Valencia is the literary equivalent of trying to walk down the street while some asshole chucks rotten eggs at you from the safety of his pedovan.
The sophomore effort of James Nulick (I haven’t read his first novel Distemper yet, though I plan to), Valencia features gripping stories, catchy turns of phrase, and some genuinely shocking moments. But it falls short of greatness because Nulick took inspiration from the wrong people. It’s a testament to his talent as a writer that Valencia remains an enthralling book, but the novel’s flaws weighed on me and kept me from enjoying it as much as I wanted to.
The novel’s plot concerns an unnamed gay man who contracts HIV after a life of meth abuse and unprotected buttsex. Rather than waste away in a hospital bed, he checks into a hotel in Spain so he can go out Sid Vicious-style. He picks Hotel Valencia because it shares its name with a that of a boy he crushed on as a child, bringing only some clothes, money, books and a box of old photographs:
My face is gaunt. I’m down to 142 pounds. I’ve had forty-two good years. I’ve scaled peach trees, their blossoms pink explosions in late spring. I’ve caught honeybees in Gerber jars. I stared at my captives for hours, fascinated by their simple beauty. I’ve raised pigeons in plywood cages. I learned their language and stood among them as they bobbed their heads indifferently. I had a new bike under the tree on my tenth Christmas. I’ve known the joy of climbing trees taller than a house, jumping from a roof and landing on my feet without a scratch. I kissed a girl for the first time when I was eight years old. I can still recall her face, her name. When I am dead all this will be gone.
My friend Peter John McLean describes Nulick as a writer who writes sentences as opposed to stories, and I concur. Valencia’s threadbare plot dissipates pretty quickly—the protagonist dies in the opening chapter—but the novel is propelled by Nulick’s vivid imagery and attention to detail. Each tableau he paints has a visceral punch to it, as the protagonist aimlessly wanders in and out of memory, recounting tales of past hedonism, heartbreak and hilarity.
Similarly to novels by other Generation X writers like Andy Nowicki and Ann Sterzinger, Nulick’s protagonist is defined by his alienation from the world around him. The opening chapters detail his chaotic upbringing, torn from his Mexican birth mother and passed around like a joint between his divorced adoptive parents. As he grows up, he wanders from his native Arizona to Iowa and back again, joylessly jogging on the hedonic treadmill all the while. He can’t even find acceptance in gay circles, let alone in the wider world:
Gia, being somewhat needy like Kafka, says do you like my breasts? To focus my attention she pulls my eyes from her contemptible penis. Yes, I say. I’m not done yet, she says. It costs so much, she says. I was about to ask how much it costs when she says Do you love me? Do you love me? In that moment I am no longer Kafka with his brutish railroad inspector. I am Molly Bloom, the true hero of Joyce’s big green book. Without a moment’s hesitation I say Yes I do, Yes I will, Yes.
The biggest problem with Valencia is that the protagonist is remarkably unsympathetic. Ann Sterzinger pointed this out in her review, but the issue with Nulick’s protagonist is that I can’t even hate him; I don’t feel anything for him. He just sort of exists, ambling through life with the self-awareness of a pet rock. He treats everything from bareback orgies to getting high off of aerosol spray cans as if he’s just taking a shit.
I’m not some Ned Flanders-type who demands that every novel have likable characters, but a story has to make me feel something for the protagonist, even if it’s disgust or hate. With Valencia, we’re never given a reason why we should care about the main character’s life. At his best, Nulick’s protagonist resembles a cross between Henry Chinaski and Roy Batty (with a splash of Peter Sotos), but his best moments are few and far between.
Furthermore, Valencia’s structural problems go beyond Nulick’s flailing attempts to be the gay Bukowski. His primary influence is clearly William T. Vollmann; indeed, Nulick mentions Vollmann in the acknowledgments. Vollmann is one of the greatest hacks to ever get a publishing deal, a brain-dead nerd whose tales of smack-addled prostitutes are the stuff of old lady book clubs.
I don’t have the book on hand, but an excerpt from The Atlas illustrates Vollmann’s cluelessness. In one of the stories, he’s robbed by a homeless hooker who offers to buy him crack, leaving behind a jacket so he doesn’t get suspicious. After he realizes he’s been mugged, Vollmann checks the coat’s pockets, finding a Tootsie Roll and going on a spiel about how it represents her inner goodness. He’s so stupid that he doesn’t know that homeless junkies eat a lot of candy because heroin causes the body’s blood sugar levels to flatline.
Valencia’s disordered layout and stream-of-consciousness style are clearly inspired by Vollmann, a huge error. When it comes to a list of writers I’d swagger jack, Vollmann wouldn’t even make the top thousand. Combined with the protagonist’s listless nihilism, the book doesn’t hold together nearly as well as it should.
What redeems Valencia is its verisimilitude. It’s clear that Nulick has done the things he writes about, whether the protagonist is getting busted for drug possession or getting a lap dance from a tranny stripper. Nulick is also good when it comes to keeping sentimentality to a minimum. For example, the protagonist frequently references the fact that he’s “queer” not to fish for sympathy but to accentuate his alienation from society.
If Nulick intended Valencia to be a commentary on the emptiness of hedonism, I’d say he did a decent job.
It’s because of the sheer quality of Nulick’s prose and his ability to tell short, punchy stories that Valencia rises above its flaws. If you can get past the book’s poor pedigree, you’ll find it an enjoyable, bleakly comic read. Nulick is a genuinely talented writer and if he shucks off the Vollmann influence, his next work could be truly magnificent.
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