I love music, especially live music. I do more drinking than drugs, but I'm generally a firm supporter of recreational chemical alterations. I enjoy people in general. But everything about most music festivals sounds like fucking hell to me, and I've often had a hard time putting my finger on the why. Maybe it's the cost (I got free tickets to see the 'Mats at Boston Calling one year, which is the only way I could justify the $15 beers). Maybe it's all the waiting in line, and traffic (I hate queueing and being in transit). Maybe it's the portapotties (I hate other peoples' poop).
But I absolutely adored Good At Drugs, a new novel by KKUURRTT that regales the story of a particularly memorable and depressing electronic music festival. Here's the setup:
The last American music festival. Psychedelics, nose drugs, and house music. Except this time something feels different. Not sure what? End of the world? Drug-induced conspiracy? Nah.
An adventure in the mind of an adventurous mind. Tripping, rolling, and dissociating through the musical and/or pharmacological ropes course that is a three day music festival.
The back cover also includes this blurb, which I find perfectly accurate:
'Good At Drugs' is a porta potty of reckless living — a beautiful, never-ending, substance-abused nightmare of shitty music festivals, shitty rave, and shitty people. Think 'Fear and Loathing' at Coachella. It reads like drugs because KKUURRTT writes like drugs.
The book is narrated by a guy named Roland, who's in his early 30s and has a BA in media arts from Boston University and now makes a lousy living in San Diego writing tweets for brands. Roland is anxious and lonely and depressed. While he's certainly aware of the way that society sort of set him up to fail with overpriced student loans and patriarchal pressures, he doesn't blame anyone else for his problems either — he's a disappointment to himself, and that's hard enough. But these weekend-long music festivals are the one place he can go to feel alive, man. He binges on drugs (preferably a steady stream of alternating between coke and ketamine, though he'll take what he can get) and dances and feels connected to people. It's not so much about the music itself, he explains early on in the book; it's about what the music enables.
I've met plenty of Roland-types in my life. The Rolands of the world are not really my scene. But KKUURRTT approaches his protagonist with a profound sense of empathy that really resonated with me. I still have no desire to hang out with Roland, and the author certainly doesn't apologize for his man-child shittiness. But I get him. I get that feeling of anxiety, of being disappointed with yourself because you're disappointed with the fact that you were raised on a lie about America. I get the idea of cutting loose, of finding a conduit to connect with other people.
I personally prefer other conduits than doing Molly with a bunch of 20-year-olds at an EDM festival, but, ya know, I get it. Transitively.
And that's the real strength of Good At Drugs. The basic plot is simple — it's going to chronicle three days at a music festival, you can assume there's going to be some romance and missed connections and hilarious drug-induced adventures, et cetera — but KKUURRTT colors in the world with a combination of unrelenting compassion and sensitivity, and also a cast of unrelentingly shitty people. Everyone in this book sucks, and I never ever want to spend time with any of them, especially at this music festival. But every single one of them is also portrayed as deeply, deeply human. And that's what makes the journey even more tragic. It's pretty clear from early on in the story that this is not going to be a rom-com where Roland learns a lesson in the end and figures out how to change his life. At some point the music festival is going to end … and it breaks your heart the whole time knowing that it won't end well, and there won't be an epiphany. Because that's just not how real life works.
It would be easy to write a book like this that's just a satire of druggie techno music culture — and don't get me wrong, Good At Drugs is an onslaught of laugh-out-loud moments. But the author clearly has a deep affection for that culture, too. As much as I personally hate being approached by some smelly guy tripping his balls off who just feels the music, man, it can be easy to forget that that guy — shitty as he is! — is still a person, and still his problems and hardships, some of which probably drove him to become That Guy at the music festival. That can be all true, and That Guy can still totally suck.
KKUURRTT balances this dichotomy and tension almost as beautifully as he constructs his scintillating prose. The words are witty and self-referential, with a distinct love for rhythms and sounds. The language in the book is poetic in the way that music is.
Hell, he even writes each of Roland distinct drug trips in a way that uniquely captures the intimate details of each individual drug experience. It's not just "This is your brain on drugs." The prose illustrates Roland's brain and behavior on marijuana, ketamine, cocaine, LSD, MDMA in a way that makes them each stand out from the other. On a practical level, this makes sense; these are all different drugs, that do different things to your brain chemistry. But I've read plenty of drugged-up fiction (and have occasionally indulged in some recreational substances of my own!), and Good At Drugs was the rare book that really captured those distinctions in prose.
My only real critique about the book is that it's very straight-white dude-centric. This makes sense in the context of the story, and given the characters you encounter. The narrator is not oblivious to this, either; there's a great moment when Roland's trying to figure out a way to have sex with a girl he meets at the festival and he reflects on the way he's been socialized as a white man to expect certain things and act a certain way. He's ashamed and embarrassed at giving in to his own worst instincts, because he knows it's a symptom of white privilege. He understands the dynamic powers of his own shitty behavior; but he still tries to take advantage of it, even though he knows he shouldn't. Spoiler: it backfires, as it should. But, if you don't want to read a book that's mostly centered on shitty white dudes, I can understand. Otherwise, Good At Drugs is a breeze and a blast to read.
Good At Drugs [KKUURRTT / Back Patio Press]
Full disclosure: KKUURRTT and I were randomly assigned to live in the same suite in the Emerson College dorms back in 2005. I think I saw him one time since we graduated at a Comic-Con party. Coincidentally, another one of the guys who lived in that suite with us married another Emerson grad named Margot Wood, who also just published a new novel titled FRESH, which takes place … in the dorms at Emerson College.