Imagine a health care system that, when patients are unable to pay for their treatment, they’re held captive until they can. Imagine a synthetic drug that makes the user incredibly high, then horny, then dead. Since both of those scenarios are probably easy to imagine, and as they’re the backbone of Jim Ruland’s new novel Make It Stop, they make the story both disarmingly recognizable and disturbingly unsettling.
Set in a future Los Angeles that’s easily right around the corner, the novel follows our protagonist Melanie, a recovering alcoholic who’s an operative for the underground group Make It Stop whose primary goal is to liberate rehab patients being held captive by a capitalist healthcare system that’s only one small step beyond our current model. Melanie is a deeply troubled and flawed character, struggling with her addictions, limited emotional capacity, and social misfires. Her life, and the novel’s plot, get further complicated with the introduction of Kannabliss, aka Bliss, the highly addictive synthetic drug that wreaks havoc on the L.A. population.
Regular readers of Razorcake are certainly familiar with Jim Ruland and his writings. You may have read his memoirs of Keith Morris or Bad Religion, or his fantastic history of SST Records, Corporate Rock Sucks. If you’re lucky, you’ll have read his earlier novel Forest of Fortune or his short story collection Big Lonesome. To say I’m a fan would be an understatement. And while I like the memoirs he’s worked on, I prefer when his own voice takes center stage, as it did on Corporate Rock Sucks. All of those works are great, but this may be Ruland at his best. The narrative crackles with energy and power. As I was reading, I kept reaching for punk-related metaphors to describe the book, wanting to come up with a clever Southern California punk reference. But this book isn’t akin to an album of snotty, stupid, but catchy punk songs by NOFX or the Descendents. This is a book working through big ideas. So I repeatedly found myself thinking about the first two MC5 albums: big, driving sounds delivered concisely and energetically, with thrilling, world-altering perspectives, and messages that are decidedly political, even when appearing not to be.
The novel is a conspiracy-tinged thrill ride propelled by the story of a group of dysfunctional misfits-turned-vigilantes taking on a thoroughly corrupt system. Because you can so easily recognize that system in our own status quo, you know damn well who the heroes are. Or you think you do. And while the book is certainly a thrilling ride that hits the ground running, it’s Melanie and her colleagues’ dysfunctional nature and flawed humanity that provide so much of the novel’s depth. You know people like them, or at least you want to. As Ruland wrote in the last issue of Razorcake, “Write the heroes your society needs.” Melanie is exactly the hero I need. Not just when she’s battling big structural forces of oppression, but also in her daily acts of resistance, such as spitting a mouthful of wine in the face of an asshole date or stabbing a white supremacist in the ass. Great stuff. –Kevin Dunn (Rare Bird Books, rarebirdlit.com)