Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
Casperian Books, 2016
While “viciously skewering the politics of rebellion,” Lavinia Ludlow’s 2011 debut novel alt.punk offers some of the richest description to be found in the indie lit scene, and her pointed follow-up, Single Stroke Seven, opens with the possibility that much more than words are to be sliced and diced in Ludlow’s world. The California writer and musician has a penchant for fast starts to her fiction, and her protagonist Lilith being screamed at — “you cut off my balls” and “you fucking feminist” — at once drew this reader close to the text even as he assumed a more guarded position. I couldn’t stop turning pages.
Single Stroke Seven’s punchy prose seems fresher than ever. Her second book hits home with the San Francisco music scene, but it also delves further into socioeconomic awareness. Ludlow’s depiction of the escalating inequality and increasingly unaffordable Bay Area housing rings true to those who recognize that big-city living is increasingly a pipe dream for those unwilling to give up working less than sixty hours a week, saving money, living alone, or owning a car.
Ludlow’s musicians live on the margins, desperate for work or barely scraping by in jobs they hate which steal too many hours from eating, sleeping, and everything else. If they’re lucky enough to get laid off, their escape from the daily grind results in egregious COBRA payments and dependence on friends already immersed in hand-to-mouth living. Some of her characters come from money, and we get a sense of how America’s winner-take-all economy leaves no one spared. In fact, it may even be a disadvantage to grow up with “all the advantages” — if such a childhood leaves children with a false sense of security that any career, even one as transient as a musician’s, will work out in the end.
As successful as alt.punk was, Ludlow’s second book is more succinct and on-topic, and her penchant for vivid, gross-but-fun detail is even stronger in Single Stroke Seven. A lot of us writing in the gritty-realism genre have our eyes open to how most Americans are living, but we don’t have Ludlow’s ear for variety in dialogue. Ludlow’s rich froth includes slang, raw truth, pop culture, and other egressions. Characters say, “[M]y dick slants to the left more than a Michael Moore movie” and “The guilt levels that must have drowned you in that house … She had to be raised Catholic. You know what she needs? Some cancer.” It’s the kind of book where you can open to any page and find description like this:
After weeks of living off gas station sandwiches and Slim Jims, Landon’s great-aunt’s breakfast casserole—though runny and riddled with eggshells, bone chips, and gristle—burns off the emotional fog and lifts me from my mental miasma. I scarf through a third helping while Otis, Landon’s brother and Riot Venom’s vocalist, explains how his vision of music has changed over the last few years. His droopy posture, black hair, and foamy green eyes make him seem morose and nihilistic, but there’s humility in his voice and an innocent clumsiness in his mannerisms. He spoons berry Fun Dip onto his tongue with his index and middle finger, and every few words, slurps at the blue-dyed spit trickling from the corners of his mouth.
Ludlow has also improved upon her ability to render the comic scene, and some of the best parts of the book include the aforementioned opening where we learn a disputatious coworker has naïvely flashed his package too close to Lilith’s box cutter; Lilith’s dramatic attempt to steal bowling shoes several sizes too large (for a friend) and her subsequent dash across a highway; and her return to see her family only to find an estranged father she has barely thought twice about in years. This last scene is hilarious in its depiction of a naïve dad who seems to be almost nothing to his long lost daughter, particularly compared to Lilith’s dictatorial “Tiger Mom” psychiatrist mother. Dad is happy enough to see his daughter, but Lilith has much more than her father on her mind. All the same, Lilith is considerate as she quickly ditches Dad:
“You should have escaped years ago,” I say. Decades of being her prisoner have left their mark: his rubbery cheeks sag toward his chin, his scalp is void of everything but sheen and a few straggly gray hairs, and he’s crippled with his hunchback posture. “Does she starve you? I could sneak you food.”
“Don’t worry about me,” he says behind a mouthful of mystery meat. “I know what I’m doing. Especially when it comes to your mother.”
“Does she drug you?” I point to the keloid on the side of his head that Liona [Lilith’s sister] claims was the result of a brain-scrambling operation. “Is that a lobotomy scar?” He laughs but I’m fucking serious.
Although it’s appropriate for a review to include negative criticism, this reviewer finds none to offer. I don’t mean to suggest that Single Stroke Seven is better than every single drug, dessert, or Thomas Pynchon novel, but the book’s strengths make any weaknesses less notable. Lavinia Ludlow is a talented writer whose take on the seedier side of the music scene is one worth checking out. Grab a copy and go.