kerouac’s note No. 27: ‘In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness’ (from ‘The Belief and Technique of Modern Prose’) while other connections/references are overt:

Ginsberg ‘had died earlier that month… ‘[w]hen I was a kid, I had read three things in that reading room that had blown my mind. On the Road by Jack Kerouac, America by Allen Ginsberg, and a short poem by Philip Whalen called, Plus Ça ChangePlus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same’

‘ “I wonder if the Haight was this dirty in the ‘60s?” he [Xavi] said out loud, looking around at the urban debris—fast food wrappers, used needles and condoms, vomit, those lone, floating, plastic bags from supermarkets—that littered the verdant surroundings.’

I’m probably not the ‘Ideal Reader’ whom Cody James had in mind while she was writing The Dead Beat. The story is a world away from my safe, Presbyterian-guilt-ridden corner of Scotland and it has everything I go out of my way to avoid – foul language, profanity, careless drug abuse, not to mention gratuitous sex and female stereotyping. Yet, the style, substance, language, dialogue and characterisation are all relevant to the story she tells. And she tells it well. James’s achievement in The Dead Beat is two fold: she gives a voice to the dead-beat generation and, in juxtaposing abhorrent lifestyles with poignant introspection, evokes sympathy for the human tragedy that lies within its blackest heart.

The Dead Beat, by Cody James is available as an e-book [I read an advance proof copy of the paperback edition]

From 1 November it will be available as a paperback [in a one-off hand-numbered edition with extra material]

There’s more information on Eight Cuts Gallery Press on their website.

See also Cody James’s website

4 thoughts on “Review: The Dead Beat, by Cody James

  1. Pingback: The Dead Beat special edition | eight cuts

  2. Thank you so much for this review. I’d like to talk about that adverbitis. Cody is one of two writers I work with (the other is Sabina England) who writes sentences that are completely the opposite of what we’re told to write – they are unfashionable syntacticians – and it makes a lot of fellow writers rais their eyebrows. For me it’s one of their strongest qualities – for the reason you give – because they create a voice that’s real because it hasn’t had that Creative Writing MA gloss applied. I’ve read Cody’s prose aloud many times, and that really brings home the fact that actually, forget the rules, there’s not an adverb too many. Take them out, one by one, and Adam (and Daniel in Babylon, her second novel) becomes slowly less real. Cody has (and when I do readings her material always gets a reaction utterly unlike any other writer – the audience is affected almost physically) a unique ability to write her words not on the page but direct into the reader’s head, and it’s putting Adam’s character and his reality before any linguistic concerns that achieves this.

    Thank you so much for such a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, review

    1. Dan – I was up to page 16 with my editorial red pen, tutting over the adverbs and the over-playing of key points before I got it. It’s difficult to sustain a new voice that’s alien to your own but James carries it off. What I found, though, was that it was me and not the text. What I needed was a different way of reading to cope with the style and once I got into the rhythm it seemed the most natural way for Adam to write – and I have to admit to cheating, or researching, just to make sure I’d understood that we were hearing Adam – so I read The Siren’s Song (on CJ’s website) and then went back to the story.
      It gets better with each reading.

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