1976 New Year’s Eve, San Francisco. A Firebird transports a crew of glitter kids away from the city. Forget the trunk full of cash and illegal firearms. Forget the disco heist and sea of felonies left in their wake. They are five friends happily rolling down thunder road with no horizon in sight. They are YOUNG AMERICANS.
1976 WINTER BREAK
Jacob lay down on his waterbed, staring at the poster on the ceiling – Iggy and the Stooges. He was wondrously stoned. High enough to feel nostalgia and whimsy, straight enough not to be consumed by the need to power eat a sack of Jack in the Box tacos.
It is no secret that Josh Stallings is one of the very few authors whose books I have to seek out and devour the moment they are published. His Moses McGuire novels are some of the best, some of the most raw, crime fiction you will read, and his autobiographical All the WIld Children is amongst my top three favourite books I have ever read. So when I got an early opportunity to read Stallings’ latest novel, it had a lot to live up to. And of course, live up to, it did.
You see, Stallings can write. Blimey, can he write.
I’d like to illustrate that now. For a great part of this year, I have been lecturing in Creative Writing, helping two classes of adults to write a novel. I don’t wish to put myself out of a job here – times being what they are, and all that – but if you want to know how to write a novel, read Josh Stallings. That’s all you have to do. What I have spent nine months talking about, Stalings shows. Time and time again.
Lets start with Time and Place – two fundamentals of writing a novel. In YOUNG AMERICANS the time is 1976, the place, California, specifically San Francisco. Stallings brings both place and the era to life as only one who has lived through it can. It is easy to throw in a few references to the music of the time, the clothes, politics, etc. But these alone do not convince. What a writer needs is to capture the mood. To capture the mood, you need to capture the rhythm – the beat. Stallings manages these effortlessly.
Then there are the characters. Take the following, for instance. A description of the main protagonist – Sam – the grandaughter of a safe cracker, the daughter of a thief:
Sam sat in a camp chair wrapped in her sleeping bag. She was a big girl, with the kind of curves that started wars. Zaftig. Out of fashion. The Thin White Duke, David Bowie, made looking underfed fashionable. You could count every one of supermodel Margaux Hemingway’s ribs. Sam’s body was luxurious. It said screw you, have a burger and relax awhile. Her glitter platforms jutted out of black satin jeans. Her hair was cut in a spiky shag, just like Suzi Quatro. It was a blonde-red. Shiny. Her body, her stature, demanded a wider view of what a glitter rocker could look like. Not that anyone wanted an ass-kicking enough to screw with her about her size.
In these lines, Stallings conveys everything you need to know about Sam. That is how to describe a character.
All the characters in YOUNG AMERICANS – every one – is a solid, living being, each with their own journey, their own purpose. Even the minor characters are drawn with such a fine pen, they leap from the page and promise to smack you in the face if you for one second doubt their right to live and breathe as you and I.
And the dialogue . . . the dialogue . . . Elmore Leonard eat your fucking heart out . . .The dialogue crackles and spits like pig fat on an open fire. It’s just brilliant.
As for the plot, it twists and it turns, and twists again. This time, this place, these characters, Stallings wraps the plot around them, and they just go at it.
In the hands of a writer like Stallings, YOUNG AMERICANS becomes more than a simple heist novel. it becomes a novel of need, of love, of love friendship – all set to a glitterball beat.
It is a truly brilliant novel.
– Ian Ayris