Richard Perez, The Loser’s Club (Ludlow Press, 2003)
Like a beloved teenager, Richard Perez’s “The Loser’s Club,” compensates for its pretentiousness with earnest, fresh emotion and a palpable sense of yearning.
Martin Sierra, known as Marty, is a lonely 26-year-old writer and East Village denizen, in search of love and art. He is ultimately an endearing protagonist, amiable and honest, yet at first his search is animated by excruciatingly false (or are they all too real?) personals.
Here is Martin’s:
SM, 26,5’7", anti-hipster, into the Village, writing, the art life—seeks uncommon SF for long exhaustive talks, mutual support and well …
Marty is meant to be the East Village everyman: he is a worker who aspires to be an artist, and when love falls short, he drinks heavily, moshes in the pit, and settles for sex. Initially this clichéd depiction makes Marty feel remote. Only in the last third of the book does he come to life as a hapless romantic with a genuine and rare honesty.
Richard Perez limns the East Village scene of the mid-1990s with a mix of accuracy and glamorized exaggeration. Yes, the neighborhood houses drug addicts, pierced beggars, artists and drinkers, but Perez romanticizes these aspects (which are not very interesting in the first place) and ignores the mid-90s East Village of high rents, pricey jewel box sushi restaurants, movie theatres, and expanded NYU dorms. In his world, adventure could still be found at CBGB’s, a place that has not been culturally exciting since the late-80s, if then.
Perez’s writing is much stronger when he goes beneath surface icons. Here’s music, for example: “The strident ragged-edged guitar riffs continued, churning and wrenching, throbbing and crunching … now abruptly ascending reverberating, wheeling steeply, onwards and up …” And foreplay: “her skin, smelling faintly of lilacs, feeling petal soft and warm to his lips.”
“Her body leaning against him, her breath soft in his ear, Nikki teased him a bit rocking gently in his lap. Doped with affection he took extra pleasure supporting her weight, and stroking and kissing her mouth and that faint sweet dot above her lip.”
The visceral quality of this prose brought me back to the characters and gratefully away from the “scene.” It is one thing to be a vivid chronicler of one’s own time, which Perez is in fits and starts, and another to shed new light on that time, to enable readers to see something familiar through a new lens. The prior feels dated, the latter never achieved.
It’s a milieu easy to satirize, yet Perez and Sierra lack irony completely. As if no Paul Auster, Don Delillo, even Cervantes, has done it before, Perez makes no nod to the fact that this is a book by a writer about a writer. It is a tall order to write with empathy about an artist and the process of making art. But by not calling attention to the artifice of the convention itself, the depiction of a writer with big dreams and reams of rejection letters becomes a cliché.
In an odd way this lack of trickery is part of Perez’s earnest strength. In his first novel, he’s evoked something very real about human desire and alienation. In a short space, and in clean, straightforward prose, Perez does achieve emotional resonance. Eventually, I cared about Martin’s travails as a person (if not as a rejected poet). He is a rarity—a solid, good guy.
In nuanced scenes and conversations he evokes the bruised self that has been dumped by a woman he didn’t much like initially for an ex-boyfriend, “So the two of you bumped into each other and now you’re getting back together? Just like that?” Martin says with shock and hurt. There is also the familiar lonely man who when propositioned can’t resist sex, even though his partner is a vampire-obsessed teacher who admittedly sleeps with her students. And there is the way that loneliness can morph into a sudden midnight outing to see someone who is clearly not the one and possibly dangerous. Finally there is the lovelorn Martin who, after not reaching his sometime lover/sometime best friend for four days, falls into the deepest funk. Surely most readers can identify with any or all of these strange human conundrums.
Alternately, the book falls flat when Martin makes allusions to art or artists discusses what he calls the East Village “art life.” Perez is a good enough writer not to rely on name-dropping. The artworks mentioned are all college cult classics such as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Fellini Satyricon. Mentions of great artists like Garcia Lorca and Wharton are dropped superficially but with no exploration of how Martin as a writer might connect to them. Similarly, the venues Max Fish, The Waverly Theatre, and 7A seem hopelessly irrelevant.
Despite the book’s flaws, Martin’s shift from a more superficial, ego-driven drunk to a man in search of love with an open heart feels real and is a pleasure to encounter. Ultimately, one can’t overlook the deeper truth of this book: that romance and human interaction are guided by various drives, the ego, sex and, finally, love.
Thea Goodman is a writer in Manhattan. She was a contributor to 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11th (NYU Press, 2002).