'Disco Bloodbath' -- the 1960s, at 4 a.m.

August 01, 1999|By David Rakoff | David Rakoff,Special to the Sun

"Disco Bloodbath," by James St. James. Simon & Schuster. 286 pages. $23.

James St. James' vastly entertaining, scarily well-written and horrifically funny book, "Disco Bloodbath," begins with a description of the chemical makeup and preparation of ketamine hydrochloride, the drug commonly known as Special K. If we are to understand the events that are about to unfold before us in this "Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland" (subtitle), St. James tells us, a working knowledge of K and its psychotropic effects is key. "Otherwise you'll be lost in the sauce, as they say."

And inasmuch as "Disco Bloodbath" is the story of how New York club kid Michael Alig viciously murdered drug dealer Angel Melendez using, among other things, a hammer, a smothering pillow, cutlery from Macy's and intravenous Drano -- a crime whose determined, haphazard messiness speaks strung-out, drug-fueled volumes -- St. James' little primer on psychopharmacology provides a welcome road map into this demimonde of homicidal schoolchildren.

"Disco Bloodbath" takes place in New York's club scene of the early '90s, a tepid epoch of no more discernible characteristic than being the time before everyone had e-mail. Downtown, having been declared dead in the wake of the closing of Studio 54, the AIDS pandemic and Manhattan's all-too-brief hiatus from '80s-style greed, was regaining some of its former nocturnal currency through the party-going efforts of club kids like Alig, St. James and their cohort of multi-pierced, lunchbox-toting denizens.

St. James paints a world that exists in a perpetual 4 a.m., the time of the last reel of "La Dolce Vita," a kind of anti-"Magic Hour," when one has been awake far too long, all the lighting turns unflattering, and things spiral out of control.

But "Disco Bloodbath" is not the moralizing jeremiad of the reformed sinner. St. James' tale is unapologetic while still being principled. Clearly, he doesn't condone murder but he refuses to fall into the trap of condemning the world in which the murder took place. (Hey, strobe lights, house music and dry ice don't kill people. People kill people.) And St. James must have kept a wonderful diary because he is so present, such an active participant in "Disco Bloodbath," that he gives the lie to Grace Slick's pronouncement that if one remembered the '60s one wasn't really there.

No one is more hilariously venial, messed-up, two-faced, or scarfs up more bags of heroin than St. James himself. Which makes "Disco Bloodbath" a masterwork of tone; feather light, furiously detailed, deceptively eloquent and very, very funny even when most gruesome. It reads like a cross between "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon" and the Droog argot of the hoodlums in "A Clockwork Orange." "SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT-SCROD LOD!' He laughed and hit me again at another angle ... right upside the oblongata-la-da-doo."

If the book falters, it is only in the final chapter, with its vaguely affirmative Life-After-Clubland whiff of recovery. But that's a small matter, really. "Disco Bloodbath" is the best book since "Edie" about the poisonous allure of being young and fabulous in New York just before 4 a.m. closes in.

David Rakoff is a writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in Outside magazine, the New York Times, GQ, the New York Times Magazine, New York magazine and Salon, among others. He has been a frequent contributor to Public Radio International's "This American Life."

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