Let’s talk about the tragic elements of the story first, shall we, in case they get in the way of what we have. Ali Eskandarian was born in 1978 and died in 2013. By anyone’s reckoning, he was a young man both when he wrote the book and when he shuffled off this mortal coil. He was also, if you don’t know, murdered, along with two members of the band Yellow Dogs by a fellow Iranian musician called Raefe Akhbar, who also killed himself. Take a moment for all of that to sink in. Even if Ali’s novel was terrible, this isn’t an end you’d wish on anyone. In case you are wondering, Ali’s novel isn’t terrible and so there is an additional factor: what would he have gone on to do? As it is, we are left with what we have, Golden Years, an Iranian-American Beat novel. That and one additional point: Eskandarian’s unfortunate demise could make his debut review proof (because what kind of a shit would kick a man who had been murdered?) but we are going to be brave and talk about the good and the bad in equal measure and see where that gets us.
What we have here is a novel written by a young Iranian man, mostly set in New York, and concerned with the making and touring of music, the taking of drugs and the having of sex. Those three things form a big part of Golden Years and they are written about in an amusing, light-hearted, relatively self-mocking way. There are similarities between this book and Heinz Helle’s Superabundance, which we reviewed recently (in that both books concern themselves with a non-resident living in New York). There are also similarities (to the detriment of Golden Years) with Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, in that Eskandarian, like Lish, seeks to bring the city to life – but where Lish does it in truly stylish writing, Eskandarian is fond of lists that are themselves in thrall to someone like, say, Bolano.
While we are mentioning authors there is one more worthy of a mention: Jack Kerouac. If you like Jack Kerouac, you will like Golden Years. Golden Years is very, very Kerouac-y. Like Kerouac, Eskandarian can conjure the familiar up in a way that is striking:
“The streets are humming with an energy that can produce an arc of electricity at any moment. I’m walking in a vector field of people and seeing everything in shades of nickel antimony titanium yellow.”
Also like Kerouac, he can flip on a dime, switch from talking about something typical of the novel (like, say, playing a show in New York) to something much more cosmic (man), like:
“A chlamys strewn about his otherwise naked body he strolled out of the wooden cabin overlooking the ravine. He seemed to radiate erudition as he approached. I noticed in his right hand a daruma doll, and in his left hand a hemi-morphic object of some sort that shone brightly, reflecting the sun’s rays in all directions. He approached calmly resembling a Peloponnesian statesman, or did he resemble Pelagius the English monk, or Malachi the prophet?“
The problem, for this reader, with Kerouac is that Truman Capote nailed him when he said that it wasn’t writing but typing. There are definitely times with Eskandarian where as a reader you want to say: I get that now. Similarly, there are times where profundity can so easily become inanity. In other words, there are times where Golden Years becomes annoying:
“Lying there on my bed in the middle of the loft and thinking about the human condition, which is to say my own condition, really. No one is here for once and the place is quiet. Always on the run eh? Always planning another trip, bags perpetually packed and ready. Maybe I can jump on a freight train and go to Wyoming, take that ship to Argentina, join the merchant marines, go work on an organic farm somewhere – anything but this.”
And then the narrative flips again:
“My mind bends inward towards the fifth dimension. Many geometric possibilities become visible and apparent. Ancient forces take over inside me. I am a vessel. A ship reserved for energy transport across space and time…”
Now, if all of that blows your proverbial mind and has you thinking, wow man, this dude sounds like he’s been there and seen revelations of the great cosmic oneness, then boy o boy, this book is for you. If you like Kerouac in a big way, you will like this in a big way. Eskandarian at his most hippy dippy does a good Kerouac impression.
But Eskandarian writing about the life he knew is exhilarating in its own right. When he is writing of previous loves and previous fucks, when he is writing of life on the road, travelling about the US, when he writes about his childhood in Tehran, and of the journey he and his family make to Germany and then Texas, a lot of it is good stuff. As with any debut, it gives you a powerful sense of possibility – yes, he could have revealed himself to be a Palahniuk (ie a one-trick pony working in ever decreasing circles) but he could possibly have been something more, something else. We’ll never know now, will we?
Any Cop?: Undoubtedly, this book would not have appeared in the form we have it if Eskandarian had lived. His editor, Lee Brackstone, says as much in the introduction. Quite possibly this book may not have been the book that became his debut. This book could have been the Go Set a Watchman to his eventual To Kill a Mockingbird. As I say, we’ll never know, and for the glimpse of potential we see, we’d recommend Golden Years (but more particularly if you have a fondness for Kerouac, if you are young, if you are in a not dissimilar position yourself, an immigrant in one of the world cities). This one is very definitely for you.