Chuck, the protagonist in Bucky Sinister’s headtrip of a novel Black Hole, is one of those guys who feels out of place. He’s a drug addict, so the yuppies in the newly gentrified Mission District of San Francisco look at him uncomfortably on their way to yoga. But he’s also one of the few drug addicts who’s been blessed with “some kind of freakish endurance.” Consequently, now that he is in his forties and has all his teeth, the transients in the drug dens he visits mistake him for a yuppie: “The fresh ones give you a look that says you don’t belong here,” he tells us, “but the old hands make you feel like you don’t even exist.” Chuck’s a club-boy long past his sell-by date, getting by only on the barely-there friendships he maintains from the early nineties. It’s a feeling recognizable to a lot of us who are not yet old and no longer young.
As a tour through the underground club-drug scene, the novel recalls Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, especially in its breathless, adrenaline-fueled, and sometimes second-person prose. But Sinister’s Chuck is a different animal; he’s like what McInerney’s yuppie would be if he lost all his money, watched all his friends die of overdoses, and still thought it was cool to show up at parties: “the freak in the corner of the room where everyone’s half your age.” Like McInerney or Brett Easton Ellis, Sinister takes every opportunity to send up yuppie culture: Chuck works for a twenty-something techie who’s invented “MiniWhales,” which are literally miniature whales that sell for $100k to bored young millionaires. Additionally, all the cool old restaurants are peddling in grass-fed and gluten-free food (in a typically funny-stark image, an RV that used to dispense heroin is now a food truck that dispenses kimchi burgers).
Unlike McInerney and Ellis, however, Sinister is self-aware and never talks down to the reader. Chuck rolls his eyes at the new neighborhood, but also observes, “People complain about gentrification. [But] do you want the smoke-filled theatres that smell of chlorine and crack smoke…that you’re afraid to fall asleep in?” Sinister works in the grotesque. For example, one character is five feet tall with a barrel chest and looks like Mighty Mouse; another’s prosthetic ear falls off in the middle of sex; another clears 500 pounds and smells so bad that his cell mate hanged himself when he couldn’t get a transfer. But Sinister never revels in these details; you get the distinct feeling that this really is just the honest extension of Chuck’s druggy world.
The grotesque works because it’s told to us in terse, poet shorthand—entire characters distilled into a single simile. Sinister knows something of this world (he’s the author of a self-help book that details his own recovery), and this allows the writing to attain a refreshing clarity. Describing Chuck’s withdrawal, Sinister writes, “I scrub as hard as I can, trying to get the institutional stink off of me. The meds are like eating a hot pepper if your entire body was your mouth. Once they hit, I feel like Johnny Storm flaming on.”
For a while, Black Hole has a patchwork rhythm, and works almost more as a series of anecdotes than an actual novel. But the plot kicks in when Chuck stumbles upon a new drug, the titular “black hole” that completely displaces its user from reality and also “never runs out.” What we start to discover in the second act of the book is that it isn’t just the drug that never runs out, but the displacement. Chuck starts to have lucid dreams. He’s in 1990; no, he’s in his friend’s apartment; wait, now he’s having sex with an old girlfriend.
Sinister makes the most of the “unreliable” part of his unreliable narrator, and the book’s third act becomes a search for any kind of clue that would ground us. Time begins to turn back on itself, and Chuck observes that no one ever actually feels time passing so much as they use points of reference to keep it in check: “You feel the temperature of the day change. A movie feels short or long based on how well the events are written. The ice in your glass melts.” It’s a mindfuck, a trippy marriage of M.C. Escher and David Lynch, as we, and Chuck, attempt to grab back on to reality.
But what saves the story from some sort of Shyamalan-esque denouement is that there’s a real human character searching for a foothold in the quicksand. Chuck tells us he needs to get back to reality so he can at long last go straight, get clean, meet Fairuza Balk in rehab, and become one of those boring, straight-laced adults he’s avoided turning into for twenty years. In a novel this bleak, any note of warmth is like the sun coming out. In perhaps its warmest moment, Chuck’s old friend lends him sweats, socks, and a piece of advice: “It’s okay to be in our forties. We just have to act like it.”