Elysianaby Chris Knopf
Twelve miles long and a mile wide, Elysiana is an island off the coast of New Jersey sitting astride the convergence of powerful fault lines, social, political, and existential. It's a place of beauty and insanity, shared by the angelic and profane, where cops, criminals, prodigies, and the promiscuous find themselves at the haphazard mercy of a lunatic providence.
Twelve miles long and a mile wide, Elysiana is an island off the coast of New Jersey sitting astride the convergence of powerful fault lines, social, political, and existential. It's a place of beauty and insanity, shared by the angelic and profane, where cops, criminals, prodigies, and the promiscuous find themselves at the haphazard mercy of a lunatic providence. The players include a globe-trotting whiz kid, an Italo-Hispanic crime boss, a surfing aesthete and his vulgar roommate, a career car-stereo thief, and a seven-year-old girl who's probably spent too much time with the dead bodies in the dunes.
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By CHRIS KNOPF
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2010 Chris Knopf
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStretched out she just fit, slightly wedged, between the padded armrests of the Catalina's backseat. The top was down and the sky was blue. Her brown hair, bleached at the edges, swirled around her face.
She held a lit cigarette. The tobacco, burning hotly in the wind, glowed red at the base of a long tip of ash. Somewhere in the car music was playing, felt more than heard, a subterranean burble rolling along her spine, under her butt and down to the heels of her bare feet. She hadn't eaten in a long time, but the crystal meth was still itching at her nerves, killing her appetite.
She wore a Day-Glo red, orange and yellow shift, sunglasses and a gold signature ring. If asked, she'd have difficulty pinpointing the exact time, and the precise manner by which she'd lost her underwear and shoes. Or the exact location of the car she was riding in, since all she'd seen was sky for the last three days.
At random intervals a box of Marlboros, thrown from somewhere in the front seat, would land on her belly. She smoked steadily, lighting each cigarette with the chrome lighter built into the armrest above her head.
Her legs, most of which extended from the short hem of the shift, were a uniform brownish red, flecked with pale blond fuzz. Periodically, the wind would lift the hem above her pubic mound, which was covered with darker, red-tinted brown hair. Truckers honked their appreciation.
Of the two in the front seat, all she could see was hair—two clumps of long black, wiry hair flapping and twisting in the wind. Whatever she'd seen of their faces was forgotten long ago. She made no effort to recollect, though some images drifted in and out of her mind. Still shots of smoke-screened rooms, shifting colored lights, breathtaking noise.
She vaguely remembered pushing through the congestion, faces coming up and disappearing, looking at her blankly, or with interest, or hostility. Hairy faces, sweaty cheeks and beer breath. The rank smell of perspiration and incense, dope and patchouli. Cigarette smoke, dank and luxurious, burning at her eyes and nose.
A tsunami of amplified music washed away all other sound, though mouths moved and heads nodded agreeably. Shoulders and elbows pushed at her. Chests and breasts, loose under coarse cotton, or slimy synthetics, touched and bumped against her almost as separate things. Hands squeezed her arms, pulling her in to yell in her ear, but she shoved ahead. Hands patted her rump, cupped her midriff, brushed against her breasts. One came up jarringly between her legs, igniting her reflexes. She twisted and dug her fingernails into the hand till it pulled back. She spit at the probable offender and jabbed him with her middle finger.
She remembered looking around for people she knew and wondering how she got there, or what she took that got her so fucked up. She thought it might have involved a big, fat, red joint at some point. But maybe that was just another phantom, like the tuxedoed jungle animals on the stage playing guitars, or the gloved hands waving to her from the big cafeteria clock on the wall.
Riding in the big convertible, the liquid walls, twirling bananas, naked football players with hydra-headed penises, purple iguanas and household appliances singing in barbershop quartets had quietly slipped away. The audible colors and colorful sounds were gone. She was left behind, nearly blank, with a box of Marlboros and traces of speed the guys up front had given her to keep her from falling asleep, which she believed at the time would cost her the last of her shredded sanity.
It was very peaceful looking at the limitless blue sky on such an ideal summer day. Tranquil to be without memory or feeling. Anesthetized down to the finest fibrils of her nervous system. Without fear or thought. Neutral. Outside the present and disinterested in the world. Zapped.
