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Vapid Transit District : LIFE AFTER DEATH; And Other Stories By Susan Compo (Faber & Faber: $18.95; 214 pp.)

December 02, 1990|Bret Easton Ellis | Ellis is the author of "Less Than Zero" and "The Rules of Attraction." A new novel, "American Psycho," will be published next year by Vintage.

The title novella and most of the stories in Susan Compo's debut collection, "Life After Death," take place in the Los Angeles of a recent past--the post-punk club scene of the early-to-mid-1980s--and true to period, most of the characters have names like Cruella, Orange, Vex, Pier, Skitz, PX, Brill, Sharlott, Miserable. These people are roadies, groupies, failed musicians, scenesters, deejays, extras in rock videos, limo drivers, fans, hangers-on, local celebs--the detritus of the New Wave youth culture (this is the kind of book that has pre-publication quotes from Pamela des Barres, Alex Cox and Timothy Leary).

All the prerequisites of L.A. mood-music are here: spooky Santa Anas, lots of drugs and Corona beer, image-worshiping, Frederick's of Hollywood, the freeways, emotionless sex, Olvera Street, MTV with the sound turned off, papier-mache skeletons. And like Compo's closest peer, Mark Lindquist, who flirts with the fringe of this scene in his two recent L.A.-based novels ("Sad Movies," "Carnival Desires"), she's concerned with how religion, mainly Catholicism, lapsed and otherwise, plays a part in the texture of their lives.

Since Compo's earlier fiction was published previously in alternative magazines and her heroines are mostly wigged-out cartoon poseurs, the most obvious stylistic comparisons are with Tama Janowitz--with this book, Compo is now probably the West Coast's equivalent--and the high priestess of punk fiction, Kathy Acker. The book is all present-tense surface cool; it has no dark side and no light side either, yet its generic tone seems to complement the utter vapidity of its characters' lives.

The novella stars Zelda Zonk as a would-be actress who could have feature parts if she "didn't live so much at night" and who worships Marilyn Monroe to such an unsettling degree that she thinks Monroe "is the only person who really understands her." The second section, "Wallpaper," is a series of 11 stories incorporating passing references to most of the characters in the preceding novella and written by Alma, whose "painting of a crucifix with syringes for nails won a prize."

These vignette-filled tales are concerned with the love lives (or lack of them) among various La-La-Land denizens, mostly club-goers like the Boy No Wonder who becomes obsessed with the True Money Girls, one of whom likes to buy heroin cut with Vitamin C ("I'm on a health kick"), and Mario, once Alma's boyfriend, who writes video reviews for porn magazines and who, like many of the men in this book, has an intense Sid Vicious complex.

There's Scottie, Mario's first girlfriend, who converts to Catholicism and becomes a punk-rocker, and Cheri, a Gene Loves Jezebel groupie who becomes the "social secretary" of Trinity Jones, "who was pretty famous and had some hits in the pre-punk years." Miserable is a librarian (in her mid-30s, she's one of the oldest characters in the book) who flirts with 15-year-old Jordan (already an AA veteran), but when a highway patrolman stops Miserable for weaving, she "agrees to go with him to a motel off Van Nuys Boulevard." A young seminarian dies during an explosion while inhaling gasoline from a milk carton, and the only thing anyone says about him is "I'd seen him in clubs a couple of times." People leave notes written in lipstick.

The highlights of the third section's loosely connected vignettes include Nicole having sex with Steve in a graveyard lavatory. They also do it in an alley behind a McDonald's, and later, "they have sex like snakes . . . until a thin stream of blood gushes like a serpent's tongue from Steve's nose . . . Nicole starts to lap up the blood but Steve recoils. . . ."

The ostensible star of most of this section is Honor, a pathetic groupie obsessed with a pop star she's never met and to whom she sends bad poetry and puling, inarticulate letters. Her house-mate, Ecs (formerly Ex-Stacy), keeps 100 copies of the book "Edie" stacked in her room and imagines stabbing Honor "hard with a letter opener." Honor is hospitalized in Switzerland, moves to London and meets Gaudy. In Los Angeles, Gaudy gets hit by a car but Honor--in what might or might not be a fantasy--after dying in a plane crash ends up having sex with him anyway in Heaven/Hell.

The most interesting, coherent chapter in "Life After Death" is a brief, simple synopsis of the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols that is unadorned by any of the puny, crushing irony that the rest of the stories are burdened with and reveals that Compo's true talent lies in nonfiction reportage, which isn't surprising considering she published her own fanzine during the heyday of punk rock. But like most reportage, the book's main limitation is that there aren't any scenes-- at least not any sustained by dramatic or comedic tension--just a lot of brief, glib descriptions.

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