Vigilante justice: the new counterculture. Until it gets, like, totally commercial. That’s the premise of DeLeon DeMicoli’s novel, Lick Me, a spunky murder mystery saddled down with dull culture critique.
Seth Barton is an underground rave promoter whose only ambition in life is to make enough money to turn his business legit. Lewis Tucker is his dickish best friend and partner-in-crime – at least until Barton meets Norah Parrish, an aspiring cosmetologist who has an annoying habit of dumping dead bodies at her new boyfriend’s parties. A rape victim who found the criminal justice system unsatisfactory, Parrish has developed a more direct way of dealing with predators, as well as a convenient method for testing out her sweat-proof makeup line. After catching her in the act, Barton decides to give up raves for the more satisfying high of righteous revenge.
As often happens with novels trafficking in pop culture, one problem with Lick Me is that the world DeMicoli describes no longer exists. Ecstasy, glow sticks, purple hair – it’s a counterculture, sure, but not the one of 2007. If not for dissonant references to iPods and Flight of the Conchords, Lick Me could (and probably should) take place a decade earlier. There’s even a ‘wigga’—a white guy who imitates black gangsters, in case your memory is fuzzy (see the 1998 song “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy),” by the Offspring).
But beyond this sense of anachronism, Lick Me lacks the accuracy necessary to good satire, cobbling together vague generalizations about suburban teen life with details that never ring quite true. The few targets he does hit have been rammed so many times, there’s little satisfaction in the win. America’s Most Wanted is exploitative? Cable news lacks substance? You don’t say!
“No matter what kinda alternative lifestyle I live, what culture I follow, eventually it’ll become mainstream. Goth used to be cool. Now it has its own store in the mall. Punk rock used to mean something. Now it’s a hairdo, a piercing in a weird spot. Hip-hop once changed my life. Now it’s a brand name for clothes, cell phones, and tennis shows.” Under this system, music genres are just interchangeable entry points into the in-crowd. It’s art as self-help. Barton complains that “nobody can enjoy art anymore,” but it doesn’t seem like he ever did. If this is the definition of a subculture, then a novel like Lick Me is partly to blame for ruining them, by transforming meaningful movements into content-free codes for cool.
It’s a shame, because when you get past the half-baked culture critique there’s some shameless, pulpy good fun to be had. DeMicoli’s shallow, goofy characters play off the bloody plot with a satisfying friction. After killing a rapist she has lured out of his car, Parrish “pulls out a compact and cracks it open to look at herself in the mirror. She pays close attention to her eyes, her cheeks, pushing them up with her fingers. She says, ‘My God, this is awesome. Look at this!'” Barton asks what she’s doing, only to be told, “‘What do ya think I’m doin? I’m testing my products out.’”
Barton complains that club kids are only identifiable by their looks, but DeMicoli’s aptitude for describing clothing and hair is one of the book’s strengths. And when he juxtaposes banal dialogue against the casual violence, Lick Me is laugh-out-loud funny. Tucker is a pitch-perfect asshole, down to the bleach-blond dreads. Harley Davison (the aforementioned “wigga”) has a droll, almost Zen style that’s far more appealing than the tired jokes pinned on him about grills and rap careers. Having abducted and tortured Barton, his main concern is alimentary: “I can’t wait to get waffles after this.”
But it’s Parrish, a do-gooder equally invested in makeup and murder, who is the novel’s most inspired creation, and her worldview serves as good advice for any writer: less talking, more ass-kicking.