Noah Cicero is the best goddamn thing to happen to American literature since speed. And now you can see it all - or most of it - in two slim volumes from Lazy Fascist Press.
I came to know Cicero, like I came to know most of my favorites, in the book reviews John Dolan wrote for the now defunct eXile newspaper in Moscow. It's appropriate because Cicero's work brings to mind what Dolan said of another great author - "it's so true and so long overdue that you inhale it, reread it a half dozen times... so hungry are you for a little truth." Cicero chronicles life as it is lived for millions of Americans in nowhere towns with nothing lives, a demographic rising faster and faster as income inequality becomes more culturally normal.
For instance, there's the opener to Volume 1 titled "I Clean in Silence." A few pages inside the head of some white trash girl just smart enough to understand her desperate state. She's got no prospects beyond her body - which, like many Americans', is fatter than the emaciated ideal - and she knows she doesn't know enough to hold on to her college-bound boyfriend with her mind. So, despite being a neurotic neat freak, she let's him fuck her in the ass.
The alpha version of this desperate girl shows up later in "The Condemned." Kathy, a pregnant stripper full of piss and vinegar, makes a big show of being the one in control of her own life while being perpetually strapped for cash and making all the same horrible mistakes with her children as her own mother did with her. Though a terrible person in every conceivable way, Cicero nonetheless makes her sympathetic in her very familiar struggle to assert some kind of autonomy within the disinterested, post-industrial capitalism of rust-belt Ohio.
Cicero is very much focused on sex, though not to titillate but illuminate. There's nothing you can do but cringe as Kathy remembers getting french-kissed by her own mother as a child. It's a violation in every conceivable way. An Oprah book club would insist on this driving Kathy towards some sort of redemption but Cicero does not write for the Oprah's of the world - thank Christ - but for the miserable nobodies who populate places like Youngstown. There's nothing redemptive in Kathy's suffering, though it manages that rare balancing act of sympathy without sentiment seen previously in the works of Celine and DH Lawrence.
A lesser author - like, say, Palahniuk - would use these shocking scenes simply for the gross-out factor. Cicero has bigger fish to fry, wallowing in the grotesque not for shock value so much as shocking the reader into seeing the pain of normal American existence.
Volume 2 functions almost as a single novel, being dominated by the novella The Insurgent and followed by shorter pieces revolving around the same miserable narrator. Cicero chooses a Russian-American for this extended examination of failure and depression, seeing as Russians are such gloomy fucks in general, and uses his flat life to illustrate the flatness that is life in that vast swath of America outside the hyperachieving coastal enclaves. The same America explored in the books of Charles Portis and even in Cicero's own earlier novella The Human War (handily included in Volume 1).
The Insurgent really covers a lot of the same ground as The Human War but, like a good punk band, this repetition still works. The Human War covers a single night on the eve of the Iraq War and stirs in musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything; The Insurgent covers a good few months of a single loser's life, starting in Youngstown and ending out West. How Vassily and his neurotic friend Chang get there isn't some grand epic tale and that's the whole point. Even when stumbling upon a huge stash of oxy, these two don't so much live up the glamorous life of drug dealers as try to sell it off wholesale as fats as they can to finance their escape from Middle America. In the last pages, now far away from the familiar miseries of Youngstown, Vassily starts to find something like peace though one can't escape the concern that it will be fleeting. He's disconnected from all the people who stirred up his misery and resentment but just wait for him to meet some new people. They're Hell, to paraphrase Sartre and possibly Cicero.
Indeed, it's appropriate to compare Noah to those early to mid-century maniacs because he's absorbed their lessons so much better than fools like DeLilo who just write for the seminars. He's captured perfectly that feeling of the thwarted nobody and delivers it in a clipped, flat style that reflects the inner lives - or lack thereof - of his own characters. However this is always focused, purposeful - making Cicero a little like Beckett, but not up his own ass. He cuts straight to the awful horror of the everyday without ever getting lost in his own style.
So go buy his books. Now.