Originally published in 1992, Darcey Steinke’s Suicide Blonde reads like a late addition to the Rebel Inc pantheon: like John Fante, Steinke’s heroine, 29 year old Jesse, is somewhat down at heel; like Knut Hamsun, she gnaws at the bone of life constantly distracted by a sense of psychic hunger; and like Nelson Algren, this is a tale of life in the city (it’s largely set in San Francisco but it could be any large American city). Ah, you might be saying, so here is a brave, courageous and possibly somewhat neglected female writer who warrants more attention and all you’ve done is compare her to some long dead men! I do that because Steinke is the kind of writer who should have been published under the Rebel Inc imprint first time around to make it less of a boys club perhaps. Like those old Rebel Inc titles, this is a book you can easily imagine swinging below the radar on its first release and thoroughly warranting a reissue and a repackage and a re-evaluation now, some 25 years on. But if you don’t like the Rebel Inc comparison and want to know what kind of a female writer she is alongside other female writers, then think Lydia Lunch, think Lydia Millet, even Grace Paley to an extent.
The novel opens with the following line:
“Was it the bourbon or the dye fumes that made the pink walls quiver like vaginal lips?”
If you read that and find it even mildly unpalatable, we’d say that Suicide Blonde probably isn’t for you. The novel centres on Jesse, as we said, 29, living in San Francisco in the early 90s with a guy called Bell, who is himself hung up on a former lover called Kevin, who is in the process of marrying a woman. That swift precis provides you with much of the action of the novel. To begin with, Jesse shadows Bell to see where he’s going and what he’s doing, then she parts company with him and makes her own way into the San Fran demi-monde (befriending an overweight lady called Madame Pig and taking up an offer to find a woman called Madison, who may either have been Madame Pig’s daughter or lover or both). Along the way there are casual sexual interactions, numerous hook-ups and much in the way of soul searching. Here is Jess, for instance, immediately post a hitch with a faceless stranger:
“I had let the stranger fuck me because I was intentionally trying to devastate myself, encourage confusion and misery, so that I would have no impulse to pose or lie. I felt I knew what was best for me, but that somehow, because of a certain well-practised falseness, a sort of stupid conventional programming, I couldn’t do it.”
A long Warholian Factory shadow seems to stretch across the book, Here, for example, is a brief description of Carmen’s, a bar where she first meets Madison:
“Carmen’s wasn’t worn or melancholy like the Black Rose, but brutal and energized like an operating room. A hundred TVs covered the walls, showing continuous car-crash footage – splatters of glass, a panicked eye, puddling blood.”
Later, when she grows somewhat closer to Madison (you sense there is only so close a woman like Madison would allow anyone to get), they share cigarettes and Madison says something which could work as the tagline for the book:
“”You’ll see,” she said, absently plugging the light back in, “there are a million ways to kill off the soft parts of yourself.””
Jesse’s role in the book seems to operate as a relentlessly self-interrogating chorus for the world she sees around her (“a garbage pail for everyone’s misery,” according to Madison):
“I heard the incessant traffic of Bush Street, thought of heroines in novels. They were always optimistic and naïve whether they were old women or whores. They were always beautiful, as if only the lovely had courage enough to go out into the world. They were smart in a dumb way, that inarticulate intelligence that men seemed to like. They did crazy things because of love and in the end always realized something stupid that was obvious all along.”
It’s a hard book, with sometimes splintered, sometimes conflicting views (particularly along the Jesse / Madison and Jesse/her mother axes):
“”You only get one chance in life, and for women that chance comes early. Before you know it, the million-dollar-baby thing is gone.” I didn’t answer. It made me angry that she hated men yet sometimes sided with them. She wanted to believe, even though Dad had left her, that the patriarchy would care for her.”
And just as it’s hard, it’s also dark, refusing to offer easy answers, refusing to soften the blow, refusing to give you a happy ending:
“I was sick of Bell and Madison and Pig and all of San Francisco, sick of being nice, being nurturing, being a good sport, of appeasing people. I started to think of maggots festering in a wound. I thought of betraying people who loved me, of piss and shit mixed foully in a backed up toilet.”
This was a book I didn’t think I’d get along with that actually turned out to be a truly surprising blast (of sorts) – if your idea of a blast is something like Julia Davis’ recent coruscating Sally4Ever.
Any Cop?: Defiantly not for everyone but massively cool all the same.