Zero to the Bone
by Robert Eversz
Published by Simon & Schuster
288 pages, 2006
Count on Zero
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
The Nina Zero series has a always been a little confrontational, but Nina and her creator, Robert Eversz, really get into readers' faces with Zero to the Bone, the fifth and latest installment (after last year's Digging James Dean). This is simply one of the most rollicking reads I've encountered in a long time, containing a succession of increasingly air-sucking scenes that hit like sucker punches to the gut -- and to more sensitive areas. Heart-shredding episodes of unflinching mortality and brutality (and unexpectedly wrenching moments of tenderness) keep coming, hard and fast. You don't see 'em headed your way, but you sure feel 'em land.
Think you've got Nina pegged? Think again.
Because Eversz is in peak form here, not just building on the (considerable) past strengths of the Zero series, but audaciously veering in directions you'd never expect, zigging when you fully expect a zag. It would be easy enough to suggest this entire series has provided one long story arc following Nina's defiant journey to maturity, but that's at once too simplistic and too oblivious to what's really going on here, in much the same way that Dashiell Hammett's infamous Flitcraft parable in The Maltese Falcon was always more than a mere toss-away yarn about a wayward businessman.
No -- what Eversz is after is a whole hell of a lot more complex than a few tough-hearted crime novels chronicling the episodic coming-of-age of a dysfunctional and trouble-prone young woman in modern Los Angeles. Hers isn't so much a journey of maturity as it is one of reinvention and taking charge of her life. I cringe even writing the word, knowing how cheapened it has been by touchy-feely afternoon talk shows and New Age navel-gazing, but we're talking serious personal "empowerment" here.
Certainly, Nina has come a long way, baby, from the spineless shopping mall baby-portrait photographer with the permanent "Kick Me" sign on her back whom we first met in Shooting Elvis (1996), when she was still using her birth name, Mary Alice Baker. Determined to be a victim no more, she reinvented herself as Nina Zero, a raven-haired, prodigiously pierced "warrior nun" ex-con, working as a paparazza for Scandal Times, a sleazy tabloid obsessed with Hollywood celebrities, werewolf babies and other freaks.
Ironically, her photography has now brought Nina to the brink of celebrity herself. As this fiesty new novel kicks in, we find her prepping for her first-ever art gallery showing, a presentation of her non-tabloid work: a series of moody, edgy, tabloidesque stills, carefully composed (and posed, using models and props) that challenge our obsessions with sex and violence.
It should be a heady time for Nina, a long-delayed but well-deserved smile from the gods. As an ex-con on parole, life has hardly been rosy. Now past 30, she's always just a misdemeanor ("I forget to flush, it's a parole violation") away from a return to the hoosegow, and her quest for a decent, affordable place to live seems endless (try finding an apartment when you're an ex-con with a large, unruly -- albeit toothless -- Rottweiler in tow).
Still, Nina does seem to be in settling-down mode here, at least emotionally, finally coming to terms with who she is and how she got there. I hesitate to call it peace, or even "closure" (another currently popular psychobabble term), but she's reached the point where her past, which includes a dysfunctional childhood, a violently abusive father and several trips through a meat grinder justice system that reduces everything in its path to hamburger, is just that -- the past. It happened, it's over, she wants nothing more to do with it (or her father). Yes, she's paid the price, but look how much she's gained.
Nina is woman, hear her roar.
Except, of course, that our heroine, bent but never quite broken, isn't just some Helen Reddy with a nose ring, singing tales of female empowerment for the sisterhood. After years of playing by everyone else's rules, she'd probably bitch slap anyone -- male or female -- who tried to jam her into such a confining, gender-defined box.
In Zero to the Bone, however, Nina's carefully built and fiercely protected sense of personal autonomy (not to mention her big gala night) comes crashing down with the arrival of a personally addressed videotape that appears to be a snuff film depicting the murder of her friend and featured model, Christine Myers, a 21-year-old small-town girl turned actress whom we first met in Digging James Dean.
Nina may have turned her back on her past, but she's extremely loyal to and protective of those in the present she cares about, whether it's poor, doomed Christine or Cassie Bogle, the paparazza's 15-year-old, Goth-girl niece. Fortunately, that "warrior nun" tag is more than apt. She's like a two-fisted Wendy out to protect all the Lost Girls. And this ain't no fooling around. As she warns her father, whom Cassie has inexplicably (and against Nina's wishes) decided to live with: "If you ever hurt Cassie, give her a black eye or a split lip, I'll break your leg with a baseball bat."
