Friday, April 6, 2018

The Perfume Burned His Eyes

By Michael Imperioli
Akashic Books     2018
253 pages     Literary

Well, I really goofed on this book. I didn't recognize the author's name, and I didn’t know who Lou Reed was, one of the main characters. Where have I been? If you don’t know either: Michael Imperioli, the author, is an actor, best known as a character on The Sopranos. Lou Reed, was a famous singer from the 70s and 80s, and the title, The Perfume Burned His Eyes, comes from one of his songs. 

The story takes place when the narrator, Matthew, is in his teens, and Lou Reed is at a low point in his life and career. Matthew and his mother move from Queens to an upscale apartment and an upscale school in Manhattan. Lou Reed and his girlfriend live in the same building. In the truest sense, Matthew comes of age as he relates to Lou as well as to a lovely girl from his class, Veronica, who claims to be a witch and who turns tricks for spending money. He becomes acutely aware of the way others relate to the world, and he grows in his own strength and his own wisdom. Matthew’s view of the world is very much aligned with the city, in all its gritty glory. Finally, the world becomes too much for him and he loses touch with reality for a while. The Booklist reviewer calls him “Holden Caulfield without the cynicism.”

Years later, Matthew meets up with Lou Reed again, and as he watches him perform magnificently, he realizes that they both have come far. “It made me see clear the fluid and idiosyncratic possibilities in our lives, or maybe more accurately: the fluidity and idiosyncrasy that is our lives. It made me see that there are escape routes out of hell, and if we are fortunate we can make a clean getaway and survive.”

The Perfume Burned His Eyes is told completely from Matthew’s perspective. His mother is seldom in the picture, although she does help out when Matthew falls apart. We know Lou Reed only through Matthew’s eyes. We also are aware of Matthew’s very real anguish about Veronica.   Matthew is a moral young man, and he knows that he is treading on dangerous ground as he interacts with her and with Lou Reed. 

As I read, I was reminded of another New York coming of age story that I read recently, Neon in Daylight. Inez, one of its main characters is very similar to Veronica. As a matter of fact, sometimes I got the two confused.

Michael Imperioli said in an interview that he wrote the book during a difficult time in his teenage son’s life, and he had been spending  a lot of time thinking about teenage angst. I could relate to much of it—having gotten three kids through adolescence as a single mother, and now watching teenage grandchildren deal with their own anxieties. I believe that he captured the setting, the times, and the coming of age beautifully. It was a compelling read. 

Here is Lou Reed singing Romeo Had Juliette from which the title The Perfume Burned His Eyes came.

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