Clubbed to death
James St James Sceptre, 320pp, £10
In March 1996 a drug dealer named Angel Melendez was murdered by a notorious American party and nightclub promoter, Michael Alig. Alig left the corpse in the bathtub of his New York apartment for several days before dismembering it. He then threw the remains into the Hudson River. A few days later James St James, celebrity and self-styled "club kid" extraordinaire, dropped by Alig's apartment, consumed drugs with his friend and heard his grim confession. For months afterwards the mystery of Melendez's disappearance built itself into a mild frenzy among the denizens of New York's club world. Much of the rumour and conjecture originated from the murderer himself, by way of remarkable indiscretion. Melendez's body was eventually found, and the police rounded up Alig and his accomplice, Freeze. A full confession was made, and the two men were charged and sentenced to life in prison. Disco Bloodbath is St James's stylised confession.
The book is written in a style reminiscent of Ken Kesey and Hunter Thompson, mirth and mayhem colliding, with nothing so pedestrian as a linear narrative to get in the way. But the real literary influences are cocaine and the drug Special K, a feline tranquilliser much loved by the club kids. From the outset Bloodbath is lurid and fascinating.
Much is made of the awkwardness of Alig's early social presence, his small-town upbringing and his obsession with and entry into New York nightlife. St James is especially light and nimble when describing the rapidity of Alig's ascent once he arrived in New York and how he became the party promoter who rewrote the rules of clubland, inventing the media-friendly "club kids" and throwing parties at the usual nightclub spots (Tunnel, Limelight), as well as impromptu events at a McDonald's and a subway station.
As drugs became more lodged in the picture, so, too, did increasingly bizarre behaviour, gruesome parties and casualties of the high life. In horrifyingly detailed episodes, the spiralling gyre of the nightclub life begins to unravel. As the club kids' pranks grew ever more outlandish, it became inevitable that something awful had to happen. And it did.
James writes in a such a breezy way that much of the book has the feel of a gossip column. His tone eerily combines the cute and the horrifying. He scatters bold lettering, ellipses, waggish capitalisations, italics and even skull and bones illustrations.
Bloodbath could, I suppose, be read as the story of a friendship between two fabulous queens, except that the clubs, outfits, shoes, make-up and drugs are all described more sympathetically than any of St James's friends and acquaintances. Of the murdered Melendez's doomed aspirations, he writes: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, he was going to be an actor. Or a writer. Or a singer. Yeah, yeah. So was your grandmother. And just look at her." And he reserves his most withering assault for the woman who attempted to buy her way into the nightlife scene: "Mavis dyed her hair purple! Crazy Mav! But strangely, on her, it just looked . . . normal. Style seemed to just slip off her."
Alig's confession is the centrepiece of the book and indeed of St James's life. It begins, closes and provides the middle of the book, an anchor for the freewheeling, disconnected bulk of the story. The most chilling section concerns St James's return to Alig's apartment. He is moved by memories. "And when I said that nothing could ever be the same for me anymore, that I could never be happy just dressing up and going out, that I could never find joy in nightclubbing ever again, you started crying so hard you got hiccups. And you hugged my knees and said that was the worst thing I could have ever said, that that was the one thing you never wanted to take away from me."
And yet, in taking that one thing away from St James, Alig gave him something else entirely: an awful springboard from which to launch a diabolical talent, a talent perfectly in tune with something Wilde once said: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."
The writer edits the New York style magazine "Black Book"