Mustachioed truckers attack a camp of crust-punk kids living in the woods and shoot them. They burn the woods. “The truckers fuck girls in the ass. They fuck girls in the nose. They fuck a boy in his detached arm socket.”
This Boschian nightmare is a description of a painting within Jeff Jackson’s novel “Mira Corpora” (Two Dollar Radio). It was painted by a girl named Lydia. And though the horrors of the painting, called ‘The Ballad of Liberia,’ are especially grim, they aren’t at all out of place in this small but brilliant work.
The scene, which comes about 60 pages into this short novel, may read like something out of Cormac McCarthy, but the rest of “Mira Corpora,” which follows the protagonist Jeff Jackson (the author’s note says the novel is autobiographical) through a series of novella-like portraits of despair, actually feels like the short book Don DeLillo should have written after 1997’s “Underworld.” It has all the hallmarks of DeLillo’s best work, bringing together the brilliant graffiti sections of “Underworld” with the Kurt-Cobain prefiguring of the underrated “Great Jones Street,” where an epochal musician takes a drug that renders him speechless.
In “Mira Corpora,” Jeff discovers the musician Kin Mersey, when, at the age of 14, he is homeless in an unnamed city. “There’s this tape. It arrives one morning in the mail, which is surprising because I don’t have an address.” The tape is addressed to “The Kid in the Alley behind the Chinese Place on 1st Avenue.” Of course the kid has no way to play it until he goes and finds Mister Pastor, an older dude with a lot of gadgets, and gets an old Walkman. “The first strums of the acoustic guitar and then the onslaught of rattling drums and ragged horns all at once. And that voice. Oh my God, that voice. I sit transfixed. By the time the majestic echoing chords of the last song fade, something inside me has permanently shifted.”
After a run-in with a gang who tries to steal the tape, in which Jeff bites off the leader’s nose, he begins to notice graffiti of a crown, which he feels must be connected with the music (it is the same crown that the The Crown music venue uses to stamp your hand at a show). Soon, when Jeff meets three other listless kids, he discovers they sent him the tape because they thought he might be able to help them find Kin Mersey, who, rumor has it, bit off his tongue in shock treatment. The kids try to steal instruments and start their own band. They find Kin in crazy circumstances. Then Jeff simply leaves.
Each of the book’s chapters—which detail entirely discrete periods in Jeff’s disconnected life—involves an escape of some sort, a looking for and coming to community and then a flight from it. In many ways, the disjointedness is the point.
The book begins with a strange and horrible tale where Jeff is used as bait—slathered with rotting food—to catch wild dogs. This part is written in weird little vignettes. It ends with ‘My First Fiction’ about a security guard and a punk kid. But, in between, the stories have a certain cohesion whose emotional core is Jeff’s horrendous drunk of a mother, who burns him with the clothes iron. Each of his other arrivals and departures mimic his first flight from her, out into the woods to discover Liberia, the kid camp where the painting of the truckers was hidden. When he leaves there, he goes to three girl oracles, who give him a blank fortune, which means death. Later he is kidnapped and drugged by a perverse, evil German, whom he again has to escape in a section recalling Dennis Cooper at his most abject.
One of the great things about this book is the way that each of these stories could be a novel in its own right. But Jackson leaves enough out in his rather minimal prose that the story becomes maximal. It shares sort of the feeling of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” without needing to jump around more than a few years in time.
The book itself feels like a dark oracle. When 9/11 happened, the first thing I thought of was DeLillo’s claim in “Mao II” that artists have been supplanted by terrorists, who now “shape and influence human consciousness” in the way novelists once did.
I dread the day that some grim thing happens in our world that makes me recall the visions of Jeff Jackson and think “this is our world.” But I don’t doubt that day will come, because it is not hard to imagine a grim and brutal world. Despite a decade of war, most Americans have lived insanely sheltered lives. But most of history is grim and, pace Hobbes, life is still nasty, brutish, and short. By stripping the present of certain accoutrements, Jackson takes us both to the past and the future. As a result, we see something timeless—the human condition.
All of the people my age having kids should read this book: It is the world in which your children will probably grow up. You may not be as bad a parent as Jeff’s mother, but someone will be. The center, Jackson’s oracular voice wails, cannot hold.
Still, his vision is not nihilistic. This book is both brutal and beautiful and it brings something approaching resolution, if not redemption.
Jeff Jackson reads with Lucy Corin, the author of “100 Apocalpypses and Other Apocalypses,” at Atomic Books on July 26.