A novel by J. Matthew Nespoli
The Great Los Angeles Novel, much like the Great American Novel, is certainly its own subgenre, and every aspiring author who has resided in that city for any length of time has felt compelled to write one. It doesn’t mean every aspiring author who has felt compelled to write one indeed should, but that is another matter entirely.
According to the back flap, “Broken chronicles the turbulent lives of several strangers who are trying to find their happiness in the city of Los Angeles,” and indeed we are introduced to several, initially unsavory, characters who are trying to make it out of whatever holes they have dug themselves into, whether already on the streets of Los Angeles, contemplating moving there, or contemplating fleeing its confines. The conceit of Broken is that Nespoli breaks his narrative up amongst the different voices of its 14 main characters, so we’re always shifting perspective between the various men, women and even children, sometimes within the same scene. It’s an interesting variation that has certainly been done before though, in this reviewer’s interest of not caring to name drop other authors or works as a lazy way of comparison, no other authors or works will be named in comparison.
It’s always great when beginning a novel to be introduced to a motley gang of folks so run down, so jaded, so hopeless and angry and despondent that, as readers, we’re filled with a sense of such amazing hope that they will go through poignant transformations of soul, of heart, of life, over the course of the next…let’s see…357 pages. Further to that, it’s always a bit soul-deadening as we cruise through those 357 pages to find out that most of these poor souls really don’t make any sort of change at all. They don’t discover a new way of being or seeing or living, but just continue on as they were at the beginning: full of pain, depression, addiction, lack. But then to realize that, yes, most real people in the real world go through their real lives without any sort of realization, any epiphany, any great consciousness-affirming blast from the beyond…well, it’s exactly how it should be. Most people never really change. They talk a lot about it, sometimes they even start down the path, but most people just continue on with the tools they have to survive without making any real headway besides just surviving.
Nespoli has a knack, for the most part, of creating 14 distinct voices to carry us on the journey of these broken lives. The only misstep, really, is trying to get inside the head of seven year old Kimberly. Nespoli doesn’t quite have the insight to accurately portray the thoughts and feelings of a young black girl whose mother has been either selling drugs or stripping since Kimberly was born. These passages are awkward and affected and really don’t come across as anything other than a poorly staged stunt. However, this isn’t enough to draw attention away from the narratives of the other 13 characters. Woven in and out, they are initially individuals without any knowledge of the others until, at the end, most of the characters have had some sort of impact on everyone else, and the main ones have become a significant part of each other’s lives.
J. Matthew Nespoli
The author’s writing seems to grudgingly shy away from the Huge Pronouncements of life, love, living and loving, but every so often we’re bogged down in pretentious statements like “We’re all broken people living broken lives in a broken world” or “I was too dead inside to feel anything” or “I’ve learned that we all get hurt and we all end up broken.” Perhaps there’s a theme here. Humor is, for the most part, stunted and unrealized. Some sections are a bit of a slog, as it’s akin to listening to a terminal patient complain about how terrible their life has been up to that point, though, essentially, pacing-wise, the novel moves, really flows and is never boring. It’s the kind of book you can read all the way through in one or two sittings, if you’re so inclined, or you can set it down and dip back in, never feeling you’re really going to have to go and play catch up or try to figure out who’s who. Nespoli’s conversational tone comes across famously with rare exception, in a novel that is, while never incredibly deep or important, at the very least never dull. The author certainly has a latent talent that could be well worth keeping an eye on. Add this one to the ranks of the Great Los Angeles Novels that could.