HERE'S THE BACK STORY of No Aloha: Ronald Reagan has been president for seven terms, though the country has, for obvious reasons, actually been under the rule of First-Lady-for-Life Nancy and her personal gestapo, the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Golden West has seceded from the U.S.A. and elected a televangelist, Bill Kingson, as governor, and its economy has collapsed. "Without consumerism to distract the North Americans," the narrator deadpans, "religious fundamentalism was their only remaining national trait. And God without shopping, as usual, led to fire and carnage." A religious war is waged against "sinners" -- that is, anyone who does not follow the tenets of Kingson's Team Jesus. UNNAA (United Nations' North American Arbitration) activist and retired South African President Nelson Mandela negotiates a cease-fire, but it doesn't hold. Fire and carnage continue.

This is where the action of Deran Ludd's frightening second novel begins. No Aloha: The Friendly Happy Music of the Past follows the lives of four people who try to forage their way out of this nightmare of America. It won't spoil the story if I tell you they don't make it. Their failure to escape is desperately obvious from page one. Deran Ludd is not out to write a tale of adventure and suspense, but to examine the excesses of contemporary American culture and to warn us about where we may be headed.

The main characters are a trio of teenagers, along with a cross-dressing little boy named Walter. By age, race, and gender identity, these four represent what is most reviled by a theocracy that separates people into racial and cultural pogroms. In one early scene, as they are about to move on, one character "looks back. A last check. Always things are disappearing, falling away, getting lost." She is checking to see that nothing's fallen from the satchel that carries the extra socks, crumpled cigarettes, and hunk of dry bread that constitute her entire worldly goods. Ludd wants us to think not only of what has fallen away from this satchel, but from this society. These four youths have been orphaned or abandoned by their blood families. They are homeless, in rotten health, and mostly illiterate. They have every reason to be hopeless.

Ludd first examined the demise of American society and the need for hope in his first novel, Sick Burn Cut (Semiotext(e) 1992). The world view of No Aloha is directly descended from that of Sick Burn Cut. Both books begin with horribly violent scenes. In Sick Burn Cut's Dennis Cooper-esque opening, a group of wealthy businessmen use Mary's drugged body for their sexual fun. No Aloha starts when a wounded boy is barely rescued from battle. The descriptions of "bloody clotted bullet holes" and "the eviscerated bits and remains of whatever" let you know this is a mind-numbingly gruesome world.

The person who delivers this wounded boy to the medics says, in the second line of dialogue in the book (page 12), "This boy is the Messiah! Get him help!" You never learn if this boy is a savior; you just know that everyone, in their own weird way, is looking for one. That's like Sick Burn Cut, too. The subtitle of that book is At Last, the Appearance of Our Lady of the Ugly Ones, in Spokane and it tells the story of Mary, a 31-year-old revolver-toting Seattleite who is mistaken by a group of Spokane kids for an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

In addition to being mistaken for saviors, Walter and Mary have in common that they are males who cross dress. What's Ludd up to with this? Is he suggesting that salvation is to be found in different gender roles? In the reversal of the "natural"? Or is it about the irony that those whom fundamentalists most despise will be the salvation of the world?

No Aloha is subtitled The Friendly Happy Music of the Past, and each chapter is named after some vapid lounge type act: "Hugo Montenegro and His Orchestra and Chorus," "Ferrante and Teicher," "Burt Bacharach and his Orchestra and Chorus." (My favorite chapter head, because it puts him in his proper post-Police, vapid music place: "Sting.") That this "happy" stuff is the background music for this bleak tale suggests that no matter how cheery and carefree American culture sounds, something else is always rumbling beneath it.

There's a cult in the book called the Repenters, who cut their ears off to symbolize that they have already heard the angelic trumpets. Deran Ludd wants us to listen to things we don't want to hear. We all know, not because we've encountered the original culture directly, but because we've seen it used in TV ads, that "aloha" can mean either a greeting or a farewell. By naming the book No Aloha, Ludd says that just saying goodbye to what's most ugly in America does not necessarily mean we'll say hello to something good.

Deran Ludd is a visionary moralist. Like Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake before him, he illustrates the worst we are capable of -- not merely to frighten us, but to compel us to change our ways. I hope we heed his warning.

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