Danny Bland’s heroin fairy tale can’t escape the past
The 25th anniversary of Seattle’s most venerable rock ’n’ roll institution kicked off not with a band but a book reading. On a gorgeous Saturday in mid-July, Sub Pop Records annexed 10 blocks of Georgetown’s downtown strip, erected three outdoor stages and a pair of beer gardens, and invited the teeming masses to a full day of really loud music, free of charge. But before the debauchery began in earnest, a small, eager crowd crammed inside Fantagraphics Books to witness a first-time author read from his soon-to-be-published novel.
Sub Pop and Fantagraphics—the nation’s most respected indie record label and the nation’s most respected indie comics publisher—were already entrenched in Seattle’s cultural bedrock; Danny Bland, a notorious grunge-era scenester and budding writer, not so much. This intimate reading, fraught with Seattle-ish synergy and gravitas, signaled Bland’s debut, and his book, In Case We Die, would announce a new literary voice in the Great Northwest.
Bland—bejowled, unshaven, stringy-haired, very much looking the part of a human wreck rebuilt—slid a pair of granny-style glasses over his nose and stepped to the microphone. Anticipation hung in the bookstore’s warm air. In a soft, gruff drawl, Bland read a choice passage from Chapter 10. It described in lurid, romantic detail the first time the book’s main character shoots heroin with his teenaged girlfriend. It concluded with a money shot:
“Ready?” she asked sweetly.
She leaned over and kissed me.
“Ready,” I said, my heart pounding.
“Kiss me again,” she whispered, “in case we die.”
A pregnant pause, then Bland looked up from the book to the audience, which erupted in applause.
Only in Seattle.
In Case We Die is a litany of bad decisions, one rear-ending another in a smoldering, self-deprecating pile-up of drugs, booze, cigarettes, punk rock, failed rehab, petty crime, felony crime, prostitution, pornography, rough sex, violence and electroshock therapy until something resembling a narrative structure emerges. It’s an awful, page-turning read. Or, as Fantagraphics publisher Eric Reynolds writes in the book’s press materials, it’s “a quintessentially Seattle novel.”
Quintessentially Seattle because we like to romanticize the squalid past? Or quintessentially Seattle because we’ve heard this story a thousand times before? Either way, the suggestion is that the beating heart of the city is busted, dysfunctional and proud of it. The suggestion is that we crave stories from our heyday—decades past—because that heyday defines who we are today.
We cling to our most vibrant moment because we’re afraid of aiming for something better. We glorify underachievement, setting off a self-fulfilling prophecy, as depicted so ridiculously in this snippet from Chapter 3:
I stepped out the front door of her building onto the corner of Denny and Summit, the raindrops punching holes in my head. I lit a cigarette, yawned deeply and raised a middle finger to the sky, the way I started every waking morning.
Bland’s prose is torturous, his characters despicable, his imagery of 1980s urban decay boilerplate. Yet it’s all very hard to look away from. Like angsty kids yearning for rebellion, we’re drawn to the beautiful squalor and sexy recklessness that underlies the story. Intentionally or no, Bland’s Old Seattle associations—Sub Pop, Fantagraphics, all the rock bands he played in and worked with way back when—bestow to the book a veneer of revved-up, rock ’n’ roll cool. Such degenerate glamor, absent in more visceral stories of desperation and addiction, is sensationalism.
Let’s be clear: This is a quintessential Seattle novel—in 1989. Today, that version of Seattle is a ruin, a reverie, a travel brochure for grunge tourists. No matter how much we revisit it, it’s not coming back. In Case We Die describes a dark, difficult, inspiring time in shallow, self-satisfied terms. Bland’s recollection is accurate, according to acquaintances who were there at the time. But no matter how accurate the depiction, decades of overexposure have wrung the life out of what was once a vital, culture-shifting moment. All apologies to those who lived through it, but the Big Grunge Show is now just a rerun.
