I never thought I’d shake Questlove’s hand.
It was at the book release party for Bradley Spinelli’s novel Killing Williamsburg at Trash, a bar in Williamsburg, where Questlove was DJing. Spinelli had simply walked up to Brooklyn’s most famous alternative hip-hop star at his own book signing and asked; Spinelli mentioned that his novel was launching on World Suicide Prevention Day, and as Questlove scribbled his thousandth autograph of the day, Spinelli listed some of the great pop musicians who had committed suicide. Questlove rattled off some more as the people standing in line shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot and rolled their eyes. Half an hour later, Questlove gave Spinelli his number and told him he looked forward to the gig.
Killing Williamsburg is Spinelli’s first published novel. Though it was released last year, it should have arrived much earlier. He finished the first draft in four months, and in early 2001, Emily Marcus, daughter of legendary punk journalist Greil Marcus, agreed to represent the book—a seemingly appropriate choice for Killing Williamsburg’s post-apocalyptic, counter-culture subject matter. Unfortunately, after 9/11, the market for gruesome disaster thrillers set in New York dried up. Ms. Marcus moved to California (as far as I know), and Spinelli moved on to other projects. Eleven years later, he decided the time was right to publish it.
As the decade passed, latent beauties blossomed in Killing Williamsburg. Its bricolage of genre, the narrator’s callow morbidity, and its homegrown feel turn out to be prescient forecasts of 21st-century taste. The story is an action thriller, an apocalyptic dystopia that predicts our current obsession with zombies. At its core, it is about a young, white, middle-class man’s search for authenticity in a phony world—a Catcher in the Rye for the turn of the millennium. Benson Lee, the novel’s protagonist, and his friends are all hipsters from a time before the label carried its contemporary currency. Today, hipsters are the most discussed, studied, exalted and reviled creature of the early 21st century. But at the end of 1999, the Gen X’ers who moved from Anywhere Else, USA to New York and San Francisco were just kids in baseball caps and goatees.
At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Benson and his girlfriend, Olive, an actress who is ready to try her luck on a more visible stage. They get an apartment in May of 1999, “after a few weeks of couch surfing, frenetic apartment hunting [and] a thirteen-hundred-dollar broker fee … in the hip, hopping, happening Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.” Their place, a newly renovated three-story structure behind an older, street-facing apartment building near the Bedford L stop, looks onto a courtyard protected from the street, where the new residents “cocktail it up” and instantly connect “like the first week of college.”
Benson describes the courtyard crew as a peculiar group of immigrants: “not Eastern Europeans or Puerto Ricans, but cool kids and hipsters migrating to the cultural nexus of the world from Lansing, Denver, Austin [and] Des Moines.” The older building, inhabited by the “regular” residents of Williamsburg, the Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who have been living in the neighborhood for two and three generations, is the gateway to the street where “ancient Polish ladies toothlessly” gum take-out plates of macs and cheese and, a few blocks south, where Puerto Ricans and Dominicans play dominoes on the sidewalk, kids on BMX bikes swarm like gnats in summer, and women chatter in “quick, cricket-like Spanish.”
Four years ago, in a retrospective essay,
Mark Greif provided a helpful working definition for the kinds of
people who populate Killing Williamsburg:
… that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual – the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student – who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.
In this rendering, the 21st-century hipster takes an oppositional stance to an American culture understood as ethnically white, religiously protestant and socially conservative, a latter-day petite bourgeoisie, but contorted by an acute awareness of, and by misapprehensions about, race, heritage, and authenticity.
Benson and his urban tribe of Middle American transplants aren’t all that different from Sal Paradise and Holden Caulfield, both archetypal hipsters who embody a peculiarly American strain of Romanticism rooted in race. The Byronic rebels-without-causes of the fifties and sixties are undoubtedly heroes to Benson, but Benson’s context is new; his hipsterdom differs from Kerouac’s and Salinger’s because unlike theirs, Benson’s identification with race isn’t liberating or uplifting, it’s suffocating. His search for authenticity, roots—realness—is complicated by the foreknowledge that he can never be as real as the people around him.
In a scene at the beginning of the book’s second section, “The Law of the Land,” Benson visits a diner called “the Luncheonette”: “an old-school joint, with magazine pictures of Frank Sinatra stuck on the wall next to snapshots of Neil [the owner and short-order cook] holding his various grandkids. It’s one of those places widely rumored to be a low-level Mafia establishment,” says Benson. As he sits by himself watching his cigarette smoke make “art-nouveau curlicues,” he eavesdrops on a conversation between Neil and his old, Italian-American pals who berate Neil for becoming a Yankees fan—in 1958.
