Losing in Gainesville is five hundred pages of quarter-life crisis for the type of dudes who start a new band every time they get drunk, but haven’t actually touched their guitars in months. While the characters may bullshit, the book is full of specific details and pointed insights that make its slacker milieu ring true. You could be one of these guys. If you’re not, you have at least bought pizza from them or shouted inside jokes between their songs in a punk house living room.
The novel centers around Ronnie Altamont, presumably named for the violent Rolling Stones concert that ended the free-love ‘60s. With an art degree and vague plans to finish a novel, Ronnie moves to Gainesville, a nearby punk utopia with, “future friends everywhere—boys and girls wearing t-shirts of bands he likes, of writers he likes.” The book follows him through a stay in a porn freak’s trailer, to exile in his hometown working asbestos removal, to getting what he thinks he wants—a party house in the Gainesville “student ghetto” and an endless procession of shows, parties, menial jobs, young women who are this close to knowing better, and buddies toting twelve-packs of beer—before eventually moving on.
Like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Gainesville’s narrative bounces through the town’s claustrophobic Venn diagram of outsiders. Every few chapters we return to William, who descends into addiction after an ill-fated band tour; Drunk John, who is sick of his nickname and record store job; the newly formed couple/avant garde hip-hop duo of Icy Filet And Mouse; Ronnie’s new-agey retiree parents; and burned-out Professor Andy Cartwright, pushing forty and still an underpaid adjunct in the town where he went to school.
While each of these minor players is distinctive, they serve as choose-your-own-adventure options for Ronnie and the lifestyle at large. He could easily become any of them. Toward the end we even get a chapter with Bobby, a freshman packing his dorm to go home for the summer, reaffirming the town’s appeal as he hops in his dad’s minivan already longing for the camaraderie and loud music of his new life. It’s the perfect contrast to the beery low that Ronnie hits, where the potential friends who once excited him have become, “acquaintances he will never see again, the sort-of friends with whom he hardly exchanges words.”
Though Gainesvilleis a bro-down where the boys exclusively refer to attractive women as “nnnnnuggets,” two of the novel’s best-drawn characters are women. Ronnie’s girlfriend Maux is an undergrad art student who publishes cartoons in the college newspaper. While she proclaims to hate everything from Lou Reed to old people to holding hands, she shows the creative focus and drive that Ronnie and his friends aspire to before blacking out. Ronnie cheats on Maux with Portland Patty (as opposed to Punk Rock Patty, Puking Patty, New Orleans Patty and Heroin Patty), a kind and funny vegan whose hippy tendencies leave her unfairly stigmatized by the local scenesters. The fallout of Ronnie’s two-timing is a flawless study in small-town gossip.
Author Brian Costello is no stranger to the scene. He drums for the garage/psyche band Outer Minds and works as a creative writing professor. His 2006 novel The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs is about a suburban punk band also living in his native Florida, and it is not hard to imagine him spending the eight years between books writing down every single memory and thought about the life he’s led as a musician. They are all in here, shared without glorification or condescension, doing the near-impossible: setting static lives in motion, making tedious lives fascinating. –Chris Terry (curbsidesplendor.com)