Forty pages into Biff Thuringer’s Wasted: A Story of Love Gone Toxic, a reader could be pardoned for suspecting that this dense and provocative novel is going to be all atmosphere and milieu. Wasted begins with a closeup of downtown Manhattan immediately after 9/11, surprisingly lyrical in a frank and caustic New York way. Through the eyes (and ears and nostrils) of Nate Randall, a washed-up near-miss rock star who was already bereft and rudderless before the planes hit, Thuringer’s ground-level evocations of the days after the attack are chilling, sensuous and surreal. Those first 40 or so pages buzz with immediacy, authority and the involuntarily vivid, make-it-stop recall of someone who has actually been to Mars.
But Wasted turns out to be anything but – or rather, everything but – a dwelling literary exercise in evocation and seedy rocker nostalgia, or a meditation on an illusion-rupturing moment in American history. That’s fine. We have quite enough of those, I’d say, and Wasted is something less predictable and ultimately more ambitious. The events of September 11 literally unearth the novel’s plot, set the hero on his path and then recede from the narrative as a variety of evil far older and more entrenched takes over.
As its title proclaims and implies, this is a love story as well as an environmental and political thriller and exposé. Ironically, it is the love story that asks the most willingness and imaginative extension of the reader. Wasted’s brilliant and obsessively detailed untangling of corruption, malfeasance and complicity will hardly tax the credulity of anyone who is paying attention to the real world…to which Wasted often bears a conspicuous resemblance.
After its brutal, dreamlike and virtuosic Manhattan prelude, Wasted relocates to an anonymized and aliased mid-Hudson Valley, where Nate Randall lands after losing his girlfriend, home and health (but finding his nascent purpose) in the rubble of the Trade Center. In the community of Dutch Hollow, Randall discovers a heretofore-unsuspected talent for journalism and investigation and falls in with a tenderly portrayed cast of young, misfit beat reporters and editors. He gets his nose way too deep into a web of crime, contamination, cronyism and cover-up, implicating the mob, local and state government, and a composite evil corporation called USE: Universal Silicon Enterprises. Too much more than that would be spoiling this very rich and researched plot.
As a stylist, Thuringer is a pure, unapologetic maximalist. He piles on. His modifiers have modifiers. For all the opulence of the language, the vision is essentially cynical and decidedly noir. Wasted does not pass on a single opportunity to magnify the grime and raunch of places, the vanities and hypocrisies of people. It is relentless in its gnarly, hairy and raw descriptions and deconstructions. In some ways, this giddy relish makes Thuringer’s prose rather high-stress. But it is equally impressive in its verbal resourcefulness and its vast range of reference and expertise.
That range of expertise is in fact the most dazzling dimension of Wasted: the author’s acute and energetic command of the intricacies of petrochemicals and industrial processes, regional histories, government, the underworld, investigative journalism and much more. Nothing is taken lightly. Nothing is fudged or glossed.
Every novel attempts to render a world, and the challenge of worldmaking is formidable, no matter how close to or removed from the one we inhabit. Biff Thuringer has wrought this world tooth and nail. The effect is unsettling, justly paranoia-inducing and ultimately rousing. Wasted is a kind of delayed-onset bildungsroman and Hero’s Journey in which an emotionally stunted, self-serving, hedonistic loner on the steps of his 40s discovers his conscience, his calling, his political agency and the daring to love and care about the world.
Biff Thuringer is the unlikely nom de plume of Steve Hopkins, onetime keyboardist of the New York City funk/rock band Milo Z and a longtime local journalist and editor. The novel’s companion website will tell you more about all of that, as well as imply in cautiously worded ways that much of what goes down in Wasted – especially all the worst stuff – is not terribly fanciful at all. Get the book and learn more here.