By Blair Mastbaum; Running Press; 207 pages
Blair Mastbaum’s latest novel, Us Ones In Between, takes its name from the Spencer Krug/Sunset Rubdown song: “I’ve heard of pious men/And I’ve heard of dirty fiends/But you don’t often hear/Of us ones in between.” Kurt Smith is one of those living a life “in between” in Manhattan, as a recent art school graduate who came with a full painting scholarship at Cooper Union but hasn’t painted much recently.
He complains that he didn’t know “how to go out and network and make small talk with a bunch of lame people at a bunch of pretentious parties that I was supposed to attend if I was ever going to be a well-known artist in New York.”
What emerges from Kurt’s first-person narrative is a bleak set of circumstances and surroundings that shed more light on a certain kind of art world than on Kurt himself. Through Kurt’s eyes and recollections, we see glimpses into what it takes to succeed as an upcoming artist, especially a young queer-identified artist. Kurt went to school with the sort of young men and women destined to make their mark in an art and media world always eager to taste the Next New Thing, and his commentary on them is scathingly funny and seems accurate even as we recognize the bitterness from which it emerges.
One of his on-occasion friends is Sherlock, whose paintings of young men are now collected by the likes of Charles Saatchi. His art will soon have an entire book dedicated to it with the title: Teenage Wreck and Heart. As Kurt puts it sardonically, “The title is perfectly evocative of nothing, just like everything young artists are creating these days.” And then there’s Billy, his ex-boyfriend who plays guitar in a band called On the Wings of Love, that’s just become the hottest act in town.
Kurt keeps track of his old friends from a grungy studio apartment that’s slowly baking in the summer heat. Mastbaum effortlessly evokes this bleak world and its denizens, relaying its details with the simplest but most concise brushstrokes. At one point, Kurt walks by a “twenty-year-old boy on a razor scooter screaming, “Hark! Hark!” I roll my eyes. If there’s a new “it” phrase, this skinny fashion victim … would know it.” It’s a fly-by moment, but vividly descriptive of a world where everyone’s constantly trying to be right on the edge of the new.
All of this is a backdrop to the drama unfolding around Kurt. Among his unfinished projects is a novel about Elliot Collinsworth, who takes pleasure in pushing young men into the path of incoming subway trains and watching them scream in pain as their legs are sliced off. Suddenly, the news in the real world is full of a mysterious killer who does exactly what Kurt imagines Eilliot doing.
He writes about going around town and eyeing young men on the train, both as sexual objects and, ostensibly, as research subjects for his novel. What, he wonders, would it feel like to actually push someone off the platform? That question’s often interlaced with the question of what it might feel like to kiss or fuck the young man in question, turning his obsession into an interesting sexual fetish. Eventually, both Sherlock and Billy suspect Kurt of being the pusher and start to insist that he turn himself in.
As this tautly written novel progresses, it becomes less clear whether Kurt’s actually writing about wanting to push young men, or if he is in fact Elliot, and/or if the novel is a novel about himself. Mastbaum’s prose is spare but vivid, exposing both Kurt’s inner and outer worlds while maintaining a sense of suspense about the blurring between reality and unreality. The strange conclusion is a fitting end that may well be another beginning.