Peter John McLean
Valencia by James Nulick (Reviews)
Chip Smith of Nine Banded Books gave me a prerelease review copy of Valencia, by James Nulick. I feel I should mention that when I get books by relatively unknown or indie authors, I intentionally lower my standards a little out of recognition that authors grow and develop through their first few releases.
With Valencia, there was absolutely no need for this.
By the time I had finished the first few pages of the book, I had already realized I was reading something incredible. Nulick’s writing is extremely confident. He punches you with short, visceral sentences. He never uses one unnecessary word. His stories are gripping, hilarious, tragic, and very insightful.
I think that authors can usually be boiled down into one of two categories: those who write sentences and those who write stories. James Nulick is definitely the former and it’s obvious in his writing. While the story he is weaving is a nebulous trip through his childhood, adult life, and his experiences before death, the individual anecdotes aren’t what makes the book strong. It is Nulick’s relentless poetry on every single page.
The gist of the story is a queer man contracts HIV and dies. He decides that, like many of his favorite authors, he would rather go to a famous hotel and die there, so someone else can clean up the mess. He goes to Hotel Valencia, because it shares the name of a boy he knew as a child. With him, his only possessions are a pile of photographs and a handful of books to read. The stories often draw upon these photographs, using them as visual launching points for many stories.
Nulick starts the book with the protagonist’s contraction of the fatal disease, followed by his rapid decline and death. It is a hard hitting opening chapter with the protagonist coping with the end of a long and meaningful relationship, and rebounding with a mutual friend. The story then proceeds to trail him through his final days, his final memories, developing a character you already know is dead.
I really liked this approach because it allows every aspect of the development of the story to hit on two separate levels: you learn about the boy, young man, and adult as he goes through humiliating and scary and sometimes very loving experiences, but you also know he’s dead. You know how it ends.
I feel like I connected with the passages more because of the added gravitas. It’s reminiscent of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun in that the book is often simply a stream of consciousness from his mind as he details his childhood, his relationships, how to handle writer’s block while on the fourteenth floor of an apartment in New York City, and coping with adoption, new siblings, and being queer. Add to that the correlation between Trumbo’s work being from an almost dead combatant and Nulick’s being sort of told from the grave.
But it’s more than that.
Maybe this is just me over-reading a passage, something I sometimes do, but as the character dies before the story begins, even though the following passages are told as if he’s in a hotel preparing to die, I continued to feel like there was an unspoken duality to this. That the protagonist is as alive as he is also not alive. Considering that the story begins with his death and then, seemingly at random, travels through his life in many different stages, focusing on relationships, school, developing as a writer, and being with family, it seems reasonable that these are memories that are a part of the character, whether he is alive or not.
The whole book reads with that sort of ethereal energy.
For three hundred pages Nulick’s book never really relaxes. The writing is strong. The characters are real. There are a lot of very realized characters, a transgender immigrant hiding in an apartment, watching two TVs at the same time; paper sisters and brothers and an emotionally distant father who runs a junkyard; a famous writer named William has a serious presence, offering occasional koans; and of course, the most developed and intriguing character of all, our trusty narrator who dies of HIV before ruminating on everything from smoking meth and setting houses on fire to accidentally setting pork chops on fire and, yeah, molotov cocktails even make an appearance.
One of Nulick’s most obvious talents is his ability to quickly develop a memorable character in a few lines. Nowhere was this more obvious than in his friend of a friend who refused to wear clothes and, when others insinuated he might want to get dressed, became oddly defensive. I’m of course butchering the actual scene in describing what happened and you’ll just have to buy the book and read it to truly appreciate the character PermaFry and what he eventually does.
I could say a lot more about this book and, after it’s released, I probably will. Valencia isn’t the kind of book you read once and set down; it’s a deep book, an intensely written book, and a hyper-focused book on what it means to be alive. It is clear that Nulick really bled onto the page for this, as he has written a book that is candid in the truest sense. It is at times naive, at other times pure wisdom.
I recommend everyone buy a copy for themselves and then two more for other people who love good books.