Pure Slaughter Valueby Robert Bingham
In his extraordinary debut collection, Pure Slaughter Value, Robert Bingham tracks the conscience of a generation that grew up educated, privileged, and starved for meaning. Bingham's strange sense of morbid fancy collides with a gutsy realism; the result is splendid wreckage: a young man is seduced by his first cousin (or maybe it's the other way around) at her brother's wake ("The Other Family"); a bored couple plot to kill a man during their ski-resort honeymoon ("Marriage Is Murder"); a yuppie banker risks his whole perfect life for an affair with a junkie ("The Fixers"); an insurance-company bounty hunter tracks down walkaways from drug and alcohol rehab ("Preexisting Condition"); and in the title story, an eleven-year-old boy is caught at the exquisitely uneasy intersection of the safety of childhood play and the pain of grown-up love and longing.
These lean, potent stories are utterly original, and yet by turns recall Salinger, in their intellectual acuity, emotional depth, and wicked, dark humor; Fitzgerald, in their vivid chronicling of a new, restless social elite; and the work of "transgressive" writers, in their pervasive sense of the imminent possibility of danger and violence, even in the most civilized surroundings. Above all, the stories in Pure Slaughter Value mark the debut of a striking new literary voiceunsparing, bold, ironic, and truethat will haunt us for a long time to come.
This is not fresh terrain, but Bingham's work, at its best, stands out for its precisely rendered and convincingly bleak view of life. Most of the 12 stories here turn on some moment that casts a bright light over both a character's past and likely future. "The Other Family" focuses on a gathering after a funeral at which some rather predictable tensions erupt. Typically, the narrator, a restless young man, handles the occasion by withdrawing into booze, and by flirting with a callow cousin. "Doubles" is an unsettling portrait of Alex, a young currency trader who visits a wealthy older woman at her house to decide whether or not to seduce her. Bingham has a deft hand for dialogue, and the bitter, knowing, slightly despairing tone of the woman Alex is attempting to seduce seems startlingly right, as do the words of her bitter husband when he arrives on the scene. In most of the pieces, violence is limited to the emotional damage of lives that can't seem to get started or to find anything worth wanting to do. In "Reggae Nights," the violence finally breaks through to the surface, as Alex, the protagonist of "Doubles," goes on vacation with a girlfriend, stumbles into a considerable cache of drugs, and ends up lethally involved with two pairs of manic, self-dramatizing pushers. The title story, by contrast, focuses on the baffled first loves of several well-to-do adolescents, nicely mingling innocence with the first shocked glimpse of love's complexities and pain. There are some distinct, strong stories here, but the their tone rarely varies, and a few feel more like rather wan sketches.
Still, there's enough distinctive work here to indicate the appearance of a disturbing new talent.
- Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
This Is How a Woman Gets Hit
They cheated on each other. Now that was just the sad fact, but there was a difference in how it was done. While his flings lacked focus, she was singularly loyal to her affair. They'd been living together for three years and had grown skillful at dishing out abuse in a way that was quite memorable to both of them. On the morning this story breaks the telephone rang. She had a hang-up about the phone, and the hang-up was that she always had to pick it up before he did. From the bed he listened with his eyes closed. He knew her voices. It took about two years to learn them all. This was a what, where, and when conversation if he had ever heard one. Her lover was calling.
"Where are you having coffee?" he asked, sitting up in bed.
She was bent over at the waist with her head wrapped in a towel. When she stood up, her complexion was as red as the heart on the queen of all suits.
"Black it out, boy," she said. "Last night, black the thing right out so it'll never come back to you again."
Her southern accent, so often in remission, rose from the swamp of her youth to frighten him. She wore a pink nightgown and her dead grandmother's silk slippers.
"That must be the nice part about a real blackout," she continued. "The next day I can usually remember the salient points, but you...for you the humiliation is blank tape, isn't that about what it is?"
"Where are you having coffee?" he asked. "I need some coffee."
"You need a blood transfusion."
In the bathroom Ian Easley rummaged through her makeup bag for a Valium. Nothing. He dumped the contents onto the floor. A thin bottle ofeyeliner shattered dully. He popped one of her birth control pills and got into the shower. Then he poked at his ribs. Some people, when they drank, got fat. He was getting skinny. He toweled himself off and shouted in the mirror, "If you loved me...If you loved me just the teeniest weepiest little bit, you'd tell me where you hid the Valium, Lidia."
She was dressed as if for an artist's funeral. Black tights, a mid-thigh flowery print skirt, black tank top, and shades on top of her head forming a headband.
