Of Christopher Stoddard‘s second novel Limiters (ITNA Press), Kevin Killian blurbed “…a Last Exit to Brooklyn, but for kids.” It’s an interesting comparison, depending on the extent to which one takes Killian literally. Stoddard’s book does share some of the transgressive character of the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. that described harsher aspects of lower-class life in 1950s Brooklyn. Limiters, however (written in a much more conventional grammatical style than Last Exit, by the way) might be best put in the hands of adolescents only with some complementary resources.
Limiters consists of two parts, each narrated from the point of view of the main character, Kyle Mason. Part one (about three quarters of the book) relates teenage Kyle’s descent from Connecticut honors student into drug-fuelled underground rave culture following the death of his older brother Max. We meet Kyle in the fall of 1998, two years after Max died, just as he opts not to return to school in favour of a grocery store job, drugs, and parties. In the midst of a lot of drugs and violence, he somewhat reluctantly negotiates his burgeoning apparent sexuality in homophobic conditions.
This section of the book inspires comparison with J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, in its details if not its mood. Both novels use first person narration. Kyle and Holden Caulfield are of similar ages (sixteen and seventeen, respectively). Each is troubled by the death of an influential older brother. Each is prematurely out of school and experiencing a period of rebellious independence (Kyle dropped out, Holden was expelled). Each experiences homophobic feelings amid sexual coming-of-age (Kyle’s is internalised, while Holden’s nascent sexuality is less clear). Each self-medicates–though to vastly different degrees –with mood-altering substances (Holden: Scotch and soda; Kyle: cocaine, Ecstasy, LSD, OxyContin, and whatever else someone hands him). Each is in the midst of a breakdown that will result in psychological intervention.
Though part one of Limiters inspires much tension about young Kyle’s risk-filled encounters, it also has elements of humour that somewhat mitigates that tension. Well, maybe not overt humour, exactly– nothing is really funny ha-ha–but there’s something in the way that Kyle describes things that inserts an implausible lightness amidst all of the horrible things that happen to people. We want to see Kyle as a struggling queer kid tying to make his way through bad circumstances in a hostile culture, and we want to be hopeful for a positive outcome for him. Unfortunately, Kyle’s reliability as a narrator seems, at best, uncertain, which makes such optimism difficult.
Unlike The Catcher in the Rye, which ends when Holden returns home and– we believe –receives help and probably recovers, in a distinctly darker part two of Limiters we get to see what becomes of Kyle in the future. The story jumps ahead ten years where adult Kyle works an ad agency job in New York City, does a lot of drugs, and compulsively pursues intimacy in the form of random sexual encounters. Part two ramps up the bleakness considerably, and the charitable affection and hope the reader felt for Kyle in part one largely dissipates here.
Though both parts of the book are very different in tone, each makes for compelling reading. A great deal more happens to Kyle than has been described in this review, particularly in part one. The variety of the scenarios in which Stoddard has placed Kyle border on the intentionally absurd, and sometimes these scenes seem insufficiently described, drama left hanging, unresolved. A reader may wonder, for instance, what exactly happened to Kyle’s friend Kirsten after she’s kidnapped following an ill-thought scam involving fake Ecstasy pills. Several characters come and go in the novel like this, seldom seen or spoken of again. But by deliberately leaving these threads hanging, Stoddard reinforces our understanding of Kyle’s self-absorption and instability.
Readers accustomed to a conventional denouement, or who desire a critical interpretation of drug culture, might find aspects of Limiters disquieting, but it is an interesting and entertaining read, has some strong visual imagery, and depicts some of the joys and hazards associated with a subculture that might even prove helpfully enlightening to those coming-of-age readers to which Killian referred. More narrative snapshot than traditional story, Limiters left me thinking for days afterward, not just about its characters, but about story, society, and my own expectations, and I’m rarely ungrateful when a book does that.
By Christopher Stoddard
Paperback, 9780991219612, 383 pp.
(Originally published on LambdaLiterary.com)