Nolan Knight‘s The Neon Lights Are Veins (280 Steps) opens at Pink’s, a hot dog joint in Los Angeles. Mongo, a transvestite, and Alvi, tats covering his face and neck, talk about Gabby leaving town, “She was swallowed by the streets on Good Friday, searching for a dream that wouldn’t have her.”
Everyone knows the Los Angeles of delusions, but Knight’s Los Angeles is more complicated than that. Though he explores a world of drug addicts, prostitutes, dealers, transvestites, Hollywood hanger-ons, criminals, and the men that exploit all of them, Knight’s Los Angeles is a Grimm tale that his characters exist in, participating in a larger story that is destined to forget them.
Real places are alive throughout the book whether it’s Hotel Lafayette, the Frolic Room, or Wilshire Boulevard. Alvi begins his search for Gabby though he is more unsure of his motivation than his friends are. The quest for Gabby gives Knight the ability to introduce us to a score of characters who populate the city of forgotten tales while turning tricks or snorting rails of Xanax.
While Alvi searches for Gabby, Knight also tells us the story of Rocco, a young man forced to dump bodies for his mobster uncle. There are big plans for Rocco as well as Ray Satin’s criminal gang though Rocco’s plans are a bit different than cornering the prostitution and drug trade in LA. Different ambitions, same results.
After a character turns her first trick which involved balloon fetishists, Alvi takes her on a tour of his favorite neons of Los Angeles.
The Mercedes cruised down Caesar Chavez, looping first through Chinatown so Faye could see radiant pagoda rooftops; dragons snarled here and there. All the while, he carried on about the Museum of Neon Art and their salvaging of derelict city signage. She sat in wonder, imagining the modern downtown in its original glory. Only a tarnished glimpse remained. Alvi continued, pointing out odd illuminations, rarely acknowledged by the living. Most of them were burnt out, rusted, clinging to rooftops like Harold Lloyd.Broadway beamed lonesome letters of once gaudy words. Arrows flickered— all pointing to perdition. He told her when the neon boom hit, this stretch harbored more luster than Times Square. They gazed at blue and white diamonds, winking out jewelry store windows. Theaters,
Broadway beamed lonesome letters of once gaudy words. Arrows flickered— all pointing to perdition. He told her when the neon boom hit, this stretch harbored more luster than Times Square. They gazed at blue and white diamonds, winking out jewelry store windows. Theaters, bars and eateries blitzed from all angles. The busted string of radiance was superb, fluttering high above bleeding streets. They took in the soundtrack: a single saxophone wailed under a dingy marquee, charming flotsam from one crime to the next.
Like the neon of Los Angeles, Knight’s writing is sometimes dark but always satisfyingly alluring. The Neon Lights Are Veins gives us a city which we all can claim a certain amount of knowledge of, but this isn’t Harry Bosch’s LA or even Bukowski’s. Knight’s prose has created new and poetic Los Angeles of intense ultraviolet lights that ultimately attract the characters to their doom.