Last exit to Williamsburg

By David Todd

Bad Habits: A Love Story

Soft Skull Press; 224 pp.; $14.95

The cover to “Bad Habits: A Love Story” promises fiction “in the tradition of the finest transgressive authors,” evoking the Kathy Acker/Jean Genet standard to which so many young punks have aspired. Few are the voices who actually make the transition from writer into cult icon, from creator to deconstructor, or from thinker into way of thinking. But it will always be a noble goal. The culture needs these figures like the patient needs a doctor’s needle, as a kind of necessary prick. Both writer and reader—in a DIY world, often one and the same—are locked in this struggle together, waiting to see which street scum is elevated by talent, insight, and swelling underground desire to the rank of sainted outlaw.

Still in her mid-20s, former Greenzine publisher Cristy C. Road may not have written her new novel on paper bags in prison (unless you consider living among Brooklyn hipsters a prison) and she may not yet be able to spout literary theory while she shaves her head with loose journal pages. But she’s on her way into a new void of her own, and I think readers of edgy or super-edgy literature—you know you are, you there wiping your eyes against the sunlight—might want to follow her there.

Road’s episodic story with illustrations—a cross between a conventional novel and graphic one—follows a “young [bisexual] promiscuous Latina junkie-artist” as she arrives in New York from Miami, setting up in the shadows of a poetic BQE overpass. There she tries to drug and sleep her way into answering the age-old question: Who am I and why am I so damaged? The months detailed in Road’s short chapters seem elliptical, but ultimately convey the slow-motion effect of those thrilling phases in one’s life, the ones which stand out among years which otherwise fly by. In between shifts at East Village dives and nights out with nipple-biting German lesbians, among trips to Coney Island and in beds across town, Road’s alter-ego takes notes on the subject of life, looking for ways to break those titular habits. Eventually, she begins to see a certain calmness emerging along with a hard-earned sense of self.

The protagonist—identified as Carmencita “Car” Gutierrez Alonzo, but primarily referred to simply as “I” within the first-person narrative—works her way through a series of relationships with women and men who vanish and return in a manner that seems logical for this fictive world. Each figure is fleshed out to a degree, but remains a “paradox” to the narrator, whose most lasting relationship is with the city of New York, which she sees as “alternative in itself.” Road’s New York is that of the recent arrival, the lowrise view, made more interesting by her ability to combine the scenester, bisexual, and immigrant narratives all into one packed psyche. Ultimately, Road conflates her fate with the fortunes of the city, watching as each is overwhelmed by decadence either seedy or luxurious.

Trained as an illustrator, Road uses the many panel and full-page images interspersed among the novel to heighten key concerns, with occasional fantasy-takes on the proceedings (e.g., hearts literally being ripped out of ribcages, in one of the recurring motifs). Though her technique is fully developed, the storyboards tend toward the raw and lurid, frequently finding their subjects in extremis of one kind or another. The images are most effective when slightly out of synch with the text, creating the effect of shifting realities, as in a view of a crooked street with clouds above in the shape of pistols. Given that Road’s last book, “Indestructible,” was an “illustrated memoir” clocking in at 96 pages, it’s not surprising that the drawings are more assured than the prose.

At times, the narration is weighed down by a bit of the young-punk’s reliability on easy soul-baring, those negative-epiphanies (“Eventually, the truths burned me”) in the finest Serpent’s Tail tradition, and the characters are more dependent on drugs as a backdrop for their exploits than they are addicts in the sweating-at-the-clinic sense. Road writes “We were a pill generation; pills for every imperfection,” which is probably true, but there remains an odd implication to lines such as “I’m gonna grind you between my teeth and make the best of you in order to make the best of me. But for now, I have to go on vacation and do drugs.” Yet there is a connection between the narrator’s search and the author’s growth as a stylist, especially given how blurred those distinctions are. Both writer and character are engaged in the act of finding themselves.

“Bad Habits” succeeds more as an attempt than as mature work of fiction. That said, I’m not sure if a book that’s part zine, part new-wave feminist bildungsroman, and part ode to the Wonder Wheel, should be evaluated by anything other than its own organic aims. Books like this are best measured by the nature of what is attempted and failed, and how far that effort drags or pushes the cultural moment along. In many ways, Road really is of this particular moment, marked as she is by her Cuban otherness, her sexuality, and her teetering sense of questioning whether she’s the hero of her story or the product. Like our moment, she searches for her epic, partly fronting when she has to, partly delivering when she can.

Cristy C. Road will read from “Bad Habits” on Monday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. Free. Bluestockings Books, 172 Allen Street (between Stanton and Rivington). For info contact (212) 777-6028 or bluestockings.com.