Christmas Eve word got out Lucille had been taken by the real world, of corporate jobs and big-big coin. Christmas Day the scene was on. As for that affair, the only thing I know for sure is some time close to three or four we laid into a mound of dope. But now the New Year was two days off, and what had been a mound of dope was just a dirty mirror... (p. 10, iPad iBooks e-edition)
D. Foy's debut novel, Made to Break, begins with a bang: a group of five friends get together during the Christmas-New Year's week of December 1995 to celebrate one of them, Lucille, getting a high-profile job after working as a painter. For them, it was only natural to get some blow and binge-snort during that week at the Lake Tahoe cabin of another one of the circle, Dinky. While this drug-fueled mournful celebration of Lucille's departure for the "real world" might seem to be the perfect set-up for an examination of a coming-of-age story for post-grad middle class young adults, what transpires in Made to Break is something harsher, more biting, and yet ultimately more meaningful than if it were simply a tale of bickering friends getting to recognize consciously the qualities that make those around them their friends.
Although the drug use sets up the type of relationships that these five friends, three men and two women, have, it is a specific event, a torrential rainfall that causes mudslides that isolate the group inside Dinky's cabin, that acts as a catalyst for both plot and character development. The narrator, AJ, is the most self-conscious of the lot and it is his recounting, some years later, of the events surrounding New Year's 1996 that tinges these days with a mixture of reflection and blithe obliviousness that makes Made to Break a compelling trainwreck to witness. After AJ and Dinky make a failed attempt to drive down the mountainside for supplies, with a crash that leaves Dinky seriously injured and unable to get prompt medical attention, the action shifts toward a mixture of the trapped friends recalling old grievances and malicious gossip from their younger days. The passage quoted below deals with AJ's tortured relationship with a former bandmate, Basil:
But later, in the clarity of my regret, I saw the canker in the bloom. Basil had "fired" me (that was the expression he used once he started talking smack) from what he obviously had considered "his" band. In a dull autumn noon veined with dull autumn smog, we sat over a mound of pad thai and confessed our interests had suffered a rift. He felt, or so he said, I could do better elsewhere. Get out on my own maybe, he'd been stifling my creativity and such, he said. But even the midst of these shams we both knew he was wonking through his bullshit tulips, making a farce of protecting my ego while disguising the rage of his own.
That he knew I knew he knew I knew all this made it the more obscene. His head had grown bigger even than Dinky's, which wasn't to say my own had shrunk. I'd risen from the glop of my tyro swamp, having begun my apprenticeship in music just five years back. Now a producer chose my song from a group of twenty-plus that Basil and I'd mostly co-written, claiming it the stuff of hits. But that didn't justify anyone calling me greedy, not like they could Basil. The cat couldn't share a stinking thing – not money, not women, not smokes, not booze, not cars, not drugs, not nada. Why the hell would he share the title Creative Genius – whatever that meant: more groupie sex? a solo name-drop in the Chronicle's Pink Section or BAM magazine? – even though he'd already taken all but the glamor-light itself with his singing and playing both? People by then were comparing him to stars like Paul Westerberg and Chris Cornell and Sting. Did that matter? Not a stewed red penny. A shadow's shadow threatened the kid. The shadow itself nigh on crushed him. And the thing that made the shadow, when it came too near, it might as well have been King Kong. We sat there stabbing at our shrimps, hoping the waiter would bring us the check so we could go get drunker than we were. (p. 42)
Foy's characters are very vicious, insecure child-adults. Yet in scenes such as the one quoted above, he has them cut deeply into what underlies the skeins of friendship: the mutual needs despite objectionable qualities in both parties, the desire to be superior in order to avoid being inferior by comparison; and the lies that we tell others and our own selves in order that we might be able to enjoy the company of others. Yes, this is shallow, self-absorbed, and stupid, but yet when I think back on some of my old friends, there are similar traits, albeit not quite to the level shown here. But yet there is more to it than the rehashing of old grievances and the rupture of old friendship fault lines and this is seen later in the novel, after Dinky, who had already assumed the role of the corpse at a wake, passes away:
Peaceful is not the word. Dinky's face was not peaceful. That, I thought, was the big untruth, this business of peace suffusing the dead. But though it looked nothing at all like peace, my friend's lifeless face, neither did it look sad, nor helpless, nor anguished, nor anything of the sort. Content, perhaps. Or perhaps nothing is more like it. More like it, yes, Dinky had a face of nothing, a face no longer burdened, with worry, with fear, with anything to speak of, desire, anger, rage – that was all.
I wiped my mouth. I wiped my eyes. My fingers shook, and my hand. But then I made that hand touch him, his face, his mouth, his eyes, everything he'd been, my damp hand on his dead face, which wasn't cold but cool. And that was all. It rested there, I let it, my hand on his brow, and then I began to sob, and everything left me, all my thoughts and all my words swallowed up by that good cry. You son of a bitch, you, you beautiful mother fucker, you, who couldn't stand another day. I pulled the sheet to his chin and made it straight. I shouldn't thank you, I thought, but I can't help it. Thank you, Dinky, thank you Stuyvesant Wainright, IV. And then I pulled the sheet over his face and smoothed it again, and then I said, Thank you, again, I said, thank you... Yes, I said, thanks, I said, you old bastard, thanks. (pp. 116-117)
Although this passage might be the most eloquent in Made to Break, it is not the only one. Perhaps, you might think, Foy tries a bit too hard, uses so many parallel clauses to tie complex emotions together. Perhaps. But in this case and generally for the novel, this mixture of direct and ostentatious internal dialogue underscores just the sort of character AJ is and, by extension, his four friends. They can be cruel to each other, display incredible callousness, yet ultimately there is something deep within them that binds them together. They are far from perfect souls, but in their imperfections placed on full display, we might recognize just a bit about ourselves and how we truly interact with our friends. Made to Break is raw, visceral, yet all this ultimately reveals a vulnerable aspect to these characters that makes this a sobering, powerful read.