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Deft penman

Richard Meltzer approximates the awkward ballet of speech

by Jonathan Dixon

THE NIGHT (ALONE), by Richard Meltzer. Little, Brown; 304 pages; $22.95.

[Melterzer] Richard Meltzer is not a name that often rolls off the tongue, but over the course of a 28-year writing career, he's come up with as wild a body of work as possible. And his newest book, The Night (Alone), doesn't diminish his score.

Meltzer was one of the first rock critics, wrote lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult, sang with no-account punk band Vom, and has published irregularly since he left New York for LA in 1975. Most of his writing has shown up in magazines like Forced Exposure (where three of The Night's sequences were first printed) and anthologies like Avant Pop (source of two pieces); there's also been the occasional foray into mainstream waters, like 1989's Knopf-imprinted L.A. Is the Capital of Kansas.

The bulk of his work is the outgrowth of Meltzer's misanthropy, libido, and remembrances of a past slightly more active than his present. Once a writer of some notoriety, with visibility in music circles as a critic, his narratives are more like notes from the underground with a wry wit; L.A. Is the Capital of Kansas was an all-over-the-map collection of essays about the soul-sucking horrors of LA that had a tone always hovering this side of disbelief. A blueprint for Meltzer's scattershot latest, it was full of free-association denunciations and marked by a wickedly mean streak of humor. That book at least gave readers a shot at inclusion; his depiction of the freaks and flakes of the city either had you knee-slapping along with him or becoming an element of the punchline.

There's no "we" in The Night -- just Meltzer -- and his aim isn't to comment but to depict. Billed as a novel, it's more like an on-page performance: Richard Meltzer's psyche live and in the raw. He "narrates" by means of vignettes -- 98 of them -- that usually center on issues of sex, writing, the paradoxical coexistence of loneliness and misanthropy and, on the occasion of his 50th year, the first light chill of the grim reaper's fingers. There's no plot, only concept, the crux of which is cataloguing the narrator's thoughts over the passing of a night (spent alone). This is only one of several possible interpretation strategies, but anyone familiar with the contours of insomnia will recognize the jumps of attention and logic that cause one to weigh life's great truths one moment and catalogue the contents of their closet -- down to the last sock -- in another.

Which are precisely the kind of leaps Meltzer makes throughout the book. He alternates bullshit like the closet routine or a top 10 list of jazz greats with flashes of intensely personal revelations. This is where we get to see him moon over former sex partners, write drunken confessions to his parents, ruin friendships, and examine the relationship between sex and writing. It's with the last one that the book reaches its apex. Dissecting the sex act and the writing act to find their potential for frustration and psychic damage, he decides that writing is more pregnable. Although you show your soft white underbelly with both, with writing, "The reader gets it all, in any case given it all -- no stumbling no secrets -- meaning fuller than meat on the block to be chopped, bigger doggie bags to be stuck holding." He continues: "Smashing into sex walls at 400 mph may smart, but afterwards there's masturbation. With writing there's no conceivable release in kind from the gravity of crack-up -- the notion is so farcical . . . the tension is never depleted . . . the time frame's too great . . . (imagine a jack-off that took two weeks)."

What makes the book doubly compelling is the style that couches the text. Espousing typographical and grammatical tricks like all caps, weird layouts, no punctuation, and run-ons, he re-creates the rhythm of actual speech, with all its hesitations and stumbles. Just as in real speech, he can be longwinded, circling the target for sentences on end before swooping in for the insight/kill. It's not a transcription of speech so much as an on-paper approximation -- the capital letters seem like someone wildly talking with his hands, the dangling sentences like unfinished thoughts. None of it goes for naturalism. Meltzer never lets you forget this is "writing." In one section, "2 Photos, 2000 words," he stops for a word count at every 250 words; in "An Entire Friendship," he brackets every other word to let two different voices tell their story, one parenthesized, the other not.

What emerges is a portrait of both how an especially sharp mind thinks and the sort of things that the sane mind might consider when faced with a transition, such as the one Meltzer has in turning 50. The subject matter is both profound and mundane, and the presentation -- full of swagger and vulnerability -- has the feel of one of those intimate, post-midnight conversations, but in monologue form. And it's captivating, down to the last precisely placed comma.

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