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Astral Weeks: Fangs of New York
" Vampires have quite the pop culture cachet," says the excellently named Cubby Freeze in Charlie Huston's blood-soaked "My Dead Body" (Del Rey: 302 pp., $14 paper), itself the last in a series of books that can be shoehorned -- along with the "Sookie Stackhouse" novels (the basis of HBO's "True Blood"), "Twilight" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- into Exhibit A in the case of the Entire Rest of the World vs. Things Having to Do With Vampires. Cubby's remark verges on cute, but as someone says later on, "Why shouldn't the signifieds define the signifiers?"
The titular corpse in "My Dead Body" is that of Joe Pitt, a vampire (or rather "Vampyre," with a cap "V," and a "y" instead of an "i"), who is as adept with his fists (guns and knives too) as he is with his teeth. Over the course of five novels (the four earlier books are "Already Dead," "No Dominion," "Half the Blood in Brooklyn," "Every Last Drop"), he serves as the dour, darkly comic and generally beleaguered tour guide to Huston's intricate shadow version of New York City. He navigates the byzantine power struggles among factions of the undead (the Coalition, the Enclave, the Society and more), which result in everything from murky double-crosses to gang warfare straight out of Herbert Asbury.
Now, in what might be called Pitt's Last Tape (the book is supposed to be a transcript), the neck-biting protagonist is literally falling apart as he attempts to bring closure to not just a particular quest (finding Cubby's daughter, whose belly holds a half-Vampyre child) but an entire world. Gruesome and often very funny, "My Dead Body" throws together moods and ideas and set pieces at top velocity, and revels in the complexity of the mess: noir existentialism, intra-undead snobbishness (Vampyres look down on zombies, a.k.a. "shamblers"), wide-screen ultraviolence, far-out alien invasion theories, perennial Astral Weeks fave the Ouroboros ("I think of the worm, eating its own tail. . . . Take that last bite, and then what? Where do you go from there?") and grimy Gotham interiors.
Huston gives us Lower East Side basements that are "a warren of code violations that date back to the Whyos and Tammany Hall. Excavated, hollowed-out, chopped, extended, dug deeper than is safe, pushed far beyond property lines. A little time spent poking at a flaking brick wall with a crow bar will usually reward you with passage into someone else's labyrinth. Poke at a sweaty wall and you'll either find yourself peeking in at an old drainage or cut in half by a knifing current of water set loose from a pipe pressurized to lift thousands of gallons six stories up. Best way to avoid that second fate is to put your ear to the wall. Listen for the thrum of water in a pipe. If you don't hear it, you can start swinging."
Pitt is perpetually swinging -- usually something called an amputation blade -- but as vivid and claustrophobic as the combat scenes are, it's the inventive banter and bleakly funny asides that make "My Dead Body" enjoyable. A garrulous Irish tough's borderline tedious description of the glory days of New York gangs draws this from our hero: "You're making it come alive for me, Hurl." Some of the dialogue skews to the prolix, near-stammering sort that William Gaddis favored (in novels like "JR"). It works best when honed for comic effect, as in the speech of Vampyre-wannabe Phil: "This is where she keeps, and I'm just the messenger here and I tried not to let you take us down here so don't be uncool about this, but this is where she keeps her experiments."
Huston doesn't entirely avoid the pitfalls of last-book-itis. There are some long trips to Expositionville that even his facility for dialogue can't energize, a too-comprehensive parade of characters from the previous volumes and an ending that keeps getting nudged away as loose ends get tied up or One More Thing needs to be said. It can be hard to keep track of who's Enclave, who's Clan and why the feuding is supposed to matter. And though characters have fun at the expense of the pretensions of Delilah (Chubby's willful, wayward daughter) and her baby's daddy Benjamin (a Vampyre), their symbolic importance is more stated than felt. Such macro-business threatens to upset the pleasures of Huston's talent.
But at the book's core is Pitt, a riveting, ruefully self-aware ("My glass house, all the windows are broken") yet hopeful free agent who, by design (or accident), plays the big powers against each other. An admitted monster (in both senses of the word), he nevertheless has something resembling a code of honor. He's the kind of Vampyre who wants the Pogues on the jukebox and who possesses the absurd stamina of the Energizer bunny. Thanks to a torture session with one of the story's power brokers, he's missing a good number of his fingers; his perpetual need for a smoke, and penchant for hand-rolled cigarettes, gives the book one of its best running jokes, at once grotesque yet upbeat.
Ed Park is a founding editor of the Believer and the author of the novel "Personal Days." Astral Weeks appears monthly at latimes.com/books.