Sex. Drugs. Rock and roll. Those damn kids and their music. Beginning with chapter 0 and ending with chapter “Ace,” Bud Smith’s F-250 is a coming-of-age story of guitarist/mason Lee Casey. Smith creates a stunning world where dualities crash and burn. While the titular F-250 literally crashes into anyone unfortunate enough to be stopped in front of Casey, the concepts of dreams and nightmares, love and hate, music and silence, home and vagrancy, escape and return, as well as past and present merge in a way that is much more explosive for our aberrant cast of characters.
F250 is a love story dragged through the glass shards of broken hearts, dreams, and youth, and everyone gets cut. Casey leaves the West Coast after finding “there weren’t any answers in California that you couldn’t find in New Jersey.” He returns home at the urging of Seth, his childhood best friend and a fellow orphan who’s “pretty heavy into the wrong kinda shit.” It’s his friend’s need that drives Casey back to New Jersey and into the rooms of a rundown home that’s gradually being demolished. The two play in Ottermeat, a noise band, as well as Bedspins, a pretty boy band featuring the vocal talents of Ethan, a trust fund brat. Casey supports Seth’s desperate dream to get out and get to L.A. and runs interference as Seth begins sleeping with Ethan’s girl, but Casey’s devotion to his friend is not enough to save Seth from himself.
Though Smith establishes a strong bond between the characters, it isn’t until Seth overdoses that we see the true depth of Casey’s affection for his friend. A sad but true reality we are all guilty of. The rest of the novel charts Casey’s struggle as he attends his best friend’s funeral, deals with the loss, and eventually constructs Seth’s final resting place. Smith keeps the wound fresh by calling on the past, giving us a poignant memory in which Casey and Seth swim to the bottom of a pool to collect coins. Casey constantly dives deep into the water (for pennies, pebbles, and glasses) and into his heart, pulling up treasure from the dark. It’s during one of his underwater forays that Casey wonders “how many things were gonna remind [him] of [his] friend…and for how long.” By the end of the novel, the reader wonders if that gash will ever heal.
Seth is not the only cause of Casey’s broken heart. After a bad breakup, Casey is just looking for sex, and he finds it undiluted in the form of K Neon. K, a rich, party princess, who is also a sex machine. The two exile themselves for days, doing it in every room of the house. K even treats Casey to an underwater blowjob. Just when Casey thinks it can’t get any better, K reveals she has a serious girlfriend named June Doom. As they say in those too-good-to-be-true sales pitches: but wait, there’s more…K wants to dump neither Casey nor June; instead, she wants Casey to fuck June and initiate a complex three-way that invariably ends up being more trouble than it’s worth. The girls represent two opposite ends of the spectrum—the girl who can’t love and the girl who loves too much. Eventually, the threesome dissolves and Casey finds happiness in a different kind of relationship. However, this end goal comes at the cost of female autonomy. K and June undercut each other and revolve around Casey—June especially. Even though June is wildly uncomfortable with their arrangement, she doesn’t leave and even sleeps with Casey (despite K dictating they all only sleep together) in order to “feel better.” The girls only ever pleasure Casey, never the other way around. K and June don’t seem to have a relationship beyond him and seem to exist in the narrative only for drama’s sake. For all the novel’s strengths, I couldn’t help but groan at the cliché male fantasy every time Casey was with “his girls.”
Perhaps the greatest love story of the novel has nothing to do with men or women but Casey and Smith’s simultaneous affair with music. This novel is clearly intended for fans of the gritty, underappreciated music scene but is structured in a way that makes the world accessible to non-aficionados. Smith’s entire narrative is bookended by Casey’s choice to follow the music. Seth entices Casey to come home by promising him a spot in Ottermeat, and Casey eventually leaves New Jersey to pursue a career playing guitar on the West Coast. F250 is stuffed with drums, broken guitars, recording sessions, and poorly attended shows. However, it’s Smith’s language that really sings. He describes a character’s snores as “crescendo[ing],” inspiring the reader to think of everyday sounds as musical. Songs constantly play in the background, putting the story against a backdrop of “a machine gun of bass.” Smith’s staccato, simple sentences create a bass-like undertow that draw attention to the beautiful sentences that flow. Lines such as “apocalyptic fireworks were being loaded into cannons, prepared to explode all around us” and “’In life everybody needs an escape plan…American dream,’ Aldo said, ‘escape’,” the lines that break the rhythm, are reasons this book is really an addictive song I have stuck in my head.
Despite the beauty of the language, a noticeable flaw of the text can be found in the somewhat sloppy editing. While not a particularly strict grammarian myself, I picked up on several errors. Sentences are sometimes missing words. A standard quotation mark (“) randomly morphs into a left-pointing double angle quotation marks («). There are occasionally tense shifts. Finally, I got hung up on debating the point of a sentence where “Feral lid (slid?) open the door.” Still not sure what’s going on there.
As someone who doesn’t live and die by the behind-the-music scene, F250 was a bit of a slow start for me, but the language and images kept me invested until the real conflicts began. Smith’s ménage á trois kept me rolling my eyes, but it did help me gauge Casey’s growth. Overall, I enjoyed F250 and felt it turn my world a slightly askew in wonderful ways. I finished the novel, haunted by a feeling of uncertainty. How could a dream about reunited friendship coexist with the nightmare of indefinite separation? How could a man living in a demo-in-progress house end up finding a home? How does a man escape his world by returning to it? Smith successfully trumps these questions in F250, reminding us that there is no clear answer and that life is simply a beautiful and disgusting mess.
by Bud Smith
Piscataway House; 236 p.