One summer when I was in my teens, I worked on a framing carpentry crew composed mostly of recovering heroin addicts. They called me Kid and endeavored to teach me about life. They handed down nuggets to me like, “The best time to get yourself a crack whore is right after she gets out of prison. The prison food puts more meat on her bones.” They told me a lot about their junkie days, simultaneously warning me away from heroin and romanticizing it. When I told them I planned to go to college one day, they looked at me like I was being ridiculous. They’d tell me, “Face it: you’re a carpenter.”
Though I’ve taken none of their advice over the years, I did learn a lot from those guys. The way their smiles hid the pain of lousy wages, hard work, no respect and a culture that called them trash showed me what resilience is. Something in their gallows humor showed me how to survive and get through tough times. For years—decades really—I’ve been looking for a novel that captures what it feels like to be born into an American working class, to grow up smart in an anti-intellectual culture, to feel like trash, to start to throw it all away but also captures all the schadenfreude, the good times, the love and friendships, and the fun of illegal drugs before they become a problem. I found it in Kevin Maloney’s Cult of Loretta.
Cult of Loretta tells the story of Nelson, a lost, white, working-class kid who plays punk rock with his friends, huffs cleaning supplies, says yes to drugs, reads enough philosophy to make him dangerously confused and falls in love with Loretta. Loretta is the beauty of his small town clique. She starts an affair with one member of his band and works her way through all of them, plus all his friends, plus a sociology professor, a few drug dealers, a psychologist in her psych ward and so on. Through it all, Nelson loves her. Sometimes, Loretta loves him back, or at least acts like she does. She comes back to him every time she needs him to get her out of a jam and one time when he needs her to get him out of a jam. Together, they descend into a drug habit that accelerates the slow motion suicide that is their lives.
On the surface, a plot like this shouldn’t work. I’ve seen it fail a few times. More than a few times I’ve heard this plot explained to me as the novel the drunk on the barstool next to me is going to write. I’ve never seen it done well. Maloney, however, finds a way to make it work.
The first thing that makes it work is Loretta. She’s a fully fleshed-out character. Her actions are rooted in a real history. She reacts the way anyone from her background would be expected to act. She’s honest in her dishonesty, even to the point of crying on Nelson’s shoulder when her boyfriend breaks up with her. (Nelson responds, “I thought I was your boyfriend” and Loretta says, “You know what I mean.”) Maloney doesn’t make you fall in love with her, but he makes her real enough to help you understand why Nelson falls in love with her. There’s nothing two-dimensional or misogynistic in Maloney’s crafting of Loretta. She’s not femme fatale. Nelson’s problems are his own, and Loretta, while not a good person, is someone who has her own demons she’s busy exorcising.
Also, Nelson as a narrator blames himself, not Loretta. The story, we learn, is told by a 37-year-old Nelson who is looking back on the mid-to-late ’90s. This older perspective affords Nelson the ability to paint scenes dripping with self-deprecation and sarcasm but also love for that younger man he was and who still lives inside him.
Most importantly, what makes this novel work is the drug Nelson and Loretta get hooked on. It’s called screw. Thankfully, it doesn’t exist in real life. It has some precedent in crystal meth, but goes way further than meth. Screw is hell, totally destructive, totally bleak. Nothing is romanticized. It consumes Nelson. It nearly destroys both him and Loretta. Yet, somehow, the Nelson who narrates the story makes it as funny as it is harrowing.
He reminds me of those framers who told me stories about their junkie days when I was a teenage carpenter. Like those old stories I used to hear at break time, Cult of Loretta finds something deep and meaningful beneath all the self-deprecating humor and abject drug use.