WARNING: this novel's back-cover copy will not prepare you for this novel's contents. Going by the back cover alone, you might think you're about to wander into a painful but manageable tale of adolescent ordeals, something on the order of Russell Banks' "The Rule of the Bone," perhaps. And Christopher Stoddard's ""Limiters"" (ITNA Press, 2014) does kind of start out that way.
When we first meet the narrator, Kyle Mason, it's 1998 and he's a sixteen-year-old kid from the wrong side of the tracks in suburban Connecticut. Things at home have never been great: Dad's in jail after shooting a kid dead in an attempted bank robbery; Mom has a history of childhood sexual abuse and later domestic violence, courtesy of dear old Dad; she's remarried now and juggles a waitressing job and a whole new brood of rug rats from her second marriage. Even this scenario had been bearable enough, though, before Kyle's older brother Max got gunned down. Now Mom's flipped her lid and become a homophobic, hoochie-mama harridan, who's catting around with a 19-year-old hood whenever hubby's at work. And she's had it with Kyle staying out all night, every night, drinking, drugging and diving down other boys' jocks, so she kicks him out and now he's got to rely on whatever renegades he knows to take him in.
So far, so gay YA.
But beware, o ye of little stomach lining! This is where thy stomach shall drop out forever, or, at least for the duration of "Limiters."
The renegades in question are the most debauched cast of miscreants to profane the pages of fiction since the Marquis de Sade's Juliette met the Sodality of the Friends of Crime. Kyle's friends constantly turn on each other like rabid jackals, only taking their fangs out of each other's jugulars when a new stash of hard drugs turns up or their latest blackout wears off. Nothing happy ever happens to a single one of them, least of all to Kyle, not unless jacked-up orgasms and rave parties count.
Here's the thing: Christopher Stoddard is a supremely gifted writer--maybe among the best in indie fiction--and he knows just how to put his readers into every lurid picture he paints. No indignity in setting or deed escapes annotation in Kyle's narration. Case in point, how one of his hosts treats his woman:
This is the first time Donald's hit Joann in front of us, and to my knowledge the first time he's punched her in the face. The front teeth just came off the gums...but Joann getting her teeth knocked out on the first punch proves they weren't held in too tightly in the first place. Come to think of it, she never eats dairy. The closest to milk she ever drinks is the come Donald makes her swallow every morning.
This is among the tamer descriptions in "Limiters" and, as you can see, the writing is pitch-perfect. Stoddard eschews poetic flourishes in favor of deadpan plain-speak that clips along without missing a beat. But Stoddard seems to be on an endless campaign to make each new sentence more gratuitous than the last, each paragraph a sledgehammer to the reader's face.
But even a sledgehammer to the face can get monotonous after a while. Imagine if Ozzy bit a bat's head off during every song on his set list. It'd get old. Effective intensity requires emotional variety and build-up. Stoddard's storytelling acuity too often takes a backseat to his lust for the unrelenting.
Moreover, Stoddard's accomplished prose is not enough to cover his many plot potholes. For instance, what exactly happened on the night that Kyle's brother Max was killed? What was the killer's motive? Was it just random? We never learn. Likewise, we know Kyle likes to read but we never learn why he likes the top-shelf authors he likes or how he finds time to read when he's always on the street and into trouble. And how can a kid like Kyle, who by sixteen has been around the block more times than a retired postman, be so easily duped by a shyster who tells him and his friends he wants to cast them in a little film that requires a little nudity? And, when the story flashes forward ten years and we meet Kyle in his late twenties, we never learn how he went from being a high-school dropout with no future to an in-demand copywriter in Manhattan who has no trouble fitting in with his yuppie friends, though his behavior is even more extreme now than it was as an enfant terrible. Not that this can't happen--hell, it happened for Augusten Burroughs--but we never learn how he went from A to Z. Did he go to college? How was he discovered in the ad game? What were some of his ads? We never learn.
Again, Stoddard is an immense talent, but unless you're one of the rare souls who managed to keep your popcorn down during Pasolini's film version of "The 120 Days of Sodom," you best not eat anything for a few hours before taking a turn through "Limiters"...and be sure to keep some smudge handy to clear its diabolical chi after each reading.
Release Date: March 24, 2014