A downtown Baudelaire of the '90s: that's what New York poet Mark West used to be. Now, at thirty-one, locked in a perpetual adolescence, he's slipping. Even when he takes an artist-in-residence position at a small Oregon college, he finds himself still sleeping with strange women and seeking momentary oblivion in drugs. But when he returns to Manhattan with a new book idea and renewed energy, an emotional train wreck awaits him, and he discovers that he must take his first steps into his new life alone.
The second-rate doggerel that Mark West, the misogynistic poet who's this novel's protagonist, pens throughout Exile is perhaps the least offensive thing about this sophomoric effort from the author of Girl. A 31-year-old alum of New York City's poetry slam scene, Mark is little more than a front for Nelson's gross generalizations and stereotypes of everything from heroin abuse to the pop media's publicity machine. Even when Mark, the quintessential artiste of the streets, consents to a cushy artist residency at an Oregon university, only the scenery changes. Wherever the poet lands, he's able to find the only thing he enjoys more than his herointhe luxury of submissive and worshipful women. In fact, there wouldn't be text enough for a novel if it weren't for the myriad B-movie sex scenes interrupting the passages of inane dialogue. What discernible change there is in Mark's character doesn't arrive during the novel's intended crisis. It comes 20 pages earlier, when Mark is visited by an old friend who has risen from the underground to succeed as a magazine journalist, leading to Exile's single narrative epiphany: "Unlike Mark, who always went for the crushing emotional statement in his work, Alex's best stuff was always subtle and funny." It's true no one could rightly accuse Markor Nelson, for that matterof humor or subtlety.
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June 10, 1997
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