Every Love is an Overdose: Cult of Loretta by Kevin Maloney
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Early in Cult of Loretta, Nelson, the narrator, remembers getting high on household solvents with his friends under the gingko trees in a high school courtyard during lunch. “It was Nash’s turn to bring the drugs and he brought Comet,” Nelson says. “We took turns passing around that green cardboard tube full of powder, nobody quite courageous enough to shake some out onto a history book.” Nelson’s friend Tyson finally volunteers. “Here goes nothing,” Tyson says. He snorts the Comet and then he drops.
Nelson remembers, “We stood over Tyson, more or less watching him die, and then the school nurse arrived and then an ambulance.” But this is just one of many instances of deranged rebirth in Cult of Loretta. In the final lines of the chapter, Nelson reports, “When [Tyson] came back to school a few weeks later he was wearing a t-shirt with a black-and-white photograph of Sitting Bull on it. He said his name was Blackbird now, and after that, we called him Blackbird.”
Cult of Loretta — the fantastic debut novel from Portland, Oregon writer Kevin Maloney — takes place on the squalid underbelly of northwest towns like Aloha, Oregon and Helena, Montana. This is territory where kids snort household solvents, moms inflict burn wounds onto their crying babies, and musicians do so much “screw” they stop believing in the existence of their guitars. Over the course of 140-pages — with segments/chapters/stories that tend to run one to three pages — Maloney’s characters chase after money, drugs, and inner peace. Most of all, they chase after Loretta. “I understood that we were all bastards,” Nelson says, “that any man with blood in his veins who had a chance to sleep with Loretta would take that chance and gladly be destroyed.”
Loretta is less manic pixie dream girl and more manic pixie nightmare. She has sex with other men while Nelson watches. She snorts screw even when she’s pregnant. Even her physical appearance — her chest is permanently scorched from the hot soup poured on her as a baby — is part lurid. But, she also has a cult of aching and hypnotized drug addicts who will stop at almost nothing to win her heart.
Nelson remembers when, at nineteen years old, she was dancing for him to “Out on the Weekend” by Neil Young. He says, “…all I wanted was for her to hurry up and get in bed with me so I could take off that shirt, but all I want now eighteen years later is for her to slow down, to take her sweet time, to never quite reach me. Because when she finally crawled up on the bed and took off her shirt and I kissed her scalded left breast and her half-scalded right one, it felt like the best thing that had ever happened to me, but it was nearly over… I didn’t feel anything until three years later when I hit the ground.”
It goes terribly for each guy who pairs up with Loretta. Nash tries to kill himself by jumping out a third story window, fails, and then succeeds on the second attempt with pills. Hoyt — a devout follower of Ghandi — is nearly driven to murder. Nelson gets so high on screw that he tries to cut off his dick with the wrong side of a razor blade. In “Treasure,” after Nelson and Blackbird dump Nash’s remains over the Burnside Bridge, Blackbird says, “I’m worried.” “About what?” Nelson asks. “Loretta,” he says. “She’s plucking us off one by one.”
Cult of Loretta is devastatingly gorgeous and horrifying. It’s very much in the spirit of Denis Johnson’s linked, drug-fueled classic Jesus’ Son. Like Johnson, Maloney often works with serene and vulgar imagery simultaneously. Take the opening from “The Goat Farm”:
“We drove from Portland to Helena in Bennie’s 1964 Ford pickup, taking turns pissing into a Gatorade bottle, Loretta using a funnel rigged for the purpose. The green trees of Oregon gave way to yellow grass, high desert, and a sky like somebody cut off our eyelids.”
Maloney’s work also resembles Scott McClanahan’s, another fantastic Lazy Fascist Press author. Like McClanahan, Maloney writes lush, gritty, and compact vignettes that crescendo through bizarrely particular and hectic circumstances. Much like McClanahan, Maloney’s plot-points gracefully fade and reappear over the course of the book, and often his stories are broken into parts (“What Happened to Nash, Part I,” “Part II,” Part III,” etc.).
In a climactic Cult of Loretta chapter called “Tiny Toon Adventures,” Loretta overdoses again and falls and hits her head on a piece of stolen medical equipment. Her heart stops. Nelson snorts a line of screw so he can think more clearly and then tries to bring her back to life with a stolen defibrillator. It doesn’t work. He goes out to his car and prays to his Virgin Mary statue.
“I begged her and fell on the ground and sobbed and said that if she saved Loretta, I’d never do screw again and I’d become a tugboat captain and dedicate my life to helping homeless people, giving them polo shirts and tennis rackets, whatever they needed to not suffer so much.” When Nelson goes back in the house, Loretta is reborn. She’s calmly watching Tiny Toon Adventures on the couch. She asks if they have any more screw.
The novel builds toward the birth of Allie, the child of Loretta and the by-then-dead Nash. In one scene, Loretta says she’s sick of all this shit and just wants her baby to be normal and become an accountant. Nelson prays that he was right about what he told her: that all those drugs hadn’t already “microwaved” the baby’s brain. But despite their best efforts, Allie is taken from them after they accidentally leave her in a car in a hot parking lot.
“I was doing the very best I could,” Nelson says, “I was fully aware that my very best was still kind of shitty.” Things would improve for Nelson if he could free himself of his need for so much money, which comes from his need of so much screw, which comes from his need for Loretta. In one chapter, Nelson tells his co-worker, Sandy, about how his girlfriend is a stripper who has oral sex with her customers. “What’s so special about this Loretta?” Sandy asks him. “Everything,” Nelson says.
Loretta is his reason for living.
by Kevin Maloney