"I wish Gida would stop making me have coffee with her in the West Village," she said. "It's like, 'I'm sorry, Gida, but why should I meet you at the corner of West Twelfth and Fourth Street? How in the world is that a corner?'"
By all accounts Gida was a terribly screwed-up girl. Her pets died awful deaths. People stole from her. From the icebox her roommates pilfered food she labeled under her name. Recently someone had ripped off her calling card number and dialed numbers all over Nigeria. Her health insurance policy didn't cover abortions because of a "preexisting condition." Increasingly, Ian felt Gida did not exist, but perhaps he was being paranoid.
"What's wrong with Gida now?" he asked.
"You don't want to know."
"Come on, Lidia, I'm sure you can come up with something eccentric enough to appear plausible."
He had never voiced his suspicion of Gida's fictional qualities, and now a serene glee stretched itself inside him as he watched Lidia retreat into the kitchen. Had it not been her lover on the phone earlier? Was that not the voice she used with him? From there deduction followed. Gida was a front, a fraud, a lie. A triumphant shudder of justification squirreled through his bloodstream, jolting his hangover. He took Lidia's keys off the bedside table and slid them underneath the couch. Then he began to dress. He put on his father's button-down shirt. He strapped on his grandfather's watch. Both men were dead, and in putting on their possessions, he felt quite certain that he would soon be joining them. He put on his jeans but couldn't find a belt.
"Where are my keys?" she said. "I have to go."
He began to tear apart the closet searching for a belt. Then he tried rethinking last night's disrobing process. Coiled beneath the covers at the foot of the bed he found his pants and yanked the belt loose. Then he stood facing her. The buckle banged on the floor.
"How about we go get a cup of coffee, Lidia."
"I wasn't a tenth as drunk as you were last night so I remember where I put my keys," she said. "I put my keys on the bedside table here. It's a habit of mine you should monkey off of some day."
"Let's go get some coffee, Lidia."
"No, let's play Mr. Logical Deduction. The game works like this. If my keys aren't on the table where I left them, and I know I didn't move them this morning, then Mr. Logic says this, he says, 'Who else in the apartment could be an agent of displacement?' "
"Maybe it was the ghost of Gida's cat," he said.
She glared at him in silence.
"I don't know where your keys are," he said. "But I have mine. Isn't that unusual? I've got my keys and you've lost yours."
"Shit," she said, looking at her watch. Then she began to scurry around the apartment.
She had a low center of gravity and wonderful breasts. As for her face? It was beautiful, but he'd exhausted her features. Still, it was not a fallen face despite the gray half-moons beneath her eyes. She liked to stab things in her bun of hairsnapped knitting needles, wooden letter openers. Today she had a yellow number-two pencil in her hair which meant she meant business. Ian watched the dirty pink eraser move around the apartment. When he had his sneakers on, he found her keys for her.
"They were right here," he said, pointing down accusingly. "Right here under the couch pillow."
"You know what? You're turning me into a bitch, do you know that? I have no choice with you. It's survival of the bitchiest. Do you want a Valium? You're right. You do need a Valium."
"Thank you," he said.
She opened a sugar bowl hidden behind the cereal boxes. "Blue or yellow?"
"There aren't many blues left."
He swallowed it dry.
"Ian, why don't you go back to bed. Look, when I'm gone, you can go down and rent a porno movie and order out Indian. Isn't that what you like to do on a hangover?"
She had a point there. Why fight? Soon the Valium would begin to work on his rattled nerves, and then while he was waiting for his Chicken Vindaloo, he could dip down to the video store and rent something fairly hard-core to accompany The Guns of Navarone. He could get rid of it, switch tapes, and by the time his food had arrived, he'd be sunk in her bed soothed by the opening Technicolor credits of his favorite war movie. But that cushy scenario spelled defeat. He would take her drugs but not her recommendation, not today. Today it was the lie he was after, that was all he wanted from her, admission and confirmation of her deceit.
He followed her down the stairs and out onto the street. Her back, her nice ass, they hated him, but he had his keys and wasn't going to be drugged into submission. It was late September, but summer still loitered in the city. A hot wind blew westward from the river. She was a conniving cheat, and with the wind came a crusading zeal of inquisition. His blood was riding a great tide of righteousness the Valium couldn't hope to compete with.
Lidia stood on the street corner with her hand raised for a cab, certain that she had never disliked this young man more than at this very moment. With his pathetic mop of wet hair and unwelcome paranoia, he was nothing but a naked appetite digging its way deeper and deeper into her disfavor. For a moment she reached for the three men in her life. Ian was the disaster of her present. Her old boyfriend, the one on the phone earlier, he was the nostalgia of her past. Her current lover, the one sadly not on the phone, well, that one was easy. He was the thrill of the future. And what was so wrong with that? Was she supposed to cancel her past and discount her future in the face of this present?
