by Austin Wall
Austin.Wall.firstname.lastname@example.org, $10.00 paperback
In the interests of full disclosure, the author of Deviant, Austin Wall, graduated from my MFA program at the same time as me. During that time, I saw him develop from a writer whose work made me roll my eyes to one whose work (and work ethic) I respect. Keep that in your back pocket as you read this review.
Now then, to business. The narrator/protagonist of Deviant is Carter Madison, an occasional drug dealer for the executor of his rock-'n-roll legend father's estate. He's also a regular at Ada's, an S&M club around which his social life, such as it is, revolves. A decent percentage of the plot takes place in Ada's, and it's tempting to compare those parts of Deviant to Warren Ellis' Crooked Little Vein. I'm going to resist, though, because the atmosphere in Ada's isn't lurid or seedy-yet-glamorous, and it's not presented like a conveyor belt of things the author researched on the Internet (a recurring problem with Ellis' work).
No, Ada's is just gross and low-rent, and so are most of the people in it. These are not hip night creatures; they're not sexy or exhilarating, or even particularly vibrant. There's a hollow, almost Gatsby-esque emptiness to their indulgence that Carter only half-understands until he meets Shannon, an underage Ada's employee who lives in the ghetto with her junkie brother and is more self-aware than pretty much everyone else in Carter's milieu. Theirs isn't a love story, but it does glance in that direction more than once before Carter thinks better of it.
Carter, it's worth mentioning, is a likeable protagonist for all his faults, and sometimes because of them. This is partly because he rarely knows the right thing to say. He's refreshingly slow-witted as a protagonist, especially when compared with the very troubling pattern of novels adopting Hollywood aesthetics without any sort of critical eye (i.e., every character is attractive and sharp—think Maxx Barry's work). Conversely, even the sexually desirable characters in Deviant have a touch of the grotesque about them, as does Carter.
Similarly, Shannon has a lot of agency that keeps her relationship with Carter from being too paternal, and she's coltish and awkward without being totally helpless. She's young, in other words. Believably young.
That said, Deviant is a messy novel. It could have been proofread better (there are spacing issues throughout), the language occasionally tries too hard to build the atmosphere that the characters and plot already provide, the novel's fictitious superdrug, Parallax, doesn't do anything for the story that real drugs like heroin or crack wouldn't have done, and the magical realism elements don't do much beyond plot reinforcement. I also wasn't thrilled about the omission of quotation marks around the dialogue, and I don't understand why so many current authors do this—it just makes dialogue harder to read, which isn't a rewarding or enlightening experience for the reader.
But those problems don't take away from the novel's charm. Let me put it this way: Michael Bourne once described the typical output of fresh MFA program graduates as an "insular, navel-gazing style that has more to do with a response to previous works of fiction than to the world most non-writers live in." You'd be hard-pressed to find any trace of that in Deviant. —Dave Kiefaber