Books

Crisper Through the Ringer: On D. Foy’s Made to Break

At first glance, it appears Made to Break’s author, D. Foy, took a bowl of spaghetti steeped in a thick sauce and tossed it against a chain-link fence with the hopes that the resultant mess might be weird enough to be worth a look. The first few acts of the novel are so The Big Chill meets SLC Punk 2: The Midlife Crisis Years that without Foy’s unconquerable phraseology, this would have been publisher Two Dollar Radio’s first failure. But like most good books, it’s the second read that reveals the tireless hours that must have gone into such a totally measured and multilayered text.

Setting-wise, it’s the 90s again. Plot-wise, something like the smashing together of Return of the Secaucus 7, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, Jesus’ Son, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. We’re dealing with a group of old friends stuck in a cabin on Lake Tahoe in a spiteful, interminable storm on the cusp of a new year. Cue subtext.

The strangely nicknamed cast—AJ (the narrator), Basil, Dinky, Hickory, and Lucy—snap at each other like tortoises who’ve burned off their own shells with lighter-fluid whiskey and combustible cocaine. They’re the Five Stooges of exposed-nerve kneejerk savagery, the violent dialogue always circling back to their need to escape. Not the cabin, but each other—even more than that, themselves. As AJ considers leaving his friends and their collective troubles behind, he says to himself, “…if I ran off now, down the line I’d have to live with myself, a prospect at its best unspeakably vile.”

Like Foy, these drunks and druggards grew up in the Bay area. With an exception or two, they’ve never liked each other much, and we enter on bullshitting and bickering. Never are the holders of glasses allowed to find them empty. They aspire toward a prison break, but no one can unearth a file, and it will be some time before Foy tells us there’s a rug so he can pull it out from under us.

Foy knows every inch of his characters, even those on the periphery. Tons of bit players join in, make a lasting impression, and split, never seen or heard from again. It might look like a lack of care, but really it’s layering. Henry Miller knew this, and while Made to Break could never be misconstrued as memoir, Foy does what that greatest of New Yorkers did: He allows us to see how the world he’s created is viewed by AJ, and what people mean to each other, and especially what it is to be a person—what that means to AJ.

Made to Break’s characters are fleshed out so thoroughly because AJ (and Foy) can’t get rid of them—they’re all stuck in the cabin. Then there are those he recalls fondly, remembering what he considers better times. Like a pointillist peeking under his blindfold, Foy dots in little personas whom we recall long after for their detailed and beautiful descriptions.

As for our five main players, they’re goons until one of them morphs into something quite different, and poof! They all become people. No longer are they the fucked-up, rock-loving Singles-esque caricatures. As mortality enters the cabin, the characters expand into it.

Even more stunning than the character development and descriptions is Foy’s expert control of metonymy, meter, repetition, and rhythm. Here’s AJ explaining bits of his childhood to his captive troupe:

And for absolutely positively certain what I did not tell them was every time he saw me my grandfather said how he and dear ma had spoiled my mother past tense.

Beckett’s Molloy breathes to speak again.

Who knew what I’d find, if not Super or a neighbor then may chance a pissed off lion, as scared as I was scared and hungry as hell besides.

Beckett, Foy, and Robert Johnson exhale—some unholy triad.

My days were a trail of liquor-store bumblings and sunrise guilt, and every penny I’d earned those years had come to rest in a dirty glass. I’d ceased caring for others, and definitely for myself. The only things that mattered were booze and books.

Foy finds the right reader in me.

He swore about certain pods of anguish, of how soon, on a bed of niggardly hearts and jealous bones, beaks sewn shut with thread and the toes of babes hacked off with shears, those pods would blossom into flowers of spleen, and the colossus of venality humanity had become would shudder and by crappers crumble in that swarm.

Here, like Miller:

For one slippery moment I seemed to’ve been blessed with clarity. The world was truly gorgeous! The world had become a special place!

From Huysman to Miller. From Miller to Denis Johnson. Johnson to Foy. And every band you’ve ever heard of (most name-checked in the book) and all their lyrics and all their key changes.

Made to Break works as a series of dilemmas, some initially ignored, all eventually solved. But when AJ ignores them, he realizes and owns that it doesn’t much matter if we can discern Hickory from Basil or Dinky from Lucy. He’s known them so long, and they each work as a portion of him, that it almost makes sense we’re a little confused at first just who’s who.

Super—another puzzle, especially early on—is outwardly the oddest of all the characters, coming in and out of the story to help, frighten, and bless. The creepy hick, in a fun turn, turns out to be a name-dropping Hamlet aficionado. Later he becomes the group’s salvation, all the while remaining rather spooky.

If I thought that any of this really was a mess I’d say Foy threw Super and Hamlet (among other things) in for tone alone. But every malaprop, any of many pop-culture A through D-list celebrities or bands rendered as verbs, all anti-grammatical phrasings are deliberate and grave.

A novel that knows itself can be a dangerous thing—that is, if the author hasn’t applied the energy to make the work’s purpose initially unclear. It’s rare to find a book that both comprehends its possibilities and fulfills them, without stretching into embarrassing territory. Even when Foy has AJ (who we learn is named for Andrew Jackson) use language best reserved for new parents and preschoolers, there’s no urge to cringe. Foy allows his cast a heavy flow of outdated slang, but not once does it feel out of place. Even the clichés work.

Little of the gross stuff is gross. A scene where a woman pleads for a putridly described dude to go down on her menstruating vagina isn’t that nasty. The doll parts in the back of Super’s truck aren’t that creepy. Even all the mentions of the narrator needing to defecate come off as pastoral. The trick achieved is a combination of two things: (1) These clichés are so zeitgeisted, no one but the reflexively squeamish would bother taking offense; (2) Foy has considered the axiomatic advice “style over substance” and comingled the two, adding proof to the accidental hypotheses of folks like the aforementioned Miller.

If Made to Break didn’t avoid prosaism and triteness as if they stink of the death of the written word, and if it didn’t consistently utilize the most potent techniques of modern poetry, I don’t know that it’d be much at all. That’s both the worst and one of the best things I can say about the work.

For every fifty-cent poetry-riddled sentence, there are a hundred so odious and boorish you want your money back. That is until the horde of untitled, unnumbered chapters are collected and taken as a whole. This is when the superficially considered heaps of shit and gold show themselves to be one and the same.

The juxtaposition of offal and elegance—an aesthetic or genre Foy has dubbed “gutter opera”—creates a brand of asymmetry like looking through 3-D glasses and finding both lenses to be red. A scar on the heart sliced open to let in dirty blood. (If there’s no dirt in the blood, little has been accomplished or needs consideration.) Filth is the gateway to compulsory adulthood, and Foy—unlike many of his tedious contemporaries—is a grown-up.

The simple pornographies of life are taken up and exploited by AJ and the rest. Made to Break is in some ways the dismissal of the unrealities of piety. Here failure is the territory, and it’s a land we occupy daily, forever trying to convince ourselves that we’re pure of heart and above reproach.

We’re all villainous in countless ways, and the bulk of our collective turpitude isn’t our acceptance of boredom, but our hunger for it. We go to great lengths to avoid thrills, escape complexity, glut ourselves on the middling. And then we gather in small circles to numb any small truths we’ve encountered and regurgitate into each other’s ears the pap we’ve so thoroughly convinced ourselves is mutinous. There’s danger in pain, but as Foy reveals, we’re crisper having been put through the ringer.

Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.