Tim and Pete
Ringpull Press, Manchester, 1995
For Kenny, Wes and David
dedication: For Kenny, Wes and David
The blurb on the back:
Finding himself stranded out of town in Laguna Beach, Tim finds he has no option but to beg Pete, his ex, for a ride back into LA. The road leads them into LA's dark-side through South Central and West Hollywood and to a host of colatile urbanites: an occult-obsesed film-maker, leather-clad dykes, a Southern bell drag queen and finally a gang of anarchistic gays heading over to Bel Air with a car boot full of explosives and assassination in mind!
Tim and Pete was the fourth and last novel published by James Robert Baker before his suicide in 1997 (though others have appeared since). It takes place over a 36-hour period in which our narrator, Tim, finds himself stranded in Laguna Beach, looks up Pete, his ex-partner, and tries to get back home to Santa Monica, and back together with Pete.
Their increasingly surreal adventures with a bizarre cast of supporting characters in an often hostile environment, fuelled by sleep deprivation and by a drink spiked with mescaline, resemble at times a tanked-up queer take on Into The Night or The Warriors. Only it's much darker than that suggests. There's a strong streak of graveyard humour that does nothing to conceal the omnipresence of the destruction wrought by Aids. The book is populated by the ghosts and memories of dead characters, whilst those still living find the virus creeping into every conversation. And at the dark heart of the epic journey is the ruined shell of 'the most popular bathhouse in West Hollywood', looming over the story like a modern Auschwitz: 'God only knows how many men were infected here.'
Actually the jokes aren't as funny as they think they are - they're too forced: Perry Como singing 'Heroin' and so on - but the dominant tone of rage against right-wing America, for celebrating Aids as the wrath of God, and against the gay response of suffering victimhood, drives the narrative along with a desperate recklessness: 'Fuck dying with dignity!' explodes one of the characters. 'Too many people have died already, and there's nothing dignified about a corpse pile!' (p.226)
It doesn't sound much like fun the way I'm describing it, but really this is an instant, irresistible speed-read. Baker was a great writer and his ability to keep the narrative rattling along is impressive. And the fury is eased a little by the music and movie superstructure that frames the book (following on from his previous two novels). As a rock & roll trainspotter, I'm particularly interested in his choice of British indie references: Morrissey, Jesus & Mary Chain, Lightning Seeds... The Lightning Seeds? Really? Oh yes.
I'd have to say that this is the least of the three novels by Baker on this site (and both the hardback and the paperback covers are rubbish), but that's judging it by very high standards indeed. It's still a fine piece of work, in which the polemics never quite overwhelm the central storyline of love lost and found.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 3/5