This title was the second in line published from the highly-regarded Dell/Abyss series that ran around 40 paperback original novels from 1991 to 1995. It came on the spurs of the now-legendary The Cipher by Kathe Koja, admittedly an impossible act to follow. Nightlife, author Hodge's 3rd novel, has a similar theme of transformation, but the main direction seems to be at a genre crossroads. The vehicle driven is Horror, but it keeps fishtailing into Crime alleyways. As a result, character stereotypes become reluctant passengers, helplessly watching exclamation and question marks attach to the prose's window dressing, looking as confused as The Riddler's puke-green costume(1).
It's still a hell-of-a-fun ride, though.
From the downSouth lands of vision quests and piranhas comes a digestible substance that literally puts hair on the dog. Six kilos have disgorged from the Amazon rainforest and into the noses of Tampa's hipsters and addicts. As our to-be heroine April Kingston is droning on about the lack of ritual in contemporary times and that we should "get reacquainted with our primitive sides"(p.31), her to-be boyfriend is hoovering this new stuff appropriately called Skullflush in the bathroom of a lizard lounge called Apocalips, "an exercise in sensual overkill"(p.28). Justin Gray is new in town, loose-ended, and trying to run ahead of his chinny-chin-chin escape from drug dealing in St. Louis, where he inadvertently sold some killer strychine-laced heroin and had to squeal "like a pig from Deliverance"(p.26) to get cut free. He's now a reluctant user—he's our Hero for Crissake!—and certainly fares better than his fellow snorter, who hits the dance floor with claws and teeth of a jaguar and slaughters 4 people, turning the club literally into a meat market. In the process we meet Tony Mendoza, the dealer, and a villain who has watched De Palma's Scarface of 1983 way too many times.
April keeps lamely philosophizing on the bennies of substance abuse, championing a position that it's good to anesthetize from the shallow pursuits sanctioned by society because happiness is not yuppie toys, status, and employer back-pattings. Justin thinks she sounds "romantic"(p.70). Meanwhile, Tony's slinkin' in his Lincoln "like a shark . . . waiting for the proper trigger to snap hunger and need beyond containment"(p.72). He's a mid-level pusher who mysteriously gets this green powder from the jungle and is anxious to find its market share. He also sees this as an opportunity to move up the gangster ladder inspired by the ruthless tenaciousness he sees in his 300-gallon fish tank packed with pet piranha, "the pit bulls of the underwater world"(p.45).
Collated into this storyline, another character emerges. Kerebawa. The greatest warrior of the Venezuelan Yanomamo tribe, known as the Fierce People, who "believed that ferocity and avenging all trespasses was the key to living"(p.5). The novel opens with these Stone Age indians trying to stop another tribe from trading to the Colombians a religious ritual powder they call kekura-teri. Kerebawa is saddled with the dying wish of his friend and priest to retrieve this powerful, hallucinogenic transfiguration before it decimates the American drug culture. Kerebawa is the antithesis of Tony Montana and represents the organic and natural way to walk the killing fields with 6-foot poison-tipped arrows instead of an AK-47. He's Chewbacca without the wooly doo; he's fookin' King Kong.
The leggy part of the plot is getting Skullflush back to the jungle where it belongs. Along the trail, there's a love story and a betrayal, vaudeville antics(2) of a savage in civilization with preachy taglines like, "this world had forgotten much"(p.133), and lotsa violence and some dirty sex, plus tons of "missions", like, you know, creepy-crawl Tony's house, pizza delivery assassin gunbattle, severed hand messages, more brain-blow trips on hekura-teri turning you into your power animal, the obligatory piranha chew used as torture, very minor police interference with these eviscerating murders, shenanigans, stalkings, car tails, more shootouts, then there's alligator (Tony) surprise attack in swimming pool, butchery a la St. Valentine's Day massacre, puttin' lotsa bullets into a guy who doesn't die—
—and, a Big Boss Battle at Busch Gardens complete with white Bengal tigers and an exploding bottle of isopropyl alcohol.
I don't understand why this novel is titled Nightlife. It should be called Skull Flush, after the drug. It is, afterall, the most powerful force of this story. Subtextually, drugs are assumed as a Rite of Passage, safe and healthy and enlightening if taken properly, as exampled by Kerebawa's tribal and adapted life. However, here in democratic America, drugs not under the control of pharmaceutical corporations like Merck or Pfizer are illegal and demonized with tightly-corseted tales of addiction and death. Even herbs and naturopathic medications are suspect. Nightlife is tolerant—even quite plaudit—about getting whacked out of your skull; it's the delivery systems and quality control that's dubitable. The novel seems to be saying, "yeah, we'll probably make some mistakes. Hopefully they won't kill us. But at least believe in a floor made from resilience—not favoritism and ignorance—and let us make up our own minds about this."
Assuming we're all adults that read this trash, right?
2) Kerebawa's visit to Mickey D's is full-bore cheesy fulmination. ". . . carried his Big Mac, large fries, and medium orange to an empty table, uncomfortably wedged himself in one of the little seats . . . and found the most slimy, repugnant pile of food he'd ever seen. If he didn't know better, he'd have thought the meat a fresh kill. Probably during the act of procreation, given the amount of white ejaculate it dripped. Appearances were deceiving, though. He liked it . . ."(p.132)