Smoke Show / By Clint Burnham

By Clint Burnham. Arsenal Pulp Press, 187 pp, $18.95, softcover.

The action's always elsewhere. Someone, we're not sure who, is going to get offed in prison. Someone else, maybe someone's mom, is going to go trekking on the wild West Coast. Someone knows someone who was once a goalie for the Kings. But for the suburban protagonists of Clint Burnham's first novel, Smoke Show, scoring the weekly baggie is about as exciting as it gets. Maybe they'll get laid. Maybe they'll find a new stereo in the Buy & Sell. Life is measured out in the daily grind of the dead-end job and the monthly pulse of the welfare cheque.

This is loser fiction, and against all odds it's wildly compelling.

You wouldn't think so from a random scan of these pages, which might generate something like this:

"Hey. So how you guys doin'?"
"Hey. Not bad."
"Yeah, so come on in."
"So what've you been up to?"
"Oh, you know."
"Usual. You know."
"Yeah, Good. So."

This, by the way, is the verbal ballet that precedes a penny-ante drug deal, an undertaking that requires its own cryptic vocabulary. Burnham's protagonists are buying an eighth for 45, and while this makes them fluent in the language of hydro sales, they can barely organize a trip to the lake, let alone articulate any sense of how they want to live. Yet Burnham's ear for the music of their speech is so keen that we're gradually seduced by its ordinariness; what at first might seem a shallow, postmodern conceit is shown to be layered, consequential, real. Like a good documentary, Smoke Show reveals without condescension.

It's true that characters such as Jimmy, Jeff, and Jesse fail to fully emerge from the haze of their own imprecision-and from Burnham's cunning circumvention of linear narrative. But the conditions that keep them vague are satisfactorily outlined: their buffer-zone environment; the drugs that fog their nights and, often, their afternoons. They're not exactly victims, these smoky, shadowy young adults: they have cars, lovers, pocket change, wicked tunes. But their inability to conceive of more renders them emblematic of contemporary life. Anyone who finds their plight familiar will be moved, but not comforted, by this accomplished first fiction.

Clint Burnham appears next Thursday (October 27) at 8 p.m. at Performance Works.