“Being around men, especially older men, I get the feeling that I belong to a heritage, a kind of buried tradition, and that even my generation’s attempt to overthrow the past can never quite wash away the coffee-stained teeth and nicotine fingers that old men have cemented into the fabric of the universe,” Benson says. He’s a newcomer, a young man, a WASP, an aesthete and an intellectual; he sees and admires the men whose “coffee-stained teeth and nicotine fingers” speak of habits and traditions rooted in an ethnicity he has lost.
Benson asks Neil what he thinks about “all these young kids moving into the neighborhood.” Neil’s answer is non-committal and anodyne: “I Like it. Nice having you kids here.”
Benson hates “gentrifiers,” whom, at least initially, he identifies as the beneficiaries of the dot-com bubble, versions of the computer geek who “got his lunch money stolen in elementary school, got beat up all through high school, never went to college but stayed home jacking off to porno mags,” but who “launched an internet start-up and is now a millionaire hiring thousand-dollar-a-night hookers and thinking about buying something nice, like the Bahamas.” Benson paints the stereotype with a broad brush, but it’s a stereotype with legs. It speaks of unearned privilege, and it whispers that this privilege is rooted in white, technophile masculinity.
“I wish all the yuppies would just kill themselves off,” Benson tells his friend Phil, a PhD student at NYU, inspired by yours truly. Later in the novel, Olive asks Benson, “when are you going to realize that yuppies were not put on the planet as the scapegoat for everything you hate?” to which he replies, “I just can’t deal with gentrification.” Those people, the nouveau riche raising Williamsburg rents in 1999, are the enemy.
When, at the L Café, Benson complains to Olive about newcomers to The ‘Burg from Manhattan, a forty-something man “hunched over an espresso in a baseball cap” butts into the conversation to berate them on the uselessness of the word gentrification: “You think the Canarsie were happy when when they finally realized the Dutch weren’t going away? … and if you spoke Dutch you’d be bitching about the English.”
The old man, anticipating Jake Dobkin’s controversial post on gentrification at Gothamist by more than a decade, continues an expository history lesson through waves of German, Scandinavian and Irish immigrants who were displaced by Jews and Italians, who were in turn displaced by southern American blacks, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. “Gentrification is just the latest term. People in Williamsburg have always been pissed when strangers come in and start changing the demographics. Besides, you’re white, you’re young… you’re part of the problem.”
The scene is late summer 1999. Benson, Olive and a gay couple from the courtyard, Ronnie and Maciej, drive out to Coney Island to eat corn dogs and drink Budweisers, ogle beach bathers and take in the freak show. “I feel at home among my fellow poor, my friends and neighbors in this city of big dreams and high rollers, all the Puerto Rican families swimming in the ocean and laughing and screaming and running at each other,” Benson says. But Benson doesn’t belong—can’t belong—to the Puerto Ricans on the beach or the outcasts at the freakshow because he is and cannot avoid being white—not in terms of skin color per se, but in terms of his repressed identification with the computer geeks and gentrifiers, the soulless scientists and unconsciously privileged whom he hates.
“There was,” Benson explains, “a darker shadow falling over us,” that summer, “a shadow not of New York, not of King Kong’s body falling, riddled with bullets” but “a shadow of uncertainty” that he and his crew of new arrivals feel “in our carrot juice and bagels, in our 3:55 final shot and four-in-the-morning slice, in the Village Voice ink sticking to our fingers, in our American Spirits.” The uncanny malaise on the street grows as winter approaches. Much of the carnage takes place underground on the subway, but suicides become more frequent and visible: A guy tries to inhale a fire extinguisher at The Stinger club; the chef at Oznot’s Dish douses himself with oil and self-immolates; and Benson’s favorite bartender pours him a shot of whiskey and then intentionally overdoses on heroin behind the bar.
On Y2K Eve, Benson and Olive attend a party in Williamsburg that ends abruptly before midnight as a random guest smashes the punchbowl and commences “shredding herself.” The pair flees Brooklyn for a friend’s apartment in the West Village. After a sentimental scene on the roof where the party toasts the new year and drops the champagne glasses over the roof’s edge, the foursome head back to Benson’s Brooklyn apartment where they celebrate the new millennium with an old-fashioned Roman orgy.
Despite being unmoved by the occasional, ghastly suicides at the end of the old century, Benson begins to feel discomfited in the new year as the suicide bug spreads through his casual acquaintances and rubs up against his tribe: Smith, the best pool shot in Williamsburg, eats a pistol in Pete’s Candy Store; Benson’s best drinking buddy Hoagy, a painter, hangs himself in his studio; and Olive, overcome by revulsion and mourning for the gruesome and increasingly public attempts at self-murder that have become hourly occurrences, moves back to California.
