Cult of Loretta by Kevin Maloney (Reviews)
Cult of Loretta is a rapid-fire series of fragments surrounding Nelson, the protagonist, and Loretta, the girl with the scalded breast who everyone is in love with. One of the first things apparent to me as I started reading it was Maloney’s adeptness with telling a story in a non-chronological order. Lots of writers jump around sporadically, filling in anecdotes and vignettes in no particular order, but Kevin Maloney is way past that shit. The story starts with Nelson on the ground hoping that his good friend Hoyt, who has just learned Nelson is banging Loretta, doesn’t shoot him in the face. If the gun were loaded it would have been a really short book though.
That first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book, with the constant threat of death looming over everyone, with questions of what comes after and what life (and possible rebirth) really mean, and a healthy number of references to Nietzsche.
Loretta is the happy-go-lucky pregnant drug addict who slips from one of the boys to the next in such a quick succession that they’re, in at least one case, actually tripping over each other for their turn. i.e.
When he knocked on the front door, Grams opened it and said, “Loretta? Take a number.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The other boy’s in there,” she said.
“Oh God,” she said, “How many of you are there?”
The story follows Loretta, her relationship with Nelson, and the true cult following she develops out of these late teenage drug addicts. Even the muscle-bound Pop Warner football player that tried to hospitalize Nelson when they were kids slept with her, and—brilliant work by Kevin Maloney here—sheds light on Loretta’s life that forces even the most icy-veined reader to appreciate Loretta and the gravity of her life situation.
Amid candid depictions of drugged out life in Oregon and Montana, there is a lot of dark and at times pitch black humor.
The teacher told me that I couldn’t be here. She said that visitors had to go to the principal’s office and sign in and get a badge. She said this like I’d already molested two of her students and was catching my breath while I worked up the courage to molest a third.
I still can’t read that without laughing to myself. And it’s representative of one of my favorite things about this book. Kevin Maloney highlights the truly laugh-worthy moments in the shittiest interactions, even adding a sharp one-liner to a suicide that had me cracking up. This is a funny book, no doubt, but more than that, it pokes fun at the things all nineteen year olds take seriously and the serious, life destroying decisions that kids make.
There are many ways to die
The book is ostensibly about this girl, Loretta, who is as addictive as screw, the fictitious (I hope) drug that has Nelson stealing high dollar medical equipment and selling it for cash. And the narrative is loosely structured around Loretta’s whimsical dating habits and Nelson’s at times cringe worthy willingness to follower her into hell (or at least a Montana goat farm where her new apocalypse-ready boyfriend resides). But the book is about much more than that.
Many characters in the book have brushes with death. Interesting brushes. Life changing brushes. Billy exposes the scars on his arms from where he tried to kill himself when Loretta left.
Tyson snorts Comet, is hospitalized, and eventually returns renewed, as Blackbird, who is one quarter Cherokee and quite proud of it.
The very first thing in the book is Nelson being shot in the face with an unloaded gun.
High on screw, Nelson discovers Loretta is dead and tries to use a stolen defibrillator to resuscitate her.
Discovering Loretta dead pushes Nelson to do the unthinkable, he prays to a Virgin Mary statue, promises to change and give polo shirts to the homeless, and returns home to discover that either Nietzsche was wrong and God is alive and well, or he had been hallucinating when he tried to resuscitate her.
What really matters
When you peel back the screw overdoses, the stolen medical equipment, the sex, the rave, the Montana Y2K hysteria, and vindictive teenage garage bands, the story is about finding meaning in life and chasing cheap happiness because no one has really experienced the real thing.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Kevin Maloney sought to write a book about drugs that send the user back into the womb, with side effects that range from ripping out your own teeth to trying to cut your own dick off with a razorblade. But the book ends with Nelson realizing that there is more to fulfillment in life than possessing the love of a drug addicted stripper who has slept with all of his friends.
As it all comes to a close Nelson finds himself consoling Blackbird, the last of them to date Loretta, realizing that Blackbird feels about Loretta the way Nelson, many years back, had felt about her. It puts the whole story in perspective, as thirty seven year old Nelson consoles his friend about a girl he had once done everything in his power to possess.
“The whole time we dated,” he said, “she had that braid, only yesterday she didn’t.”
“You don’t want her,” I said.
He thought about this and told me, “It’s not that simple,” which is how men say, “Look at my broken heart. Look at my broken heart, brother, and tell me I don’t want her.”
It’s a riveting book.