Chris Kraus photographed by Sylvère Lotringer
Summer of Hate
by Chris Kraus
Summer of Hate is as disturbing, powerful and original as anything I’ve read in recent years, creating an existential noir out of the American landscape, the Southwest, the industrial prison system. A writer, in hiding from her would-be killer, cobbles together a community of misfits. A recovering addict is out of jail and seeking redemption, though everywhere he turns he finds traps. Avert your eyes if you don’t like the truth. Freedom—both personal and political—is revealed as painfully illusive in this gripping novel.”
— Danzy Senna, author of You Are Free: Stories
Waking up from the chilling high of a near-death sex game, writer Catt Dunlop travels
to Albuquerque in 2005 to reinvest some windfall real-estate gains and reengage with
something approximating “real life.” Aware that the critical discourse she’s used to
build her career is really a cipher … for something else, she hopes that buying and
fixing slum buildings will bring her more closely in touch with American life than the
essays she writes.
In Albuquerque, she meets Paul Garcia, a recently sober ex-con who has just
served sixteen months in state prison for defrauding Halliburton Industries, his former
employer, of $873. Highly intelligent, Paul is almost forty years old, but has no
information. With Catt’s help, he makes plans to attend UCLA, only to be arrested in
Arizona on a 10-year-old bench warrant.
Caught in the nightmarish Byzantine world of the legal system, Catt and Paul’s
empathic idyll of saving each other’s lives seems cursed to dissolve. Summer of Hate
is a love story colored by flawed reciprocity and American justice.
How can a poor person matter in this world? Rising, out of an uneducated environment, bearing the resentment of his parents toward all he meets and resting upon a religion that fosters guiltand repression, where in what hope may he escape?
— John Wieners, After Dinner on Pinckney Street
THERE SOME PEOPLE who seek out the illusion they’ve arrived at the end of the earth. The opacity of an alien place: an open and desolate feeling.
Catt Dunlop stands outside her room at the Villa Vitta motel. A slight western breeze off the Gulf flavors the morning with promise—a promise Catt knows will seem like a distant memory in the harsh glare of 11 a.m. She’s wearing the same clothes she dropped on the floor after arriving last night—an old pair of jeans and a cardigan sweater, her “Mexico” clothes—not that these clothes are especially ethnic. When she’s in Mexico she puts on whatever clothing she pulls first out of her bag. Her childless middle-aged body is still lank, which has so far spared her the effort of devising a “look.” Catt left La in a rush. Her long, tangled brown hair is pulled off her face with a sweatband she found in the gym bag she forgot to unload from the back of her new Subaru Outback.
Looking down the cement colonnade, Catt sees she isn’t alone. Outside room number 10 there’s a plastic lawn chair and a cooler of beer in front of a new Ford F-150 truck with Oregon plates. She and her small spaniel mutt Stretch are in room number 8. Otherwise, the motel is empty. It’s a Tuesday morning in March, 2005, and she finds it unlikely this neighbor is here on vacation. He must be working. Even though the town doesn’t exactly look ripe for development, he could be some kind of construction surveyor, which means he’ll be gone most of the day.
Catt feels somewhat safe and relieved. Since throwing her gym bag into the car yesterday morning, she’s put more than six hundred miles between herself and the person who, she believes, has threatened to kill her. The person is male, but even now, after spending nearly a decade revising her default androgyny through the pursuit of recreational sex, Catt rarely focused on gender. Her killer identified this as one of her problems. The killer, “my killer,” as she’d begun saying, would be driving an older black BMW sedan that luckily seemed not very well suited to Baja’s back roads.
“Is that a threat or a promise?” Catt vaguely remembers this comeback used by neighborhood kids in the blue-collar Connecticut town she partly grew up in. She doesn’t remember much of this culture, having spent most of her life trying to flee it. But sometimes, when she’s in trouble, odd phrases drift back. There was also “Tom Tit,” a description of her 12-year old chest that followed her down the 7th grade hallways, and “My ass your face,” the boys’ rejoinder whenever she took out a Kool cigarette and asked one of them for a match.
Three and a half decades and several continents later, Catt no longer smokes on a regular basis but she still has small tits, “the kind of tits that will hold up ‘til she’s 60,” as a colleague of hers once appreciatively wrote in Details or Index or Nylon about Charlotte Rampling. But yes: Catt’s problem, she knew, was that she’d seen her killer’s threat as a welcoming promise. She was tired of running the show, she didn’t know how else to stop. The death she imagined was preceded by pleasure, a dreamy trance ending in blackness. It hadn’t occurred to her that the moments preceding this death—which, had she not fled, would be happening this week at an off-season Acapulco resort—would involve any actual pain, any stabbing or gunfire. The hotel would be pretty. She and her killer would check into a one-bedroom suite with sliding glass doors opening onto a balcony. She pictured herself at the fake Regency desk, feet sunk deep into white carpet, her hand invisibly led by his gaze, signing papers transferring her real estate holdings into the name of her killer.
Within a week of their first meeting, which took place at Chateau Marmont, her killer had said, “I want you to surrender control of your finances to me.” The idea had shocked her at first, but in a good way. As an action, it seemed liberating. Who would say such a thing, and who would agree? After leaving Michel, her two-decades older, not-quite-ex husband, in New York to start a new life in La, Catt had begun a career as a cultural critic. Given her wide range of tastes and lack of any degrees, the idea of supporting herself that way was a joke. So in her spare time, she’d turned her shrewdness and charm towards investing in real estate. It was the late 1990s and the city was full of foreclosures. Walking the desolate streets near downtown LA, she found it hard to believe that nobody wanted these stately old buildings, with their cavernous bedrooms and endless oak floors. In New York she would have traded her soul to live in such an apartment. Presenting herself as an affable amateur while part of her brain ran the numbers, she coaxed the bank’s brokers into accepting her low-ball cash bids. It was a game. The money meant nothing. Money was an abstraction. a child of the deconstructionist ’80s, Catt’s guiding belief was in chance, process and flux. Once set into motion, the game played itself. and it worked. Setting her sights on achievable goals and living modestly, she no longer had to beg and compete for adjunct teaching jobs. She could do as she pleased. So why, in the dead of night, when her brain finally slowed down, was she so troubled? “The bill always comes due,” a rock & roll colleague once cautioned when she explained her penchant for recreational sex. and she’d never believed this, because really what was the debt?
