House of Vlad Press, 2021
Paperback | 188 pp.
There are books that attempt to capture the essence of Los Angeles — Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep to name a few. But these books are an exaggerated experience, an LA for those who know nothing about the city, for those who only read about it. Jon Lindsey’s Body High is a book for those who know too much about Los Angeles. It’s overstuffed with the dead ends and anxieties, the sunny streets lined with rat-infested palm trees, and the people who’d rather rip out and sell their organs than get a real job. There’s a smell about the book that feels inescapable, like the slaughterhouse in Vernon.
This might sound bad, but I write it with the best intentions.
The novel has two trajectories, each targeted at the same final point. The first half feels like a character study of misery with an anti-hero named Leland who lusts, Chinatown-style, for someone who might be his sister… or maybe his aunt. (The book opens with Jack Nicholson’s body in a casket, which ends up being a nice callout to both Chinatown and the fact that Nicholson grew up thinking his mother was his sister — and this touch is one of the many microscopic perfections that Lindsey crafts in Body High). This character study is connected by an endless string of familial confusions and abuse: who is related to who and in what way and how did they come to have sex with one another? But the lust/love that the main character has for his sister/aunt feels less like a deviant taboo and more like a tender, sincere grasping for love.
The second half of Body High — the kidney situation — ramps up a continuous accumulation of tension toward an inevitable crescendo that resembles a Los Angeles version of the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time or Uncut Gems. There’s a need/want that drives the narrative, but it’s a drive that feels hopeless and desperate. Nevertheless, the desire is driven forward at a hundred miles an hour. Each scene piles on top of the one previous, threatening to break the narrative spine. It’s maddening and anxiety-inducing and the pages fucking fly. And all of it comes together in a sick yet human tale something like a Park Chan Wook rewrite of a Denis Johnson novel.
As a writer, Jon Lindsey doesn’t waste time. His scenes are economical and precise. His digressions all hang skillfully on the thematic throughline. His sentences cut right through the brain meat. He’s not interested in winning a Pulizter with his language — and the Pulitzer committee wouldn’t have the balls to pick a novel this daring and dirty. His prose has a slick easiness untainted by forced lubrication; he doesn’t play the purple prose game. And he’s laser-focused on showing us the real Los Angeles.
I say real Los Angeles because there’s always the attachment to Hollywood in LA novels, and in Body High, Lindsey mostly skips over the Hollywood-ization of the city and instead gives us dirty parts of Chinatown, Echo Park, Glendale, Elysian Park, spank banks with rooms themed like popular action films, amateur wrestling matches fought in reclaimed movie theaters, and the endless labyrinth of freeways and intersections that connect all these places. The only mention of Hollywood comes when Leland and his sister/aunt, Jolene, walk around somewhere in Chinatown. Jolene admits to wanting to be an actress, to which Leland responds by asking “You think you’re pretty enough?” Later, they stumble on signs pointing the way to a film set. Jolie sees it and says “I thought being this close would make it feel more real.” It’s the curtain pulling back to reveal that Hollywood isn’t really all that cool, that the dreams we have might not be the dreams we really want — and maybe they’re just the dreams Hollywood tells us we want.
In one of the more gritty scenes, Leland finds himself in a puke-stained van (filled with Slim Jim wrappers and issues of Swank) with his childhood idol: a wrestler named The California Kid. The two pull up to a Del Taco and just as one would order a crispy fish burrito and some crinkle-cut fries, The Kid “pulls up to the Del Taco to order the girl.” He pays for a prostitute and tells Leland it’s for him and that the The Kid will just watch. It’s the reversal of spectation: that Leland watched The California Kid in his youth and now The Kid wants to watch Leland and jerk off as the prostitute gives Leland what The Kid paid for. The scene is painted in a vivid, grotesque and utterly depressing way — but wholly feels like an event that can only happen in LA.
But it isn’t all grime and filth. While Leland and Jolene walk near Echo Park Lake, Lindsey’s prose captures an essence of LA that feels so honest and tender that it conjures a perfect image of what it’s like to walk near Echo Park Lake: “In front yards of renovated homes, the citrus trees are full of oranges, lemons, and pomelos. Young palm trees shoot from cracks in the concrete. A prog rock band is practicing in a garage. Guitars and synthesizers noodling.” This is the tender beauty of Los Angeles (and Southern California) that makes people move there and stay. And Lindsey injects Body High with more moments like this, reminding us that he also fucking loves the city he so clearly despises.
Body High is my new favorite LA novel. It’s a postcard view of the city, but a postcard that’s for sale at a sex shop and has been smeared with jizz from from a sleezy methhead leaving one of the backroom peepshows. Is anyone redeemable? Probably not. But does their plight and position in the human situation allow for empathy? Only for those who understand that being a human sucks most of the time.
Tex Gresham is the author of Heck, Texas. His work has been published in Hobart, F(r)iction, The Normal School, and The Pinch, among other places. Tex is the recipient of the 2020 Humanitas David and Lynn Angell Comedy College Fellowship. He is co-host of Mumbo Jumbo: A Movie Podcast with KKUURRTT.
Jon Lindsey lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in NY Tyrant Magazine, Hobart, and Post Road. His debut novel Body High is available through House of Vlad.