Bland name-checks requisite period icons—Cat Butt, Swallow, Mudhoney, Jonathan Poneman, Ernie Steele’s, the Nitelite, the Dog House, the Vogue. If you lived in Seattle back then—or long for it now—you might get a nostalgic kick out of seeing this stuff dropped on the page. Otherwise, they’re signifiers without substance. You may feel you’ve missed out on something, but based on the broken social scene Bland describes, you probably didn’t want to be there in the first place.
Bland’s Seattle evokes Dirty Harry’s San Francisco or Frank Serpico’s New York, albeit one without a heroic moral compass. His fictionalized stand-in, Charlie Hyatt, revels in bad decisions and seems to get off on us watching him while he does. Like Bland did in real life, Charlie works at the Champ Arcade, the old sex shop near Pike Place, in a downtown that’s swarmed with junkies, pimps, dealers, perverts and other colorful, faceless marginalia. He’s an alcoholic and an addict, failed at rehab, and a willing reprobate (though he’d never hit a woman). We tail him through 30-some chapters of misadventure, but Bland never brings us close enough to the character to feel his pain. Instead, he unloads page after page of ghastly melodrama, like he expects forgiveness from the reader but can’t break his posture enough to ask for it outright.
In one of a dozen jacket blurbs penned by grizzled, respected musicians from acclaimed ’80s and ’90s bands, Exene Cervenka describes In Case We Die as “beautiful, literary redemption.” Let’s think about that statement, because it’s as vague as it is powerful. Is she referring to the redemption of Charlie Hyatt? Spoiler: Charlie comes out the other end of his self-inflicted torment to find somewhat meaningful work at a rehab center and carries on as shell of a man, haunted by the lives he destroyed. This isn’t redemption; it’s survival.
Redemption presumes the acknowledgement of wrongdoing, but Bland’s recollection is guilt-free. Despite all the private moments he describes, none is delivered with a trace of vulnerability or responsibility. Taking on a heroin habit is pretty much an objectively stupid decision, even if Mudhoney provides the soundtrack. The book’s arch detachment from complicated moments and insistence on mythologizing history pull the depth right out of the story.
By most anecdotal accounts, Bland was as misguided and malicious as Charlie Hyatt and In Case We Die hews closely to his life story. In recent years, Bland was instrumental in exonerating the West Memphis Three, his activism an atonement. For some reason, he left that exploit out of the book. Too bad—therein lies the foundation of a well-rounded character.
There is no quintessentially Seattle story. And why would we want one? The passage of time has eroded Seattle’s cultural monolith into thousands of stories and legends and archetypes, all very much still evolving. Imagine Sub Pop’s anniversary without Shabazz Palaces, Father John Misty and King Tuff bending the label’s legacy toward the now. What a drag that would be! In Case We Die succeeds as a rock ’n’ roll fairy tale, but as an epitome of Seattle, it’s DOA.
It’s also a missed opportunity. Grunge-era Seattle is an evocative setting: The music, the fashion, the rain-soaked streets add up to an almost palpable, noir-ish aesthetic. Bland exploits that aesthetic to provide an instant backdrop. But good historical fiction uses a particular period as a lens, not a destination. In Case We Die wallows (basks?) in its throwback setting without saying anything about who we are today and how we got here. It fails to leave the past behind and drag itself, however disheveled and hung-over, into the present.
I’m happy to revisit an overexposed era if there’s a lesson to be learned or something new to be gained from taking the trip. But Bland is concerned with appearances, not insight. As a result, all we get is nostalgia. There’s already too much of that going on in the world in general and Seattle specifically.
Nostalgia is a copout, especially for a city still unsure of how it views itself and wants to be viewed by the rest of the world. Establishing an identity takes time. It takes the willingness to try and fail. And it must be done in the present. In 2013, this city no longer embodies the self-aggrandizing self-destruction of loser-loving “quintessential Seattle”—and thank god for that.
Around here, moving on from the past is hard. But the first step is obvious: No more cheering for bad habits.
Illustration by Mark Kaufman