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Locust House by Adam Gnade

Locust House by Adam Gnade

Three One G/Pioneers Press, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-939899-24-8
Paperback, 53 pp., $13.99
Review by Andrew T. Powers

Adam Gnade calls his new book, Locust House, a novella, and it falls within the page range of that designation, but I think of it as more of a hybrid literary form, as a partly fictionalized, meditative memoir. Were prose of this sort written a hundred years ago, it would likely have found good company beside the modernist novels of John Dos Passos and Virginia Woolf. Told through myriad perspectives from the vantage of current-day 2016 about events that happened one day in March 2002 at the Locust House in the Golden Hill neighborhood of San Diego, its composition often resembles the disordered flow of consciousness that might follow a serious bout of drinking, as one awakens and tries to piece together a narrative of the previous night, struggling to distinguish between memories of real and dreamed events while fighting a killer hangover.

Chapter 1 tells the story of Agnes McCanty, a young woman in crisis whom we meet as she stands at the grave of Michael the Bear, her father’s uncle, the man who basically raised Agnes after her mom died and her dad was sent to prison. He called her Hummingbird, and she remembers him as a man of many sayings, such as “Enjoy life violently but never be violent,” some of which cling to her consciousness as we hear her story. We learn about Agnes’ life in Golden Hill, about her terrible boyfriend Steven (we overhear him suggest to a coworker that a bunch of them should gang rape her), about how she was in a punk band called Pale of Shit, how she got a tattoo above her left breast of a one-winged locust, and how she eventually made her way to Kansas. All of these events are witnessed through a montage of scenes presented in a blur of flashbacks.

Chapter 2 begins as a disorienting fly-on-the-wall narrative whose unnamed narrator functions as a sort of spectral guide, giving us a tour around Golden Hill and eventually introducing us to the remaining cast of characters—James, Frances, and Tyler—who are on their way to a house party on E. Street, where a number of bands are supposed to play later that night. The house itself is known by many names, including the E. Street House and the Avocado Club, but it’s also named after the band The Locust, whose members live in it, and so Frances calls it The Locust House. The house, and the events that happen on the night of March 29, 2002, serve as the nucleus around which every character’s personal narrative circles and collides.

Chapter 3 is a mosaic of perspectives, switching between James, Frankie, and Tyler, each of whom separately recount that last night at Locust House while reminiscing about what happened in the intervening years. While Frances talks about the fear and uncertainty brought on by the events of 9/11, and how it caused a radical shift in the political world-views of those around her, James talks about his discovery of music as an ecstatic experience:

I still remember the first time music really did it for me. It was at the Ché Café a couple years before the E Street party and the Locust came out of nowhere and imploded my world. Those short, abrupt, sinewy, 45-second songs wiped my brain clean, changed everything, scrambled my senses, showed me that music wasn’t necessarily what everyone had told me it was.

Music like this opened him up to the possibilities of a life lived outside the dictates of the status quo. Meanwhile, Tyler’s personality serves as a quirky, equilibrating antidote to the worries of Frances and James; his concerns are academic, as he is quietly pursuing a doctorate in chemistry. But for all their differences, each of them sees this final party as an important moment in their lives.

Gnade effectively presents the thoughts of his characters, not as they encounter the party, but as they remember it, and it becomes clear that his focus in this book is more on consciousness than event. Locust House is a series of narratives that dance around events that actually happened, remembered fourteen years after they occurred. While digesting the history and preparing to write this book, Gnade must have found the strongest lure to memories of that time through the trappings of fiction. Beneath the surface, it speaks of a weird liminal zone, a mental space where all the characters share a sweet but tenuous sense of togetherness. While this isn’t a polished work of fiction, I don’t think Gnade intended it to be; the narrative struggles to present an immediacy that can only be grasped through an intense immersion in the book. It truly is a book that wants to be read in a single sitting.

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