Matthew Binder’s High in the Streets is a transgressive novel packed full of self-destruction and self-flagellation. Lou Brown, the novel’s anti-hero, is an accidentally famous author who can’t manage the success of his debut novel. He squanders wealth and goodwill in the pursuit of booze and meaningless sex, resulting in a fraying of just about all his relationships. His agent can’t stand him. His best friend hates his attitude. His fiancée appears to be cheating on him. High in the Streets is a novel-length caricature of the denizens of Southern California, rancorous social satire filtered through a hangover, reminiscent of other gritty satirists, like Arthur Nersesian, Bret Easton Ellis, and Irvine Welsh.
Lou, a hedonistic misanthrope, perceives himself as a genius struggling to regain a greatness he never really attained. “As much as I’d like to write another masterpiece, I don’t think I have it in me,” Lou admits early in the book. “I’ve completely fallen out of love with myself, and you can’t write about what you don’t love.” Such passages find Lou sympathetic, intelligent, and self-reflective. At other moments, Lou, age thirty-eight, acts very much like a frat boy. For example, waiting to have lunch with his agent, Lou lights a cigarette—an obvious no-no—and the waitress asks him to put it out. Annoyed and totally self-absorbed, he swears at her and she threatens to kick him out. Binder deftly captures the two sides of his protagonist—a comic blend of depth and superficiality.
This scene further blooms when Sebastian, the agent, arrives. White pants. Two-button blazer. Shirt half undone. Coffee in one hand, juice smoothie in the other. Why was he late to lunch? Bikram yoga. Like the best satire, it’s both funny and sad—funny because we’re in on the joke, sad because no one is happy. Despite all the self-indulgent behavior, nobody seems to be enjoying themselves. Both of these characters dramatize the two ends of solipsism: They indulge their own desires but exist in isolated realms. The scene pokes fun at the ethos of Southern California but also casts light on the pressures of living in media-obsessed culture.
It can be great fun watching Lou fail at the simplest of tasks. By demonstrating Lou’s inability to accomplish the mundane, Binder suggests that the success of That’s Why I Drink Every Night, Lou’s first novel, was a fluke. To support Lou, Sebastian books a reading at a local university. Forgetting to bring a copy of his book, Lou shows up to the reading late, and after looking up a girl’s skirt, starts speaking, his “erection clearly visible within the confines of [his] pants.” Scenes like this, while clarifying the difference between Lou’s aspirations and his achievements, keep things coming from being a self-righteous diatribe of Ayn Rand variety.
Clearly, Lou isn’t Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. He claims to be interested in “someone who can say something that makes [his] hair stand on edge, someone who can think something new and different.” Constantly searching to learn something about the reality of life, he studies the less fortunate, the down-and-out, the ill, and the working poor: He befriends Vic, a legless veteran of Operation Desert Storm. The two get drunk at a bar and pass out on the beach. He has violent sex with women whom he just met. Lou even goes to Polk Middle School to substitute for a day with the modest aspiration of being the great savior of education. Each episode has been set up to address a potential philosophical moment that could transform Lou. Instead, the reader finds Lou unable to translate the experiences into something meaningful. For example, the vet lost his legs to diabetes, not a bomb. Tessa, one of Lou’s inamoratas, just got out of rehab and has replaced her eating disorder with sexual compulsivity. And at Polk, Lou lectures middle school students about savagery and civility in Lord of the Flies. This last scene ends with a twist that should teach Lou an important lesson, but doesn’t. Our philosophical protagonist misses the point completely.
Lou’s best friend is Cliff Adams, a washed-up baseball player whose career ended after a suspension for steroid use. In a book full of selfish characters, Cliff stands alone. In retirement, Cliff lost his millions through pyramid schemes and bad real estate deals. He ends up going to jail for tax evasion and is left penniless. Whereas the reader watches Lou’s freefall to Earth, Cliff has already hit rock bottom. But the experience of losing everything has made Cliff aware of one thing: he wants to have a relationship with his teenage son. This modesty stands in sharp contrast to the other characters.
Here Binder does his best writing. Cliff regularly needs help and Lou provides it. Woven throughout the book is the subplot that Cliff is training for a celebrity boxing match that will provide him the opportunity to make some money to pay child support and with any luck see his son. The end of the book focuses on how Lou helps Cliff: it’s the one point where the reader can empathize with Lou. And here is the heart of High in the Streets—a fat, broken baseball player doing whatever he can to have a relationship with his son, sharply contrasting with Lou’s superficiality.
Throughout the novel, Binder parses the difference between success and greatness. It’s not about having a sports car, a magnificent house, or a beautiful wife. Those successes fail to bring happiness. Greatness comes in overcoming massive obstacles. The ending of this book doesn’t offer the reader a glance at a transformed Lou. He stays callous and selfish. He hasn’t fully absorbed the lessons offered. The reader is left wondering if time will change Lou for the better, or if he will continue as a misanthrope.
About the Reviewer
Jacob Singer’s writing can be found at Electric Literature, the Collagist, and Entropy. He is currently finishing a picaresque novel inspired by corporate conspiracies, punk rock, and video games. He can be found on Twitter @jacobcsinger.