If you are Ellis O’Neill, the main character of S Fitts’ Bleeding Gut Blues, you split town to become a drunken hobo, and spend a year roaming from college town to college town robbing university parties for booze, bits of cash, and occasionally drugs.
You are skinny and pale. You have a disfiguring scar that snakes across your face. Your hair is too long. You smell bad.
Your only valuable possessions are a photograph of your parents, a copy of Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut and a tattered journal belonging to your ex-girlfriend. Your life, which wasn’t all that great to begin with, is totally and completely fucked.
Feeling depressed and alone you call your old friend Danny and the two of you decide to take a road trip to find the girl who broke your heart. What follows is a journey across several states so soaked in alcohol, drugs, and expletives that it would make Hunter S Thompson proud.
Moved forward almost exclusively by dialogue, Bleeding Gut Blues occasionally made me feel like I was reading a screenplay (which is not something I take issue with). But readers who want a novel rich in setting, description or details won’t get much of that here. What you will get is snappy, believable conversation between young characters who are struggling to find their place in a world without any good examples to follow.
Bleeding Gut Blues’ strength lies in the voice of its first person narrator. Ellis is convincing and likeable despite his bad choices, depression and drunkenness and his alienation and loneliness are palpable. Ellis is the kind of narrator that makes me consider whether this novel is some sort of partial autobiography disguised as fiction. Whether it is or isn’t is irrelevant — making me wonder is, in my opinion, the hallmark of good fiction.
The biggest problem with the book is I can’t figure out why Ellis loves Angie in the first place. Ellis tells us a lot about her—she has blond hair, a peacock tattoo, she can’t sing, she has a memory problem, and a twin sister. She’s an artist’s model. She is his first and only girlfriend. They grew up together. I learned a lot of facts about her but I couldn’t get a true sense of her character, of what makes her worth all his misery or driving across the country for. It seems to come down to the fact that Ellis loves Angie because he always has and because he really has no one else. And that might be good enough for him- but it isn’t good enough for me. I wanted to see Ellis grow out of Angie and let her go.
Not for the faint of heart or for those who like breathy, uplifting stories—Bleeding Gut Blues is like a punk rock song, angsty and loud, with a not so subtle disdain for authority, and a veneer of toughness that does little to disguise the vulnerability underneath.
Since I liked this book so much, and it’s a road trip book, it practically demanded a soundtrack– so I made it one.