She remembered water. At some point she'd been swimming in dense blackness through slippery, contaminated water. Fishy, vaporous, congealed. It choked her. She'd vomited on the shore, hands and knees sinking into the brackish mud. Some people crowded around, yelling at her, talking among themselves. She wanted to say something, but her throat was full of puke and a sweet astringent smell reminiscent of carbonic cleaning fluid. Her consciousness was teetering, splintering, ripped by hallucinations and broached by sickening waves of idiocy and confusion.
Hands pulled her to her feet and dragged her into a warm, lighted space. Behind the blur, a broad-faced woman in a cotton dress and apron, with curly brown hair and thick glasses, was staring at her while muttering a sort of soothing reassurance she couldn't quite make out. Behind her was a man with a pot belly and madras shirt, baseball cap, khaki shorts, dark socks and tie shoes. Red hair, bad skin, boozy nose. Grinning behind the woman's back.
She was led to another room. There was a washer and dryer and coats hung on hooks. The floor was fake brick linoleum. It was reminiscent of her grandmother's kitchen. She dropped down to smell it, wondering if it smelled like her grandmother. The woman was still there and helped her back on her feet. The woman pulled at her sopping clothes, clumsy thick fingers unable to unbutton the buttons. She pointed to some towels and a gaudy shift draped over a spindly drying rack, then she left her alone to strip and dry off.
It took her a while to undress because the floor and the walls had lost some of their tangibility. The palms of her hands felt bumpy and her joints seemed less resilient. The nausea, however, was gone and she felt as if her internal organs were now fully under control. From this point forward, she told them, we'll have no more rebellion, no more puking or racing of the heart.
The towel was coarse against her skin. It hadn't been dried in the dryer, she assumed. Frugal people. Use the dryer for something else. Maybe to warm pets. She noticed the man was there in the room with her. He asked her for the towel and she gave it to him. He threw it in the corner so abruptly she wondered why he wanted it in the first place. He grinned at her, nodding his head. Had she said something that amused him? He clamped a hand around her wrist and pulled her up against him. She was nearly overpowered by the sugary alcohol smell of the man's breath. It reminded her of her father.
His madras shirt felt good against her naked breasts. She let herself rest on the sloping upper stretch of his stomach, burrowing in a little to get some friction against her nipples. The man had a hand on each cheek of her butt, digging in with his jagged fingernails. He told her she was a stinking little hippie whore that needed him to shove his cock up her ass so far it'll come out her mouth, if it don't just split her in half like a piece of cordwood.
Something bothered her about that imagery. She backed away from him as he pulled his penis out of his pants, just clear of the enormous water-balloon belly that hung over his belt. He pumped the thing, which looked tiny inside his blunt-fingered hand.
She pinched a piece of the shift and pulled it off the rack. He told her not to be scared, that he wouldn't hurt her. She wondered if she should be, and why she wasn't. Something told her to put on the shift, but she was transfixed by the man, who now looked something like Oliver Hardy. But even more porcine. Porky Pig. He closed in again, saying something about putting it in her mouth. He grabbed her by the hair and pushed her to her knees. She wriggled under his grasp, shocked nearly sober by the sudden violence. The bulbous little purple head bounced in front of her, poking at her lips, bumping off her nose and face. It stank.
"Now you just leave that girl alone. Honestly," said the woman, who was suddenly there in the room again. The man let go of her head roughly, and pushed his erection back in his pants.
"She's just a stinkin' little hippie whore."
"That don't mean you go doin' that, for pity's sake. See what happens when you run around nekkid?" the woman said to her, scoldingly. "Now put on that dress and come on out of there so's we can figure out what to do with you."
Left alone, she slipped into the shift and wiggled out a small window. She landed on the driveway, which she followed down to the street, where the first car, a couple of girls out for a cruise, picked her up. The memory was unclear. A Camaro? Something fast. They were fat girls out feeding their anger and boredom. They had big tubs filled with fried chicken and huge tankards of Coca-Cola. They took her to another bar. Maybe that's where she met the two guys with the frizzy hair. She remembered how good the chicken tasted.
The Catalina lurched to a stop, sending her rolling off the seat, into the padded bucket seats in front of her, and down to the floor, the hump punching her in the belly when she hit.
"Jesus Christ!" screamed one of the guys in front. She braced herself for the impact, her mind snapping into awareness with the brutality of a wet slap across the face.
Nothing happened, but the movement had stopped, and an ugly wakefulness began its slow creep back into her consciousness.
"Sorry," said one of the guys.
