Now here is a story of how we cannot heal, of how hurt endures—how these staggering losses, hallmarks of desolations, cannot be purified, sanctified, or cast away. For this very reason, Christopher Stoddard’s second novel Limiters, published earlier this year by the newly established Itna Press, is a corrective to traditional narratives of suffering and debauchery, which all too often end in platitudes about redemption, personal triumph, and painfully gained yet worthwhile insights into the self. In Limiters, the scars last. For narrator Kyle Mason, the pain doesn’t cease but it does change shape and develop agency. By the time he’s a man it’s all he knows: pain is the home he never had.
Divided into two sections—“Family Rave,” which is set in 1998 when Kyle is 16 and wandering the industrial wastelands of New England, and “Death to Organize,” which is set in New York City in 2008—Limiters is a split novel: it tells the tale of a wayward, injured youth and follows up with the ramifications a decade later. The split is jarring; you turn the page and ten years have passed. The likable, troubled teen is now a wrecked, desperate adult. “I’m a serial killer who’s lost his edge,” Kyle says early in the second section, “a sociopath who’s turned his hatred inward and mutilates his own mind rather than other people’s faces or bodies.”
At 16, Kyle is haunted yet still hopeful. He lives in an abusive home, his father is incarcerated, and his older brother Max was recently murdered. So Kyle does what any wise person would do: he flees. Living with friends, strangers, and creepy older dudes, Kyle leads an urban-nomadic life, dreaming of escape and the next meal. There are the small joys. At one point Kyle thinks, “but we make the most of it. Nick’s already showed me the ropes, how rotten food can taste good when the only thing left to eat is your stomach.” And there are the good times, which usually involve drugs, clubs, and nights that last for days. Still, violence, cruelty, and rejection are the dominant currencies of Kyle’s late adolescence. With all the other costs of living on the edge, kindness toward one another is something most of the characters can rarely afford.
The prose is crisp, hip, and direct. There’s a burnt-out alleyway rave glamour. “The 24-hour pharmacy is like an exclusive club with horrible lighting,” Stoddard writes, when Kyle and his friend buy OTC medicine to sell as Ecstasy. “The burning ash on the tip of the cigarette I’m holding matches the color of the rising sun reflected in the passenger-side mirror,” Stoddard writes in one of the drive-through-the-night scenes. Yet pain is continually present. Kyle’s emotions are nasty brews: “My pity for her,” he thinks about one of his hosts, “is slowly turning into resentment and hatred. Or maybe I’m just exhausted.” In the overall flow of the narrative, there’s little backstory or set-up for these different incidents; events just happen. One minute Kyle is selling fake Ecstasy. The next minute he’s living at Wesley’s place and fending off unwanted advances. And then he’s crashing with Paul, pursuing a romance that will be briefly satisfying but ultimately result in utter rejection. There’s a constant momentum in the first section as Kyle dashes from one crash-pad to the next, the perpetual runaway with nowhere else to go.
Stoddard’s sentences are at their finest when Kyle is engaging in a pastime we all occasionally enjoy: imagining another life. Kyle envisions tagging along with his buddies Nick and Ariel on their trip to San Diego and away from all this:
In Mississippi, the dried dirt left over from the muddy slush on the wheels of the bus will be washed away by sporadic rainstorms, and when we drive through the deserts in Arizona, the scorching sun will lighten the signature green color in the Peter Pan logo on the roof.
This sentence is well balanced. Texture details—the “dirtied dirt” and “muddy slush”—let us know that this trip is not just a flight of fancy but something that Kyle has been holding out for for a long time, and the use of “we”—“when we drive”—creates a sense of hope; this could be their communal exodus from Connecticut. It’s telling, of course, that this fine sentence describes a trip Kyle will never take.
The second section, which is much shorter and is kicked off by a quote from Anne Sexton’s poem “Wanting to Die,” unfolds as a bleak monologue about Kyle’s adult life, which is now so mangled by hurt and humiliation that degradation is a respite and getting intoxicated into oblivion is another name for every day. To be alone, unstoned, any night of the week is hell for Kyle Mason, and to escape this particular hell—the soul’s “lonely void”—he creates his own: he invites Craigslist straight bros into his East Village apartment, his “worm hole,” and he blows them and gets fucked by them and does enough coke to kill a Belushi, all the while being sick with self-loathing, a fate preferable to being alone with his thoughts.
The dark power of Limiters comes from this split between the two sections. What’s happened to Kyle Mason? How does a person go from being a kind kid on the run to a pain-wrecked man whose desires for the comforts of death, drugs, and sex spill off the page? Where has this life gone?
In a phone interview, Stoddard talked about the need for fiction to explore these darker themes. “You don’t see any Hubert Selby Jr.’s or Louis Ferdinand Celine’s out there anymore from the mainstream presses because they think they won’t sell,” Stoddard said. “Everyone wants a happy ending.” But happiness is not inherently an aesthetic value. The darkness explored in Limiters is deep and increasingly consuming. Yet there is comedy here, and odd moments of compassion, too. It’s a story that reminds us of the possibilities of fiction, of where it can take us and where we can go, even if it is unpleasant and intense, even if it’s someplace we’d never want to call home.
– Alex Kalamaroff is a 26-year-old writer living in Boston. He works on the administrative team of a Boston Public Schools high school. You can read his other writings here or follow him on twitter @alexkalamaroff.