Before their first meeting, her killer—whose real name was Nicholas Cohen—established some rules: a classic BDSM protocol. She was not to ask questions. She was not to cover her legs with stockings or tights in His presence. She would give a truthful account of her response to all His commands after obeying. She’d assented with glee, because how can you play a game without rules? But it was cold that night and walking into the Chateau Marmont lounge bar, the long skirt and boots she’d worn to comply with his No Tights demand made her feel woefully overdressed. Bright boys and girls wearing gym shorts and pajamas—the hotel’s actual guests—were draped on sofas and cushions in front of the Spanish Colonial fireplace.
Wearing a black Nehru-collared armani jacket over a pair of pleated brown slacks, her killer was overdressed, also. Clearly the Chateau had changed, her killer remarked, since he’d “inked deals” in these rooms in the 80s. The air-quotes he placed around these dated expressions led Catt to surmise that his inspired purchase of rights to Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island— actually, half the Nick at Night playlist—during the first years of cable TV was merely a stop on a longer entrepreneurial highway. Deprived of the right to ask questions, Catt’s mind leapt into motion. and that was nice. But the jacket: When was the last Return of the Nehru? Did his jacket date all the way back to the early 90s?
Her killer was tall, trim, and well preserved in that LA way for his age, which she guessed to be in his mid-50s. The child of two Polish Jews, he told her his name was Nicholas Cohen. But what struck her most was his face: Too fluid for someone his age, it was “unformed,” as Michel might say. After ordering drinks, there was nowhere to sit except the freezing, unheated terrace. The restaurant was jammed and her killer had not thought to make reservations. He decided they’d leave. Catt’s car was in the garage. She’d grudgingly given the valet a twenty—fifteen dollars for parking, and a five-dollar tip. “Wait here,” her killer instructed. Muttering something about dings, not trusting valets to park his rare BMW, he disappeared up the hill where he’d parked on a side street for free. When her killer’s black car finally appeared, she tailed him half a mile east to a strip mall café where he ordered two glasses of cheap Pinot Grigio.
Legs crossed under her ugly, long skirt, Catt held her breath when he paid the check with his Amex. Would it come back declined? She was already frightened for him. Because over the drinks, a strange psychic transference took place. While her killer recited the highlights of his entrepreneurial life, she saw him see her unhappiness. She felt it leaving her body and entering his, through his eyes. After flipping the cable TV rights for a fortune, he’d devoted himself to scientific research and invention. Soon after that, he filed original patents for the remote keyless car entry device and purchased a house in Benedict Canyon. Secluded in Beverly Hills, he’d trained himself as a neurobiologist. Further genetic research had led to his invention of Novanex, a miracle cure for the symptoms of aging. Not a drug but a compound, the substance was now in its first round of clinical trials in Beverly Hills and Long Island. Trained as a classical pianist, in his spare time he’d composed, performed and recorded a three-disc album of electronic music, which would soon be released on his Halcyon label. Buzzed with excitement, Catt’s imagination circled the room while she held onto her wine glass. Free of the hard grip of ambition, her killer’s voice was at once aloof and intensely present, as if he’d entered a realm where abstraction was painfully visceral. He was all mind. Catt didn’t share this condition, but as she sensed it, the air between them grew heavy. He saw her seeing. They were joined in a double helix. Minutes after this recognition took place, her killer’s right eye started to twitch. The twitch was a dance that went on too long. Overloaded with content, his face was a physical mirror for her psychic malaise, and this was painful. She didn’t know where to look.
he’d seen him several more times after this. She knew then she had to protect him. Each time he wore the same clothes and his right eye twitched.
Still. Whenever she thought about signing her deeds over to him, she pictured her corpse on the floor of the Acapulco resort suite. at first, Michel and her friends would reject the bland, noncommittal report filed on the scene by the Mexican coroner. She imagined the private investigator they’d hire, the clues leading nowhere, the judicial gray zones of crimes committed on foreign soil, not prosecutable, anomalies wherever they turned. Enterprise thrived on anomalies. Eventually these effort would fizzle. Michel and her friends were artists and college professors. Rationalists all, they were not the type to seek closure. After one or two trips they’d conclude that none of these costly efforts would succeed in bringing her back. The investigator’s retainer would not be replenished; he’d return to New York or LA and her case would grow cold. Doubt, the existential disease of the 20th century, would trump narrative.
But since Catt was more realist than fabulist, she knew that her actual death at the hands of her killer would be something much slower. It would be a classical feminine death, like a marriage. But the process would be highly compressed, her disintegration achieved in one or two months. She saw her descent: Money rapidly spent and as it dwindled, her killer growing bored of her submission. Her dumb animal state would become oppressive to him. She would end up on the floor, not as a corpse but on her hands and knees, hollowed out, begging and lost. What frightened her most was that even this realist death held a certain appeal. There was nothing petty about it. It was a grand mal. It offered a knowledge she would not otherwise have, which at the time, seemed like the same thing as pleasure.
Chris Kraus is the author of four novels and two books of art criticism. She lives in Los Angeles.