March 2013

Margaret Howie

nonfiction

Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias

Middle Eastern, gay, gifted with scissors, extraordinarily resilient, and blessed with all the hustling skills required for a long-term career as drug addict, Rayya Elias has a helluva life story to tell. Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side isn't quite that story. The subtitle suggests a Hairdressing Confidential set in New York at its scuzzy '80s height, as witnessed by a new wave almost-superstar. But unlike Anthony Bourdain's gloriously self-mythologizing memoir, this is a trip through the long troughs of addiction with only occasional glimpses of the surrounding landscape.

Elias's childhood was set in the splendor of 1960s Aleppo, but after witnessing the escalating religious turmoil in Syria her upper-crust Christian family relocated to Detroit. The culture shock was traumatizing, and she diligently applied herself to getting down with the cool kids. Her first drug trip came as a result of being embarrassed by school bullies. It was a hit of purple mescaline. She was twelve.

While this is grimly fascinating, particularly if you're the kind of square who never tripped during a high school chemistry class, there's simply too much time spent dwelling on how nasty kids can be. Recounted as if she's come straight out of a therapy session, there is something of an after-school-special sense to this pedestrian tale of how totally, like, hard it is not to fit in. It's a slog through a morass of displacement, hormones, and mean girls. Eventually the sex and rock 'n' roll show up, but they never get to be as central as the drugs.

Elias recounts her narcotic experiences with more care than her reach her descriptions of the music and lovers who pass through her life. While she tells the reader that music and haircutting were her saviors and her passions, they barely leave an imprint on the narrative. After a stint at Michigan's crummiest beauty school, she packs up her scissors and synths and heads to New York. In between playing gigs and cutting hair, she conducts a turbulent love affair and enters a three-way marriage that smashes her heart to pieces. Wrenched away from that, her relationship with illegal substances begins to deepen.

What's disappointing about Harley Loco is Elias's failure to recapture those scenes that saved her. Her post-punk worlds of art and music, fashion and hairstyling, provide only snatches of background color. There's no doubt that Elias could go toe-to-toe with any of the great literary hedonists when it came to chemical tolerance, but her descent into grotty junkiedom comes across as awfully beige.

The relentless focus on her addiction stops the book from following diversions to more truthful and interesting places. There's a great scene where Rayya the embryonic pop star gets decked out in a mirror-flecked designer outfit for a music industry showcase. She chokes onstage, and it marks the end of her music career. But the story of her self-sabotage is rushed through. While we are supposed to accept that her talents for music and performance were innovative and prodigious, the details of how she blew her big chances are frustratingly skimpy.

Someone badass enough to earn a nickname at Rikers Island definitely has stories to tell. But whether it's still too raw for her to face up to, or because the memories have been blunted by large volumes of pharmaceuticals, the dramatic effect of her tempestuous life is done in by the flat prose.

There are certain vicarious thrills to be had when her tales dive into the nastier aspects of living from hit to hit, and it's refreshing to read a woman write about having an abortion as a low-key event in her life. She doesn't try to sugarcoat her experiences of coming out or getting clean. There's also a running account of the gentrification of Elias's beloved Lower East Side, which has changed as much as she has. The movie adaptation promises to be much better than Eat Pray Love -- just imagine Julia Roberts kicking another prisoner in the chest and yelling, "I'm from fucking Detroit, bitch, and you ain't takin' nothin' from me."

However, she doesn't have her BFF Elizabeth Gilbert's gift for illuminating her inner life. Gilbert's introduction to the book praises Elias as "a true master of actual style." The lengthy acknowledgment pages provide hints that Elias is possessed of that exceptional in-person charisma associated with both hairdressers and performers. But her resulting book is more rough than it is diamond.

Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias
Viking
ISBN: 978-0670785162
320 pages