Plesko finds tenderness in sleazy lives

January 30, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Gary is a junkie, a streetwise hustler and small-time pimp in the beach town of Venice, Calif. Cassandra is a junkie and prostitute; whenever she and Gary need money for a fix, they go to some sleazy place where Cassandra can earn a few dollars turning tricks. And College -- College is a young man, recently arrived from Boston, adrift and unsure.

When College invites the two back to his rented place, they end up staying. Then they take in Maria, a runaway who says that she's 13. She could be older, but not by much, and she still is wearing her Catholic-school plaid dress.

College learns how to shoot up heroin. And he finds himself strangely drawn to Cassandra, despite her worn and bruised body, the awful teeth and stringy hair of a strung-out prostitute. Cassandra knows why:

"You're a watcher," she tells College. "You want to see things unfold, to be shown." Then she adds: "It's all right with me if you want to be in my thrall, but get too close, get involved, you'll get burned. But you long for that fire."

College does indeed, and how he keeps returning to the flame is at the heart of "The Last Bongo Sunset." This first novel is not easy to take, and undoubtedly some readers will be turned off by the graphic descriptions of drug use and raw sexual activity. It's resolutely grim and more than a little depressing. But the novel has an undeniable force, and as unsentimental as it may be, it depicts the main characters -- strung-out, aimless, both abused and abuser -- with a real tenderness.

Most surprising, in a book filled with characters who are basically self-destructing, Mr. Plesko makes us care about them. That's not easy when a character's solution to almost every problem is to score more heroin. But in multi-layered, dreamlike prose, Mr. Plesko shows the protagonists to be lost and fragile, not merely self-indulgent.

Gary's father was an Okie, a ne'er-do-well who drank and did dope and showed his son the ins and outs of a hustler's life. Gary didn't mind prison: His needs were taken care of, and he could score heroin occasionally. "As for myself, I like institutional care," he tells College.

Cassandra was sexually abused as a girl by an uncle, and when her alcoholic mother could no longer care for her, she was placed in a home for girls.

Maria says she was abused by all five of her "fathers." Despite her youth, she takes easily to the life of drug abuser and prostitute, emulating Cassandra's longueur and sardonic take on everything.

As for College, he is haunted by the memory of his parents. His father was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who committed suicide; his mother was an enigmatic woman who both repelled and fascinated College. Early on, he admits that he's attracted to Cassandra because she reminds him of his mother.

And here the four of them are, living together in a rundown place in Venice in the early 1970s. The hippie dream is definitely over: Out of the casual drug use of the 1960s has evolved a more desperate scene involving rip-offs, scams and violence. College and his circle are not unusual in this milieu. All around them are people on the fringe, losers and lost souls and predators who are easily replaced and seldom remembered.

Illusions and deceptions have always marked their Southern California. All four protagonists have had troubled pasts. Maria, Cassandra and Gary want to obliterate theirs. College can't get his out of his mind.

And throughout their miseries, the reader wonders: Will they get out? Do they want to get out? Do they know how to get out? Or do they want to go on getting high, selling their bodies and drifting toward some unknown conclusion -- one that will undoubtedly be sordid and possibly violent? They do talk sometimes -- Maria says she might want to be a nurse someday. College isn't sure and neither is Cassandra. Gary just wants to do heroin.

By the middle of "The Last Bongo Sunset," when it seems the characters are going nowhere, it's hard not to look for some epiphanies, some humor to break up what is a squalid and depressing situation. But Mr. Plesko does not provide them.

Mostly, they are shown moving aimlessly toward no good end. You fear for them, yet you're struck by the way they have pulled each other into a family situation they probably wouldn't admit to wanting, let alone needing.

This is a subtle theme that Mr. Plesko builds slowly, almost imperceptibly. And yet, at the end, when two of the four decide they must break up the unit, it's a separation that brings out feelings of real hurt, real fear. "The Last Bongo Sunset" is hard going, but I admire Mr. Plesko's talent and achievement.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Last Bongo Sunset"

Author: Les Plesko

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 269 pages, $21

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