“Wasted Beauty” by Eric Bogosian

No one makes good decisions in this novel that follows the lives of a restless, but well-meaning, middle-aged doctor and a confused, drug-abusing fashion model.

Topics: Books,

This new book from novelist/playwright/actor Eric Bogosian covers territory that some might prefer to avoid in their pleasure reading: drug abuse, adultery, mental illness and, perhaps most difficult to handle, professional modeling. Though Bogosian treats it all with a light touch, and designs his characters with incredible empathy, this is the stuff of ugly American living. No one in this book makes good decisions; no one is clean.

However, if your tastes are anything like my own — meaning, you find the films of Todd Solondz riveting, books like Tom Perrotta’s “Little Children” and A.M. Homes’ “Music for Torching” infinitely pleasurable, and plays like David Rabe’s “HurlyBurly” not only challenging but funny — “Wasted Beauty” might be right up your alley. It’s hard to explain why relatively unremarkable depravity can be so alluring — heroin addiction and cheating and sexual perversion are not new things to hang a plot on — but for some of us, it never gets old.

“Wasted Beauty” primarily concerns a young woman named Reba, who lives with her brother, Billy, on an upstate New York farm. On weekends, the two of them come to the city to sell apples at the farmer’s market in Union Square. Billy dreams of making apple farming his living, while Reba tries to figure out how to make something, anything, of herself. They’ve lost both of their parents to illness and are stuck with bills and an overdue mortgage; Billy, additionally, is saddled with a crush on his 19-year-old sister that fills him with hatred toward her, not to mention deep self-loathing.

Eventually, Reba finds a way off the farm: modeling. She is discovered in a McDonald’s, rechristened Rena, and sent off to shoots and parties all over New York. (This, inevitably, leads to her on- and off-again heroin use.) Billy becomes a drifter on a search for his sister, whose every magazine photo makes him lust after her more and more. He winds up broke and homeless, and, after a nasty street fight, institutionalized.

Rick, Billy’s E.R. doctor, is the other main character in “Wasted Beauty.” His story is woven through with Rena’s even before their inevitable meeting. He is in midlife, married with two kids, dreaming of cheating and leaving but never really doing either. He pops Viagra and beats off to porn. He spies on his neighbors having rote sex. Like Rena, he is neither bad nor good. He is human, and confused, and wanting not much more than to figure out how to be happy without hurting too many other people.

Indeed, for all the stretched circumstances and dark corners, the themes in “Wasted Beauty” are familiar: How do you grow and try new things, but avoid excess? How do you love others and preserve yourself? How do you deal with desire responsibly? What does it mean to love? Bogosian tells his characters’ stories through alternating second and third person, giving voice to the thoughts of Rena and Rick and Billy, and then stepping back to describe their encounters from the outside. He laces together changing voices and thoughts with great agility, never confusing his reader or leaving her behind.

But Bogosian’s greatest skill lies in his ability to keep the story moving, to keep the interior monologues interesting and enlightening, to keep things edgy, while also keeping them real. It’s not that these are people you necessarily know — we’re dealing with an E.R. doctor, a model and a mental patient here — but they are recognizable. It’s a compelling tension that makes reading “Wasted Beauty” both tremendously fun and poignant. There’s no gimmickry here, just storytelling.

Yet, there’s also a happy ending. It comes off as a little overly hopeful, but after all Bogosian’s characters have been through by the end of “Wasted Beauty,” it’s as much a gift to his readers as it is to Rena and Rick.

Our next pick: An exciting first novel turns Akron, Ohio, into a surprising fantasyland

Hillary Frey is the Books editor at Salon.

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