She sat up and looked around. Ahead loomed the mighty ass end of a tractor trailer. To either side was the tall grass of coastal wetlands. Behind her was a long straight, two-lane causeway leading back to some cruddy pines and the concrete patterns of a four-lane cloverleaf. The guys in front were giggling and swearing with relief, like they'd just gotten away with something, which they had. The one with the zitty, long-nosed face looked back at her.
The other guy looked a little better, though no more familiar. Both had yellow teeth and eyes with too much white around the iris.
"Lookin' good!" the zitty guy yelled, more as a morale boost than a come-on. She knew, from what little awareness she had, that looking good wasn't a realistic possibility. She smiled lamely.
The driver pulled out into the other lane and put all the Catalina's 356 available horses to work getting around the truck. She noticed with relief the absence of oncoming traffic. The torqued-out thrust of acceleration made her feel like her stomach was about to jump out the back.
"Easy boys, still feelin' a little dicey."
She lit a cigarette and squinted at the marshy terrain.
"Where the hell are we?"
The two of them grinned back at her. She wished the driver would stop doing that.
"Been rammin' three days straight. Been all the fuck over the place. Just stopped for gas and smokes. And burgers. You was just starin' so we ate 'em all ourselves. Been fuckin' flyin'!"
"No shit," said the other guy.
"Fuckin' reds, man. Fuckin' reds."
"No shit," the other guy said again.
"Fuckin' reds?" she asked, "I thought it was fuckin' meth."
"That's what we gave you, sweetheart. We ain't messin' with that shit. Fuckin' crystal, no way."
"No way," the other guy agreed.
"So where are we?"
They looked around again and the car yawed off to the right.
"Christ, watch the road."
"We're in fuckin' New Jersey! Yeah! Fuckin' New Jersey!" They whooped as she contemplated being a thousand miles and several days away from her last recollected moments of sobriety.
The road sparkled with sea stones imbedded in the macadam. Brilliant parallel yellow lines ran down the middle. They approached a steeply arched bridge that crossed a broad channel. On either side of the causeway were gray-boarded shacks built on splintery piers, looking like a flock of down-and-out water fowl. Along the horizon to the east stretched a jagged line of buildings. It was the developed north end of the barrier island of Elysiana. A twenty-five mile strip of sand running north to south featuring an assortment of seashore amenities and profound dissociation.
"Fuckin' New Jersey, man. Fuckin' Neeeeew Jersey!"
She stood unsteadily at the curb and watched the convertible whoosh away. They'd offered to let her crash with them and their friends, but she declined. She was nearly sober now, and a little sick, but awake and alert. She wanted all association with the last three days out of eyeshot, at least for now.
She walked across the street to a hoagie shop. It was a single long corridor, with a counter down one side and a row of tables down the other. It was half full of people eating pancakes and eggs, drinking coffee, smoking, speaking sotto voce. A few guys looked up as she came in. She sat at the counter.
"What'll it be for you today?"
She leaned forward so the waitress could hear her whisper.
"Can I have a meal, then work it off in the kitchen or something?"
"You don't have any money?" the woman whispered.
"It's a long story."
The woman looked skeptically down the counter at a large man behind the cash register.
"He don't like to give away food."
"I'll work for it."
The woman looked more closely at her.
"He don't like hippies."
"Tell me what you want. I'll take care of your check."
"I don't mind working."
"Just shush your mouth and order, while I'm in the mood," said the woman, smiling nervously.
She ordered a huge breakfast when she saw the ten the woman put under the sugar dispenser in front of her.
"Leave a good tip."
It wasn't until she'd mopped up the last puddle of maple syrup that she looked up from her plate and saw a kid behind the counter holding a plastic pail full of dirty dishes. He was staring at her.
"Hi," she said.
He turned abruptly and dropped the pail. The woman who bought her breakfast bent down to help the kid clean up. The old man behind the cash register raised both hands to acknowledge God for one more act of petty cruelty.
She kept two dollars from the change and left the rest on the counter. It was getting bright and warm outside. Except for the jagged edges of her nervous system, she felt okay.
Two dollars, a pack of cigarettes, an ugly dress, and a pair of shades. The sum of her estate on earth. Or at least in New Jersey.
Main Street was wider than necessary and lined with low-slung storefronts, restaurants, a gas station on either side of the street, and a single motel. None of the commercial enterprises resisted the impulse to lend a nautical air to their signage. This is how you knew you were on the Jersey Shore and not a strip development in Illinois.
