When a book has a cover this arresting, features writing by a punk-author originally published on The Nervous Breakdown, and has an opening chapter entitled “I was a child porn model”, you might anticipate an abrasive experience filled with memory-scorching images of human carnage. I did, and I was wrong.
Rather than the bloody recollections of a punk raconteur, Haney offers writing soaked in optimism and humanity. The implicit horror of I was a Child Porn Model is tempered with dry humour:
The night of the presentation, I went as scheduled to Bobby’s cabin, accompanied by friends from the Indian Club, though I was the only one allowed inside. Bobby had the paint ready. He was also ready with his cam- era. I never returned to the Elks Lodge camp. Instead, for the next few years, I was sent to a Christian camp in North Carolina, where my body held no interest for people so bent on controlling my mind.
Frequently heartfelt and personal, Haney interweaves tiny details with weighty subjects deftly, through articles smartly ordered for just the right balance of thematic lilt and interest-holding lurch.
No Two Identical is so short you could miss it, but to do so would be to forego one of the most memorable images in the book.
There was a stagnant pool in the creek, created by dead branches, and snowflakes, as they struck the still water, instantly perished, like newborns slain on arrival.
The Duke (this nickname is explained; I won’t spoil it) writes in a way that is infectious and gimmick-free. Most people who describe going to a party with friends self-named The Assholes, where they behaved like assholes, will come across like an asshole. But Haney doesn’t. (Apart from this, and one sympathetic account of heavy, happy drinking at a book reading, there is little glorified debauchery). The content is dark, but the tone never is: phrases like “Dean and Clift were covered by grass” (referring to his long-dead heroes of James Dean and Montgomery Clift) keep the brutal beautiful.
Banned for Life, Haney’s ten-years-in-the-making novel about a musician/filmmaker hunting a vanished punk-frontman, comes up often. So regularly does it contextualise anecdotes and feelings, it’s like a character of its own. But you never feel like Haney is overdoing it; he just seems proud. This is offset by an equally rough, though much less rewarding time writing ‘Friday 13th Part VII’. And for someone who has endured life both as an actor and screenwriter, and been smashed up by a car, there’s very little cynicism. His enthusiasm for people, creativity and the whole world, is bottomless.
Still, [Banned for Life] was here. Yes, it had finally come: a decade, very nearly, that could be held and even kissed by friends, including those I have yet to make.
One of the stand-out articles is 3301 Waverly Drive. On the 40th anniversary of Charles Manson murders, Haney joined Mary Neeley, a friend equally fascinated with the iconic killings, in staking out what had once been the LaBianca family home on Waverly Drive. As an anecdote it’s uneventful: they drive there, park up, talk about the killings, see two people take a photo, take a photo of their own, then leave. But the writing is pitch-perfect, taking in the background, the atmosphere in the house on that night, the social reaction over the years, and the cultural importance and symbolism inherent within them.
And that leads to another quote from my friend George. We were talking about Greek mythology one night, and he said, “You know, I don’t think any of those stories are relevant anymore. I mean, killing your father and fucking your mother and plucking out your eyes—that’s a perfect myth for two thousand years ago. But a beautiful blonde movie star being murdered at her mansion in the Hollywood Hills—there’s a myth for our time.”Â
Little happens as they wait in the darkness of the car, and that is what makes it. They try to read significance into the couple that take the picture, but can’t, and the whole experience remains as compelling and impenetrable as the events themselves. Lots of Haney’s insights are borrowed from friends:
I was interested in the JFK case largely because of the enigma of Lee Harvey Oswald: did he do it or didn’t he? I was inclined to think he did—alone, in fact. Then I had an exchange with my friend Demetri, who said, “Well, if Oswald did it, you could say he started the sixties, just as Manson ended them.”Â
But that takes nothing away from their impact, and helps to stop such self-examining writing becoming self-indulgent.
In the final chapters Subversia becomes reflective, with an interview, a self-interview and a conversation with Greg Olear closing the book. Like a whispered bonus track at the end of an album, this final dialogue has a credits-rolling feel as they bounce witticisms to and fro about Simon Le Bon, Beatles vs Dylan and Subversia itself.
Olear: Do you prefer Wilma or Betty?
Haney: I always preferred Wilma, which puts me in the minority, I know. But I like her red hair with the bone in it. It’s that fiery, carnivorous thing.
Olear: I think I’m also a Wilma man. The bone is rather suggestive. But I don’t really dig on cavewomen.
Haney: Well, the hygiene couldn’t have been ideal. And I was once madly in love with this girl, and I said to her, “Wouldn’t it be great if we were savages?”Â and she said, “Yeah, and then I could die from an abscessed tooth.”Â She had a good point there, even though I knew then it probably would never work out.
Olear comments that passion is key to Haney’s writing, and this strikes a chord at exactly the right moment. He is passionate, about everything. It’s a joyful read on depressing subjects, and the consistency and precision of the writing makes it work. The subversion that comes through most strongly is his defiance of life’s efforts to crush and exhaust.
After the acknowledgments, there’s a mini bio at the end. While this seems at first superfluous (we just spent 2 hours with the guy), it’s exactly right. You’ve done all this stuff with him but you’ve still not shaken his hand and been properly introduced. This sign-off completes the sense of balance and ensures what could easily have ended up a mish-mash is a satisfying read.
There are few villains in Subversia. The people that populate Haney’s world, even the criminal and insane ones, are compelling and sympathetic—no-one more so than Haney himself. It will be interesting to see how A Perfect Example, Haney’s forthcoming novel, compares. I just hope for his sake he can crack it in less time than the last one.
Matt Cook is a short story writer living in Manchester.