"You know he's my friend too," Ian shouted into the wind. "I mean, I was friends with the guy before you two ever started fucking behind my back."
If only her lover had called, but he hadn't. Instead the coffee date was with her old boyfriend, visiting from another state. He was due to be married soon. In fact, Lidia had introduced him to his current fiancÚe. Marriage, it was an event, considering her life, that seemed sadly out of range. Still, her date with this old flame, it was harmless enough, depressively touching, nothing more. She wished she had told Ian the truth about whom she was meeting, but instead she'd lied out of reflex. And whose fault was it, if out of a habit that was just as much his doing as hers, she'd twitched away from his annoying little queries.
"Ian, I'm going alone, so please," she said. "Please go home. For me, now, just this once. Go home."
"But I've always wanted to meet Gida. If you two have some extra special feminine business to take care of, you know, menstrual cycles and boyfriend bitching, I can just shake her hand, have one shot of espresso, and leave."
There were no cabs in sight and for a moment she was stung with a hatred for her neighborhood, its shabby poverty, its drugs, its lack of daytime taxis. She decided to walk to another avenue. He followed. It was incredible. He was either drunk and oblivious to her or so smothering with his rancorous attention that his company was unbearable. She turned to face him, to tell him off, but in turning, a cab's vacant light caught her eye and she leaped out into the street. A bicycle messenger swerved to miss her, skidded, and collapsed on the sidewalk. The cab stopped. The street froze.
"I wouldn't get in that cab if I were you," said Ian. "Not until you say, 'There's no Gida.' Say it and then you can go, say it. Say, 'There is no Gida.'"
As she reached to open the door, Ian spun her shoulder around. Now her back was pressed against the closed cab door. How many times had she flailed her fists at him in the physical feminine luxury of all-out abandon, scratching at his face and crying, and how many times had he hit the last wall of self-restraint, his fist raised and then checked by an unspoken code of behavior? He reached for it now, the last shade of pride, but found only a color and that color was red. So this is how a woman gets hit. It was effortless. With both fists he caught her beneath the armpits and tossed her in the air.
Lidia's head whiplashed against the roof of the cab. She collapsed onto the curb.
The bike messenger, his whistle still stuck in his mouth, threw a roundhouse swing that caught Ian in the ear, but he did not fall. He ran down the block. He took a left. He took a right. He found himself in a deeply Hispanic neighborhood and dipped into a bodega. There was beer, butane, and cut-rate cigarettes. A police car passed in the street but it was not for him. As if filtered through a seashell, the sounds of the maddening city roared through his ear. He paced. While pretending to shop, he pictured the basement of her building. It was nice and moist down there, filled with an industrial heat. On the janitor's utility sink he saw himself with a belt around his neck, but the image only sprung in him the beginnings of an erection. He bought a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor beer.
Ian wandered the neighborhood. It would be cool, he decided, if someone tried to fuck with him, and he scanned the street for a young drug dealer to humiliate. He was ready for a fight. A dealer with peach fuzz riding a bicycle, it would be nice to break the kid's nose and steal his drugs. Ian walked down the middle of the sidewalk. People got out of his way. He walked and walked until he found himself in front of the video store. On a nearby tenement doorstep he rested. His beer was nearly empty, and he dug in his pocket and pulled out a badly mangled pack of cigarettes and a lighter he did not recognize. There was one cigarette left over from last night. He took this as a sign but what the sign meant he did not know. The cigarette was crooked, losing tobacco, thoroughly like himself, slightly moist. He lit it, took a long drag, and made a plan. There was vodka in the freezer, and now he knew where she kept the Valium. Already he was thrilled. All the ingredients for a recovery were there. He decided to make a party of it.
"This is How a Woman Gets Hit" by Robert Bingham. Copyright (c) 1997 by Robert Bingham. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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There are obvious talents these days: Rick Moody, Thom Jones, Tim O'Brien. These men have one thing in common in their prose - the peeling of layers in men and women and the underbelly that gets revealed. Add another writer to that list (add it and realize he's only going to offer us the two books he got out before his addiction got to him.) Robert Bingham's world is fueled with drugs and ice-cold Stoli, cold men and colder women. His writing is exotic and crushing. In this collection of stories the tones are blindly shallow, though behind each of the pages lays waste to true pain. 'The Fixers' and 'Pure Slaughter Value' are the two gems in this collection of incredibly beautiful gems.
Overprivileged youth, adrift and amoral. Who cares? It may sound simplistic, but a little tip is in order--make an effort to care. A bunch of tales of emptiness can't help but be, um, empty.