East of Bowery
(Sensitive Skin, 2012)
Like previous druggie fiction, Drew Hubner’s new novel, East of Bowery, hits all the low spots, giving readers a panoramic tour of the burnt-out squats, copping places, and holding pens that make up a user’s habitual itinerary. Yet unlike such writers as Jim Carroll—who in The Basketball Diaries glamorizes his outlaw adventures—or Irvine Welsh—whose novel Trainspotting emphasizes the stoner humor of its characters, with the jokes always on them—Hubner, who has already published a historical novel on America’s 19th-century cavalry, is most concerned with tracing his hero to a specific time and place. That is why each episode in the novel is matched with a stunning photo by Ted Barron, capturing the Lower East Side circa 1984 – 88. And that is why Hubner writes, on handling Kerouac’s notebooks in a library, “From reading these, I learned the voice comes from landscape + subject matter. … What I learned was … the imagery of physical things will carry whatever sort of lies you can think up.”
Hubner’s narrator finds himself at some of the then-regular stops on the downtown scene, from Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden to the Circle Bar to the Gas Station performance place. In one passage, Hubner describes how his narrator, after a well-received reading at an open mic at ABC No Rio, leaves his MS on the lectern. Later, suitably zonked, he tries to break into the locked building to retrieve it and ends up slashing his hand. Still, as with any inveterate druggie, the day’s real climax is not in the acclaim he gets from his literary peers, nor his wounding, but in his one stellar high. “A feeling of pure pleasure spread through me. I don’t know how long I stood there [on the corner]. I guess it was all over my face because when Flaco walked by, he said, ‘You got your wings.’”
Hubner’s tales are tawdry and mundane, told with neither fondness nor regret, but with a deadpan take on the absurdist confrontations and incidents that occur with some regularity in the narrator’s life. There’s the time one of his friends stole a police horse or when he got tossed out on the street by his lady: “When I got up to leave, she yelled at me and threw my shoes out the window. I walked out in my stocking feet.” Eventually, he wakes up to how far he has fallen from respectability. It happens when he goes to cash a check at a bodega. “I still had a valid ID but I could no longer pass for my own photo. I was a ravaged version of the fresh-faced literati I had been less than a year before.”
To Hubner’s credit, there is little sentimentality and much macabre liveliness in his stories. East of Bowery forms an evocative recollection of the Lower East Side in those entertainingly bad, good old days.