The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins
The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins is a story of hope without hope. It is 2007, and Star Video is struggling. The store is in a state of perpetual financial crisis and is unable to keep employees for the long term. On top of that, Blockbuster has moved in across the street and the store is rapidly losing its cultural relevancy. The demise is imminent, even inevitable, and this is just the first couple pages. Throughout the book, things continue to get worse and worse. For mistakes past and present, the world continues to throw punches.
As a result, much of what takes place throughout the book can feel like a stay of execution. Hawkins makes up for this with what can only be described as unhinged passion. Waring, the owner, Alaura, the longest-running employee, and Jeff, the newest, have a love for film exceeded by few. Movies are treated like music was in High Fidelity. Sincere love, devoid of irony, seeps from their pores. Waring is the Dean, Alaura the Professor, and Jeff the Student. Star Video brings them together and Star Video allows them to take time out of their days to teach one another. It may be failing, it may be unpopular, but it is important. It is less a place of work and more a place of worship.
The three of them, though, are woefully unqualified in the art of saving a business. Waring is a drunk and Alaura a flake. Jeff is a freshman in college and still in need of day-to-day training. Their tenacity carries them through. When they aren't talking about movies, they're usually planning a scheme to save the store or attempting to execute one of their previously planned schemes. These range from attempting to get the Blockbuster in trouble by switching some of their movies for porn to trying to fundraise with a famous director from their town who is losing his grip on reality.
Each scheme is more implausible than the one that comes before it, but also more fun. Hawkins walks a delicate line between reality and farce at times, but he's always able to ground it because the gravitational pull of Star Video is massive. Even as its irrelevance to the outside world is iterated time and time again, it never feels unimportant. The manner in which it has shaped the characters lives is undeniable. Its importance insists upon itself. A lot of this comes from how Hawkins frames the store and the story. The Three Musketeers are all well-meaning, flawed people who need Star Video in order to understand their place in the world. Even though Waring was essentially the steward of its demise and Alaura routinely abandons it to pursue various spiritual quests, the store is what makes them who they are.
Hawkins switches perspective between his three main characters, and to excellent effect. The changes do not feel jarring because the lives of the trio are so intertwined that they aren't telling drastically different stories. He uses their tight-knittedness to keep things smooth while using their different perspectives to provide shades of gray.
One of the novel's greatest strengths is its awareness of its own potential flaws. Of particular importance is the characterization of Alaura. For much of the novel, she feels like a manic pixie dream girl. Her adventurous quirkiness seems to serve to draw the men around her out of their shells and show them something new. It is a legitimate problem in the early points of this book. Hawkins, though, does what few other writers who run into this problem would: he addresses it. Alaura talks about herself as a manic pixie dream girl and confronts that characterization as a problem she has with her own identity. This ability is ultimately a product of the film knowledge that runs through the veins of the characters. In the world of The Last Days of Video, it would be implausible for Alaura not to know about such a common character trope, and it only makes sense for her to recognize it. Simply allowing her to acknowledge something like that is enough to subvert the judgment, but the growth and introspection that comes with it is simply fantastic.
The same qualities that allow for that depth are the ones that can make parts of this book feel esoteric and exclusionary. References to films pour out of this book, and someone unfamiliar with them would experience the novel as if they were eavesdropping on a conversation in a different language. It's the books biggest hurdle and it doesn't overcome it. Still, the book doesn't seem written for those people. Instead, it's written for people who will relish in identifying the references they get and clarifying the ones they might miss.
That may be the best way to sum up this book. For those who love film and talking about film, The Last Days of Video will be a joyride. For those who miss the independent video store, or for those who are still lucky enough to have one around the corner, this book will be a joy ride. But for those who don't relate to those experiences, this book will be missing something.
The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins
Soft Skull Press