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50 Rooms

Jason Allan Cole

"Paul had a feeling something very bad was about happen. Then it did."

Reviewed by Mark Brown

There is certain breed of writer, often male, who revels in the idea that they are bringing to light a reality that is too uncomfortable for straight bourgeois society to consider. They choose to write about outcasts and criminals, about unpleasant places and dead end lives. Like golden age anthropologists contributing ethnographic studies of the lost and the forsaken, they write as if describing the rituals of an exotic people hidden from civilisation until now. 

50 Rooms by Jason Allan Cole seeks to follow in the steps of writers such as Hubert Selby Jr, William Burroughs, Denis Johnson, punk influenced writers like Joel Rose and above all Charles Bukowski (more of whom later) by creating a series of low-life vignettes of unrivaled bleakness.

Set in a world of crack-addicted punks, alcoholic street drinkers and soul destroying bars, the stories in 50 Rooms create a world where all are compromised and every day is an unrelenting opportunity for nihilistic self destruction.

The Skid Row genre, concerning itself with the sad lives of the forgotten, the derelict, the violent and the forsaken has a grand tradition in American literature.

At its best, it has helped to uncover the humanity and tragedy of lives lived with little control or meaning and shown how the American Dream does not touch everyone equally. Through chronicling lives that transgress conventional morality, the Skid Row or Low Life genre walks a line between the titillating and appalling, allowing authors to present violence, sexual deviance and drug use in a manner that allows them to have their moral cake and eat it. If accused of glorifying violence or depravity, they can answer that they a merely showing the truth. If accused of being inauthentic they can claim that they are creating a moral fiction. If accused of voyeurism, they can claim to be holding up a mirror to society. At its worst, it can be the literary equivalent of "slugs and snails and puppy dog tails", with the author holding up yucky stuff with a look of achievement on their face.

In genre writing, it is the trappings and the conventions that are important, rather than psychology or vision that is important. In the stories in 50 Rooms, it is hard to get away from the feeling that Cole is working within a genre. His characters conform to types without ever transcending them. In fact, far from being radical, Cole succeeds in simply reinforcing stereotypes. In his stories, most black men are gang members or drug dealers, most Latinos thieves and sex offenders, women either whores or virgins, his protagonists slaves to their own deadened pleasures. He fails to create characters that feel like anything more than unpleasant cyphers. His narratives are the same. In an attempt to convey a moral blankness, his characters lack self awareness.

This proves problematic for the stories in 50 Rooms, as it is hard not to feel that it is Cole who does not care enough, rather than his characters. In God Only Knows a drug fuelled day ends in a motorcycle crash. The protagonist narrator ends up in hospital next to a fellow road accident victim:

We were left there for hours, not one attendant or nurse in sight. Wondering what was to become of us. I don't remember much of what we talked about, but it was one of the most important conversations I have ever had.

In attempting to reach a Bret Easton Ellis nihilism and moral blindness, Cole manages to ignore writing about what might allow his stories to overcome genre and say something about people and the way that live their lives. The most interesting story in the collection is the self reflexive No grounding in the Classics in which the protagonist is a short story writer, sick of being compared to Bukowski:

He was a great writer and all that, but being compared to him even for one story drove me out of my fucking mind. I wanted my work to stand on its own. Always had. So, what the fuck? Only one writer each century can write about fucking hangovers and bitches and backstabbers?'

He meets an apparition of the dead writer in a bar and, to use Cole's vocabulary, gets his ass kicked. It shows that Cole is not unaware of the deficiencies of his writing, but still manages to come across as a whinge about not being seen as a visionary rather than an exploration of the tyranny of influence.

For all of the stories in 50 Rooms, the reader is in the same situation as Paul, the barman narrator of Lance Turner, Hollywood Stuntman who ends up embroiled in murder and mayhem: "Paul had a feeling something very bad was about to happen. Then it did." Cole does not vary the structure of his stories; some characters are introduced then something horrible happens. 

Reading 50 Rooms it is difficult not to feel that Cole has confused a delight in exploring repulsive acts and people with a wider purpose. As it stands, 50 Rooms is less a shocking expose of the forgotten of America and more a regurgitating of all of the least pleasant stereotypes about people who are less than lucky.

As the narrator of No Grounding in the Classics says: "'It seemed more than obvious to me that the majority of the human race has nothing better to do than tear each other up and bring as many people down as they can before they finally eat shit and die.'

In his wish to shock and to show human nature as it really is, Cole comes across not as casting a light into America's murkier corners but as someone repeating glib and unpleasant generalisations from afar. While revelations about how dropouts and criminals lived may have rocked people in previous decades, the effect now is simply to plug straight into a tabloid discourse about America, rehashing images from newspapers and television. Far from being revelatory, the overall feeling is one of deadness and desensitisation. Distanced by the conventions of genre, Cole ignores the fact that far from being fresh and shocking as new wound, his choice of subject and hardboiled direction is far from innovative or cutting edge and is actually as effective in reinforcing stereotypes as it is in unsettling them.

From Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Mark Brown now lives in south-east London. His work has appeared in Punk Planet, Aesthetica, Brittle Star, Transmission, Pen Pusher, Skive and Irk amongst others. He is editor of One in Four magazine. He can be contacted at markbrown1977@googlemail.com.


Mark's other Short Reviews: Ali Smith "Other Stories & Other Stories"

Carys Davies "Some New Ambush"

Peter Wild (ed) "Perverted by Language: Fiction Inspired by The Fall"

Jim Hinks (ed) "Brace: A New Generation in Short Fiction"

Jay Mandal "A Different Kind of Love"


Publisher: Zumaya Publications

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Finalist, 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards (short story collection)

Author bio: Jason Allan Cole, born in 1969, is a veteran of the Los Angeles hardcore punk scene.  50 Rooms is his first book

Read an interview with Jason Allan Cole

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