What Evil Lurks

'Burning Girl,' a new novel by Ben Neihart, delves into the dark side of its characters' souls. And those characters happen to be Hopkins students.

April 07, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Hell is hot, although there are cool bursts of air with each new arrival. Brett Easton Ellis is sitting in a corner. A sign promises: "Everyone has a dark side."

Yet the man opposite Ellis, the man who is the guest of honor on this particular night in Hell, would seem to belie that slogan. He has messy shocks of blond hair and a sunny, open countenance. He could be a Mormon missionary who left his bicycle outside and came in to ask directions. He could be a rube from some place like, say, Lancaster, Pa.

Ben Neihart, 34, is, in fact, from Lancaster, Pa., but he's no rube. And the mutual admiration society he has formed with the author of "Less than Zero" and "American Psycho" is the natural bond of two writers drawn to the same themes, if not the same styles. Ellis has been a fan of Neihart's since reading his first novel, "Hey, Joe," a 1996 coming-of-age novel that was considered remarkable, in part, because its gay title character is decidedly angst-less about his sexuality.

"Hey, Joe" received the kind of glowing reviews that are the stuff of dreams in writing programs such as the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where Neihart earned an M.A. the year "Hey, Joe" was published. Tonight's party in Hell, a red-walled nightclub on the edge of Greenwich Village, is for his second novel, "Burning Girl" (Rob Weisbach/Morrow, $24), a much darker work.

Set within the confines of a single Memorial Day weekend, "Burning Girl" takes on violence, class and sex, in all its variations. Oh, and its two main characters happen to be Hopkins students.

Violence, class, sex and Hopkins students? Clearly, we had to know more.

Neihart arrives for a lunchtime interview in the unpretentious khakis and pale striped shirt he will wear later that night in Hell. The restaurant is reputed to be a fashionable one and the waitress, sizing up the innocents before her, gives careful instructions on how to dine here.

Portions are large, she warns. Sharing is encouraged. She says this in the same tone that the IRS, for example, might say that prompt payment is encouraged.

But Neihart, who appears to be congenitally polite, accepts this healthy helping of attitude without dishing any back. After months of a peripatetic existence, designed to help him concentrate solely on "Burning Girl," he has decided to try the full-time New York writer's life. He put his things in storage in Baltimore at the end of 1997 and began bouncing around friends' homes from here to New York to New Orleans. He also spent some time at the New Hampshire artists' colony, MacDowell Colony, on a fellowship.

Yet he is full of questions about Baltimore, his home off and on over the past several years.

"I miss Baltimore, now that I'm away from it," he says, and there's no dig hidden in that sentiment, no meanness. "It's the only place I've ever lived where you go to parties and people ask you where you went to high school."

No mean bones

His observations about Hopkins are similarly sharp, but never with malice. As a graduate student in a program where his classmates ranged from their mid-20s to mid-40s, Neihart initially was cocooned from the university at large. But later, as adjunct faculty and an attendant at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, he was afforded glimpses into the lives of the younger students.

At the time, he was struggling with an earlier version of "Burning Girl," then known as "Classic Rock," with a similar plot but older characters. He then began to hear tales about a young woman at Hopkins, a woman he thought he knew.

"I kept hearing these stories about this particular girl at Hopkins, who people kept saying ...was just so evil, really this horrible person," he recalls. "One day, one of her peers at Hopkins was telling me the story at the library and the things that had been done to her by this person. She broke into tears, convulsive, back-heaving tears, and said, basically this girl has ruined her entire college experience."

What had she done? "She took a razor blade to the seams of her clothes, so they'd fall apart as the day went on. She was popping holes in her birth control ... I couldn't figure out how I could simultaneously know this girl, in the version she was presenting to me."

He also was fascinated with the class conflicts at Hopkins. Scholarship students confided in him that they worked two, three jobs and sent home large portions of their student loan checks to help out their families. They were at once whiny and endearing, urgent in their desire to understand how other students could have so much, and take it for granted.

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