At the beginning of the novel, Benson’s romantic side seeks satisfaction in erotic love. But by the middle of the story he has given up on love in a spectacularly nihilistic monologue that is one of the finest passages in the novel. “You want to fall,” he says, “you want to be taken aback by a moment that catches you unawares, an extra wink from someone pouring coffee, an unsolicited compliment that leads to a date, a seduction, an intrigue, a gravitational force that pulls you in and makes mincemeat out of you.” This force, call it fate or history, takes away your free will, and leaves you satisfied with submission.
Brooklyn’s fabled reputation for violence also exerts a powerful erotic force on Benson’s imagination: “I remember the warnings from people—friends, strangers—when I announced I was moving here, words of caution about how dangerous New York really is, and how I secretly fantasized about getting mugged or beat up in a bad neighborhood, caught on the business end of a Saturday night special.” For Benson, pain heightens the realness of experience, and pain, in turn, makes you real. Just like the old men in Neil’s diner who brag about how hard it was when they were coming up, suffering confers bragging rights.
As Benson works through the guilt of his various rape fantasies, he wrestles with its contradictions, tacitly accusing himself of hypocrisy. “You think your contradictions make you interesting, complex, fascinating in a world populated by bland character actors forever typecast,” he says to the reader and himself. At bottom a sensitive intellectual, he finally concludes the only truly authentic form of experience is pain, which cannot be rationalized and cannot be faked. An understanding dawns on him as his friends off themselves left and right: no amount of suffering can erase his inborn, inherited guilt—the guilt of privilege.
At the halfway mark of the novel, his monologue, Benson begins to understand the logic of suicide. He dimly perceives that self-murder isn’t just weakness but a sanctifying ritual. He worries, however, that he’s too much of a coward to pull the trigger: “I know I can’t be special. I know I won’t be famous. And I know I can’t kill myself—I’m too vain for that—but I know I’ll be dead tomorrow. I think that’s what tomorrow really is: death.” Unable to punish himself for a crime he doesn’t yet understand, he resorts to the next available option: inflicting pain on others.
Just before the suicide epidemic destroys his self-absorbed world, Benson goes on a bender. Two of his partners commit suicide immediately after sex, leading Benson to wonder if he is responsible for the misery and carnage convulsing the city. Seeking answers, Benson goes back to the rooftop in the West Village where he and his tribe celebrated the beginning of the new year, only to see his best friend in New York do a swan dive to the pavement six stories below.
Benson eventually realizes that he has been spared by the plague, which means he and the other survivors are responsible for cleaning up the city. As Spring 2000 turns to summer, all of New York becomes a charnel house. Corpses rot by the thousands in apartment buildings, office towers and on the street. Benson finds another crew, the mournful mirror image of his original urban tribe, who scour the boroughs looking for dead bodies. Benson takes his turn as team leader, surveying the apocalypse and taking direct action (usually a bullet to the brain) when another person comes down with “the bug.”
In the end, the Feds show up with FEMA trucks, and the rest of the world starts to pay attention to what insiders have known for months: New York was ground zero for the real apocalypse, the real Y2K that wasn’t and couldn’t be foreseen.
The book ends with a paean to the creative chaos of the city: “Let the future unfold however it will. Let the universe expand to its greatest desires and maintain its own ignorance of destiny. Let the symmetry of perception match the spontaneity of motion. Let the chaos engulf itself, Let the people dance, the hyenas laugh, the ants labor. Let the sky be blue, the roots gnarled. Let the city override the nightmare, and watch nature take her toll on the soul of the world.” The last line of the book repeats one line of that exhortation: “Let the sky be blue.”
In the book, one of Phil’s roommates commits suicide and the other moves back to his home in Germany. In real life, the former became a Silicon Valley pro (of the variety Benson hates) and the other died of leukemia shortly after 9/11. In 1999, I would have never guessed I would be shaking hands with Questlove, but there I was in Trash doing just that; I never would have guessed Questlove would be writing essays for New York magazine, fifteen years later, announcing Hip Hop’s death by universalization. In 1999, I never would have guessed that the World Trade Center towers would be destroyed—or that fancy, residential towers so expensive that only a new, international leisure class could afford them would rise on the Brooklyn side of the East River.
In 2014 the logic of Killing Williamsburg turns out to be correct. Spinelli has written the first visionary neo-Romantic novel of the 21st century. The world, it suggests, will end not because we aren’t clever enough to solve our carbon emission and resource depletion problems, but because fourteen years after we hit the reset button on the 20th century, in the midst of social and political problems both clear and acknowledged, we remain incapable of finding consonance.
Will Kenton is a writer, editor and teacher. His short play Lilith was recently selected for inclusion in the Red Bull Theater’s Revelation Readings short play festival. He received a PhD from NYU in British and American literature.
Photo by lauren