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Never having been to New York, you think you know the place. Drawn in black and white, there’s the privileged city (Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Jay McInerney), Woody Allen’s (a middle-class bohemia were people generally live nice lives, a bohemia which serves as backdrops to the works of Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer) and the down-and-dirty Gotham, a less mannered New York, the kind Rudy Giuliani swept clean (retold in the stories of Arthur Nersesian, Jonathan Ames, Dennis Cooper and Dan Fante‘s Spitting off Tall Buildings). B.H. Fingerman’s Bottomfeeder (as the title would suggest) draws from the latter:

“Hey, remember how great New York City was back in the seventies and early eighties? Oh wait, I’m sorry. It was a complete shithole. Yeah, that’s right. It was a bottomless cesspool just oozing with filth, depravity, and depredation. The gutters were chocked with litter, the subways were covered in graffiti and garbage and everything smelled like piss or worse. Well, the patina of those departed glory days seems to have made a comeback.”

Bob Fingerman, a man familiar with the monochromatic world (with grey tones), cut his teeth as a comic book guy, and a very good one at that. The grungey semi-autobiographical Minimum Wage series he successfully reworked into the graphic novel Beg the Question, an early to mid-nineties anti-Friends about working-class hipsters Rob Hoffman and Sylvia Fanucci set in a living and breathing Brooklyn, a book which counts Janeane Garofalo and Augusten Burroughs amongst its fans. Kudos has come from the likes of Jerry Stahl who has described him as “the Marcel Proust of low-end, contempo urban torment.” And there it is: Bob Fingerman’s Beg the Question was a very literary graphic novel, from Rob talking of Stahl in the strip to Jack the literary stalker who bothers Martin Amis.

As fans of Fingerman’s comic books will know — including the recent (very colourful) zombie-romp, Recess Pieces — he can not only plot decent storylines, but nails dialogue remarkably well. Bottomfeeder, his debut prose novel, won’t disappoint. Philip Merman works a crummy job for a photo agency — (“At least I don’t work in a cubicle. That would be the worst.”) — as a means to an end: “I used to have ambition but I’m not sure what it was. Something to do with photography, but I don’t even own a camera. And what am I going to take pictures of? And for what purpose would I take them? To sit and look at them? It’s not like I’m going to sell them or have anyone to show them to. So I watch TV. I go to the toilet. Maybe I read a little and then go to bed. And this is my life. Sound familiar?”

Merman, though, is not your average schmuck — he’s a vampire, albeit a vampire fed-up with his circumstances: “Maybe this whole immortality thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Oh, sure, they pump it up like it’s going to be some nonstop party, but let me tell you something: don’t believe the hype.

In the tired, old genre of vampire fiction, in which Bram Stoker’s Dracula is taken as a blueprint is over-egged, Fingerman manages to bring some new flavours to the table. Merman has never “mastered that whole Bela Lugosi sex vibe. I don’t stare into eyes and breathily seduce with Eastern European charm.” Rather, he practises “cut-rate vigilantism,” feeding on stuff located “several layers beneath the dregs,” lowlifes from the bowels of the city, nobody who’d be missed.

The “junkie in need of a fix” theme is explored to a certain extent, but when Merman meets his kind, the issue of class becomes prevalent. Flirting with the rampant hedonists of the Euro-trash scene, only serves to underscore Merman’s blue-collar background.

Fingerman’s tale is existential — Merman is horrified with being a vampire, but balks at the group therapy session he’s taken to — but it owes less to Anne Rice’s flouncey creatures of the night and unlike her chronicles, never becomes bogged down with metaphor. Written at a fast clip, Bottomfeeder reads more like Bukowski with sharp, pointy teeth, though Fingerman’s trademark gallows humour is never too far away: “I’d never considered the possibility of handicapped and retarded bloodsuckers. It never crossed my mind. How much does that suck?”

Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika. Read an interview with her here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 19th, 2006.