Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality
by Bill Peters
Black Balloon Publishing; 280 p.
They aren’t necessarily found in a prime spot in every writer’s toolbox, but fictional private languages can be evocatively effective when used well. Bill Peters’s novel Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality is one example of this, while others come from a more cinematic place: consider the odd syntax used by the protagonists of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, or the fictional characters held up as demi-gods in the film Bellflower. They’re critically important, both to understanding their characters’ worldview and for ushering outsiders — us, basically — into a very intimate world.
Peters’s novel follows a group of underachievers living in Rochester in 1999. Narrator Nate Gray is content to live with his mother and occasionally visit his trying-too-hard father, a man who has taken single life as an excuse to live out the hip twentysomething existence he evidently never had the first time around. Nate and his friends have an elaborate private language worked out, of which the first two words of the title are one example. (His friends — including Wicked College John and Necro — are dubbed in a similar fashion.) It’s both absurdly funny and oddly endearing; when Nate declares in one aside that “I am not Coco Ferguson: Sex-Having Specialist,” it’s both funny and painfully acute. Late in the novel, Nate explains the phrase “sausage academy” in epic detail, and it’s both a horrifically awkward shaggy-dog story and monumentally funny, a tale of teenage sexual awkwardness taken to a surreal extreme.
At its heart, Peters’s novel is a coming-of-age story; periodically, we’re given glimpses of an older Nate, both living in the moment of his younger self and giving some perspective on the goings-on here. (It’s similar in tone to Dan Josefson’s That’s Not a Feeling, with which it also shares an upstate setting and a glimpse of young characters on the fringes of society.) Nate is perhaps the most directionless of his friends, and for much of the novel, he attempts to puzzle out whether his friend Necro has genuinely become more ambitious or has fallen in with a creepy crowd of borderline racists with a fondness for guns and explosions.
Beneath it all, though, is a quietly pained evocation of a particular time and place. I’ve never been to Rochester, but I finished the novel with a good sense of its geography, its outskirts, and its music scene. And for all that Peters’s tale of disaffected young men is relatively timeless, he does tap into both the strange world of pre-Y2K anxieties and the moment just before the internet became ubiquitous, when the notion of a livelihood made from internet sales still seemed like a strange and exotic thing. At times, the novel’s plot might seem a touch baroque: an investigation into property records suggests a surreal take on Philip Marlowe. But Peters neatly summons up economic anxieties, genuine emotional frustrations, and the ways in which a familiar space might suddenly turn hostile. Bring this together with his memorable syntax and a deftly handled ending, and this novel earns the attention its memorable title first captured.