I think it best to confess right at the start of this review that I am a fanatic for The Instructions. I don’t think I let that bias influence what I thought when I read Hot Pink, but I thought I should let you know right from the start. I mean, perhaps I’ve gotten to the point that I would stop strangers on the street to share the joy of ‘the word of Levin’ with them. However, contrary to what one might expect, I think this actually made me a potentially harsher judge of the stories in Hot Pink.
After all, though it is true that The Instructions was one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a good while, I had my expectations set pretty high. How many fan boys and/or fan girls base their lives around the work of an author only to shave their heads and rend their garments when the next work isn’t exactly like the one they fell in love with? It may be insane for people to judge a new work as if it was supposed to be only a linear progression of what an author did before, but people certainly do that. In any event, I was far from disappointed in the stories of Hot Pink.
I mean, stories about a family falling apart and trying to come back together as the father buries himself in his workshop to make a doll for preventing girls from getting eating disorders? A kid falling for a girl who likes to bang after getting ‘Ricked?’ A homeowner who ends up feeling a sense of devotion for gel that oozes from his bedroom wall? The mystery of garbage trucks decorated with balloons? These are exactly what I was hoping for when I heard about Hot Pink.
Levin’s writing in these stories pulsates like flexing muscles. Consider the following scene from “Finch”:
On our way back to the alley in back of his ma’s, Franco told me, “See” It’s all in the voice. That’s how you get stuff. Speaking with conviction. Makes you convincing. ‘Grilled cheese on the house, dog! Grilled cheese on the house!’ and dude’s like, ‘Fine Franco. Fine, man. Good.”
“I don’t think you convinced him, though.”
“What you sayin, nigga?”
“I think you scared him cause your size,” I said. “And how you crushed that cookie and then grabbed another one like you’d crush that one, too.”
“No,” Franco said. “The cookie was whatsitcalled—the cookie was fleece—not fleece, it was flair. It was just a decoration—for my conviction.”
This is beautiful writing that is simultaneously fast, gritty, and brutal. I don’t mean cheap special effects, but the impact is there anyway. Frankly, the prose in these stories seems to perfectly embody how life in the modern U.S. feels to me.
Even beyond the gut-punch of the writing itself, the concepts behind the stories seem like things that could only come from Levin. Just check these sections from (my personal favorite) “How to Play The Guy“:
To play The Guy, first you need a Jenny.
Get a girl. Not a child. A mid-to-late-adolescent girl you can loom over. Make sure she looks slutty and abused, too…. A low threshold for startling, paired with a strong tendency to wince when startled. Sam the car door and see…. Kind of fat is okay, even preferable, but avoid morbid obesity like you would the AIDS. It draws too much attention.
Once you have chosen the right friend, introduce him to Jenny. Bring him to her house. Spend time doing something nonsexual with one another, but in relative proximity. Be kind to one another. Form social bonds. Help generate a sheltering ambience. Enjoy yourselves.
When Jenny answers the door, who does she look at first? If it’s you, congratulations. You are Rick. If she looks at your friend first, sorry, but you’re Steve.
It is time for Rick to choose a Geoff and indicate his choice of Geoff to Jenny, Steve, and Geoff by aiming his jabbing finger in the direction of Geoff and saying, loudly, “Is that the guy?”
From this point on, the three of you, whether by escalator or foot, will continue in Geoff’s direction, so long as he is facing you, and you will not deviate from Tableau.
Rick will repeat, “Is that the guy?”
And Jenny will say, “I don’t know.”
Repeat these moves in sequence until Geoff either runs away or is standing within two feet of the three of you, at which point Rick will say to Geoff, “You’re the guy.”
And Jenny will say, “No, he’s not the guy.”
And Rick will say, “Lucky for you, guy.”
If there is anyone other than Levin who could have written a story like that, I haven’t read him or her.
The stories in Hot Pink are sometimes bizarre. Sometimes they are even downright insane. Regardless, they were always damn interesting writing and I couldn’t get enough. Even beyond that, as far as I was concerned at least, they proved beyond any doubt that Levin’s unique voice in The Instructions was in no way a fluke. Instead, it had heralded the arrival of a truly unique and important modern writer. I advise reading Hot Pink and staying tuned for more.