She squinted into the morning sun and pondered the direction her life should take. A second later she turned right and headed down toward the beach, into the sun. It warmed her face, chest and the parts of her breasts above the scooped neck of the shift. The slate walk was salted with fine, windblown Jersey sand. The air was spring dry and filled with noisy birds she assumed were seagulls based on birds she'd seen circling the Great Lakes, though she'd never before been near the ocean, or even on the East Coast, or farther east than Valparaiso, Indiana.
The houses on either side of the street were groomed to the point of artificiality, as if on a stage set. The lawns were a thick-cropped green, the driveways pearly white pebble stone. An exception was a squalid little two-story wreck set awkwardly back from the house line. Two overgrown red cedars rose above a ragged lawn littered with residential detritus—mattress springs, a baby carriage, derelict autos and rusty tin cans.
Standing at the center of the carnage was a tall, broad-shouldered blond man doing stretching exercises. A surfboard was next to him on the ground. She waited for him to complete the final cycles and make eye contact.
"Going surfin'?" she asked.
He nodded again.
He shook his head.
"I'll clean the whole place, including toilets and defrosting the 'fridge for a hundred bucks. Two days work. Including laundromat if you supply the change."
"We like it dirty."
"Eighty. Forty a day. Cash, up front, each day."
He shrugged, "Okay."
He picked up his surfboard and brushed by her on his way down to the surf.
"I need the first forty bucks."
Excerpted from ELYSIANA by CHRIS KNOPF Copyright © 2010 by Chris Knopf. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
CHRIS KNOPF is the award winning author of the highly acclaimed Sam Acquillo Hamptons mystery series: The Last Refuge, Two Time, Head Wounds, and Hard Stop. As a young college student he worked as a lifeguard in Avalon on the South Jersey shore-a place not unlike the setting for Elysiana. A sailor, cabinet maker, and advertising executive at Mintz & Hoke in Avon, Connecticut, he and his wife Mary also spend considerable time at their Southampton, Long Island home.
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The sea has a rhythm and music all its own, and can sound like an orchestra as a storm blows up, the quiet piping of ripples slowly overwhelmed by massive drum-rolls and ominous strings that ride in on the wind. Elysiana by Chris Knopf reads with that same music and rhythm. The instruments are strangers and friends collected on this tiny island off the coast of South Jersey, and the first sweet notes are sounded by a girl from Chicago, brought in through a drug-filled haze in a stranger's car, seemingly unaware of how she got there or what she left behind. The author conducts his scene-changes skillfully, bringing each new character to life and including details and hints that make it easy for the reader to recognize who's who. There are cops and lifeguards at odds with the curious rules of jurisdiction. A suicidal stranger drives down the street. Fast cars meet rolling trucks. Drug-lord, thief and erstwhile politician devise their plans. Father brings a boat. And behind it all the surf keeps its steady beat below an old hotel whose eagle-eyed, brain-damaged lookout tries to find his missing self-rather like the girl of that first scene. Fate, justice and friendship play their parts, and everything comes to a head when a violent storm rushes onto the coast. Lives are saved, and souls and selves defined, in the ensuing chaos, till the waves retreat and one still voice pipes its beautifully timed conclusion, drawing everything together with a word. I think I'm supposed to disclose at some point that the publishers, Permanent Press, generously sent me Elysiana to review. I might disclose too that I love Chris Knopf's earlier Sam Aquillo, Hampton's Mysteries. This novel would serve as a great introduction to the author for anyone not familiar with Sam Aquillo. And I'm sure it will only delight any readers, like me, who already love his writing.
Set on a mythical barrier island off New Jersey in 1969, Elysiana suggests an idyllic summer retreat. The welcome mat belies the genuine point of view of a socially maladjusted town whose disillusioned inhabitants begin their annual war with tourists, surfers, hippies who missed the ride to Woodstock, and specifically each other. Unconventional conglomeration of town council president, mayor, beach patrol, and drug dealer volley for exalted status with cavalier contempt thrust upon calculating usurpers. If such a diverse assortment fails to adequately provide the appropriate entertainment, the inclusion of a drugged-out Midwestern semi-amnesiac young woman who washes up on shore, a constantly disappearing parentally challenged young girl, a brain-damaged, but brilliant lifeguard offer sufficient distraction to muddle the endless sub-plots in this comic tragedy. Chris Knopf's impeccable choice of words, flawless writing, and amazing ability to tie this amorphous bundle of bumbling characters through the eye of a wildly unseasonal hurricane, and offer a gratifying cohesive conclusion provides an exhilarating reading experience.