If this were simply a tale about Nina (assisted by Cassie and her Scandal Times co-worker, star muckraker Frank Adams) hunting down Christine's killer and avenging her murder, it would be a thrilling enough tale, a hard-boiled tour through a sun-bleached Southern California wasteland replete with "some really twisted shit" -- a world that includes a very specialized phone-sex service in the San Fernando Valley, run by a former porn star; a World Wide Web community called Suicide Girls, which comprises Goths, punks and other self-conscious "alts" who show off their tattoos, body modifications and, occasionally, sexual preferences; a strikingly handsome "past-life regression therapist" and author, Dr. James Rakaan, who may be screwing his celebrity clients in more ways than one; a powerful Hollywood producer with a serious S&M jones; and a serial rapist who seems to be targeting star-struck teenage girls.
But of course, it's not just what Nina does that makes Eversz's stories so engaging; what really drives these books is the protagonist's hard-bitten first-person narration. This chick has a mouth on her. Having already seen more of life than most young women, the magnetic Ms. Zero brings a cold eye, a rude wit and plenty of snappy patter to her observations of the world around her, more than a little reminiscent of that other great chronicler of L.A.'s twisted underbelly, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.
Her reaction to Dr. Rakaan's past-life regression therapy? "I had barely talked to my family ... when they were alive, didn't see what good it would do to chat with them dead."
Her view of her work for the tabloids? "I tracked people for a living, if celebrities can be called people ..."
And what about children? "Two years of taking photos of screaming babies convinced me that birth control is not a bad thing."
Not that Nina gets to deliver all the good lines. You think she's a hard ass? Wait'll you meet the next generation. Cassie, already far more hard-core than Nina, is a cocky, unrepentant street fighter, the daughter of a bank robber and scam artist/hooker (Nina's late sister, Sharon), with a burning rage to see justice done -- or at least her version of justice. She's a two-fisted cross between Nancy Drew and Mike Hammer. Says Cassie at one point in this book:
"If I find the asshole that killed Christine?" She mimed a pistol with her right hand and pulled the trigger. "Bang!"
But Eversz's new novel has more to commend it than hard-edged action and wry wisecracks; it ain't called Zero to the Bone for nothin'. More than in any of her previous adventures, Nina is stripped bare in these pages, the protective flesh of rationalization and self-determination carefully removed, until all that's left is her essential core. Because this time it's not just Nina's freedom or autonomy that are at stake -- this time, it's her heart, and possibly her loins, that hold her fate.
All of these developments amount to a bold move by Eversz, because until now, the "warrior nun" tag has been apt in another way as well. Although nobody would ever accuse Nina Zero of being a virgin, or even virginal, there's always been something a little chaste -- and perhaps even asexual -- about her. As if, in a world she's learned to never quite trust, it's easier to simply close down her sexuality than risk being further victimized. Not that she's ever quite given up on love -- her steadfast devotion to her friends, her dog and select members of her family have been constants; and, in fact, as this new story begins, Nina finds herself victim to some pretty impressive, possibly hormone-driven mood swings ("Normal people don't go around beating the crap out of dead trees," Cassie tartly observes after one of her aunt's outbursts). It's almost as though Nina is finally going through a long-postponed adolescence.
Which is why, early in the book, Nina's steamy sexual encounter in a darkroom -- all tongues and teeth and sweat and spit and rending of cloth -- with the one man who at first appears like the absolutely wrong guy for her, comes off as so explosive. It seems as much of a surprise to the faithful reader of this series as it is to Nina herself. Like, how the hell did that happen?
Not that Zero to the Bone ends with a whimper of touchy-feeliness -- Robert Eversz is too good and too honest a writer for that. Instead, he drops a final emotional bang here that's a far cry from a Hallmark moment. The emotional gauntlet Nina has faced -- and the almost Zen-like sense of closure at book's end -- are realized as a well-deserved and even sort of inevitable conclusion, audacious but fitting, in a cock-eyed, blackly humorous way. Like, OK folks, everyone can exhale now. You too, Nina.
It's a fitting wrap, the aftershock of which makes for one hell of a set-up for Nina's next adventure -- if there is one. Because in one sense, this book completes a very definite cycle, and it's difficult to imagine where Nina can go from here. So, if the series concludes here, Nina will have indeed gone out on a high -- and characteristically defiant -- note.
But I expect we'll be hearing from Eversz again. If this novel marks the end of Nina's journey, it catches her niece Cassie about to embark on her own, suggesting that the author, a UCLA film-school dropout currently serving as visiting professor at Western Michigan University, might not be quite finished with the Lost Girls back home yet. | April 2006