When Pure Slaughter Value first came out, I had just started at Bantam Doubleday Dell, long before it was Random House, and before the world changed. This was an exciting book, it clearly touched on the pre-Blackberry generation, who seemed even more deprived and desperate to find meaning in their lives then the twentywhatevers walking the earth today. It was a book filled with realism (example? read this story, as our hero adjusts his penis while waiting in the security line at the airport), and I probably identify with it more now then I did 15 years ago. His novel, Lightning on the Sun arrived shortly after he died of a heroin overdose, and from there, it was all hands on deck as this guy was really the shit.
Remember this from Fight Club:
Narrator: When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just…
Marla Singer: – instead of just waiting for their turn to speak?
It wasn’t until recently that I stumbled on a piece by Gerald Howard, his editor…this was a tribute of sorts. I’m always interested in finding out how stars like Bingham were discovered. Which led me to a story he wrote in The New Yorker. Can you really compare a writer to other writers? Sure you can, Bingham must have sounded like Bret Easton Ellis, or early Jay Mac, really early, and with Target Audience he sounds more like a kid who had lost his way, someone with arrested development, in the worst way. Our hero stumbles around NYC as a lawyer and his greatest achievement, at least he thinks it’s great, is when he gets on the board of his apartment building when they needed a notary, and comes up with a shuttle to move twentywhatevers across town to the 1 and 9. That’s what he’s hanging his hat on, and the guilt from lying about his criminal youth on the bar exam and shooting Vivian in the leg…college…wasn’t it great?
But it’s so damn hard to write like this unless you’ve lived this privileged life, shown up at the parties, gone to the expensive boarding schools, and done the drugs. Bingham writes about failure, and the realization that no matter how good your salad days were, it’s nothing compared to the hard as diamond brass fucking tacks of your twenties in New York City.
The story leads us through LaGuardia Airport to our hero who has missed his flight, but in doing this, he’s spotted Vivian, and old college “narc” and a woman he desperately wants to screw. On the surface we’re run through some establishing remarks about Washington, lawyers, and the Corcoran Gallery, which all seems so adult. But we’re dragged through the infantile yearnings of our hero and his predatory desire of Vivian. One thing leads to another and this man child hero operating his sex drive in the margins of his life, and manages to get seated next to her on the shuttle to Washington. Bingham describes Vivian’s “bale of hair” as he swoops down, or should I say stumbles into her presence. Vivian was a “narc” in college and would frequently screw over students who stepped out of line, she reported to the administration, and for this, she is shot with a high powered BB gun. She’s left with a metal plate in her leg, and as we get closer to the amazing interchange between characters who have no business being together, we realize they can do nothing to stop this magnetic pull.
As child-grown-older syndromes go, our hero is a mild case. Vivian admits to worse sins as the story closes, but to read a writer launch into a detailed description of Vivian’s handbag, and her clothes, even the Edith Wharton book she secretly carries around, is just magical. I’m stunned at the realizations which are made on the behalf the main character…his maid complains his hair is clogging the drain, and his face is bloated with the weight of alcohol, and he seems to be standing on the edge of bankruptcy…enthusiastically. Talk about a generation that was pushed out into life without warning, I guess you could basically say anyone who graduated college in the last fifteen years is guilty.
It’s a sad story, Robert Bingham, but he left behind some terrific writing, and it’s no mystery why Gerald Howard liked this story in The New Yorker.