The Gangster of Love

Stephanie Zacharek reviews Jessica Hagedorn's novel "The Gangster of Love".

Published August 16, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

You can almost hear how much Jessica Hagedorn's second novel -- the follow-up to her acclaimed debut, "Dogeaters" -- wants to rock out loud. "The Gangster of Love" tries its damnedest to be a potent rock 'n' roll collage, an exploration of the grip art can have on our lives, of cultural identity, of confusion over the great mysteries of life (Why do we both adore and despise our own families? Why do we love people who are bad for us? Why are we attracted to bisexual, mentally unstable fire-eaters-turned-bigwheel-downtown- artists?).

But the book strains at quirkiness and originality. It's as if Hagedorn tried to make her characters as weird, unhappy and confused as possible, assuming that somehow their idiosyncrasies would translate into depth and richness. What she ends up with, though, is her own special brand of pomo stereotypes. In the early '70s, the book's primary narrator -- straightforward, observant writer-type Rocky Rivera -- emigrates to San Francisco from the Philippines with her glamorous, flirty mother and her fragile, sensitive brother. There, she falls in love with rock guitarist Elvis Chang; the foxy, enigmatic photographer Keiko (She's bisexual! She eats fire! She takes pictures of Rocky sitting on the can in a tattered prom dress!) drifts in and out of the story as the third point of this or that triangle. Rocky, Elvis and Keiko all decide to move to New York City, where Elvis and Rocky try to make a go of their punk rock band, Gangster of Love, and Rocky tries to figure out who she is and where she belongs. (She ends up having a baby, and somehow that seems to help.)

"The Gangster of Love" moves forward in a disjointed tangle of liaisons and uncouplings, family squabbles and heartbreak, all interspersed with dream sequences, imaginary encounters with Jimi Hendrix and lore about the yo-yo (which came from the Philippines). But even when Hagedorn writes about Gangster of Love's music, the book has a curiously slack rhythm. "Unemployed junkies with tropical eyes,/Blond Republicans in slum disguise./They flock to their savior on the crowded street./He gives them his sales pitch./Wolf loves meat," are the lyrics to one of earthy poetess Rocky's songs, and this is how it sounds: "A horn line follows, ragged, funky, and mean. Fingers snapping, menacing and cool. It verges on camp, but we do it with a straight face. That's why it worked." Guess you had to be there.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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