Justine Moppett is 34, pregnant, and fleeing an abusive relationship in New York to dig up an even more traumatic childhood in Austin. Waiting for her there is a cast of more than a dozen misfits—a hemophobic aspiring serial killer, a deranged soprano opera singer, a debt-addicted entrepreneur-cum-madam, a trans matchmaker—each hurtling toward their own calamities, and, ultimately, toward each other.
“Reading Bill Cotter’s The Parallel Apartments is like taking some kind of word drug, but a new one, synthesized in a desert lab from molecules of Lipsyte, Dickens, Pynchon, Williams, Chabon, DeWitt, and Joyce, and then spun together with Cotter’s own unique particles to yield a book that produces an actual high when read. There’s micro-attention paid to sweatpants material and the feel of artificial cheese powder on fingertips and the bouillon smell of nether regions. There is sadness. There is loneliness. There are riffs that make me wish an actor were there to read to me aloud, so I could cry from laughter without needing to clearly see the page. This book is an experience—it is a never-read-anything-like-it-before work of brainy, heartfelt joy.” —Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers and The Effect of Living Backwards
“Cotter manages to be surreal, gruesome, and snortingly funny. Do yourself a favor and give in to The Parallel Apartments’ gravitational pull.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Funny and profane and more than slightly unhinged.” —Texas Monthly
Excerpt from The Parallel Apartments:
It was in late 1978 that six-and-a-half-year-old Murphy Lee Crockett realized he had no purpose.
He and his best friend, Quince Waelder, had been riding the ill-greased Tarlton Park merry-go-round, trying without success to get it to spin faster by using unstrung tennis rackets as oars, when Quince’s brother, Travis, who was thirteen, emerged from the mesquite at the park’s perimeter on his minibike, shirtless, shoeless, strong, squinty, mean, his face punctured with a mouth that could make a slur of any word. He skidded to a stop, sending a wave of gravelly dirt over Murphy and Quince.
“What’re you two gays doing,” he said, revving his bike, which made an oval of sheet metal, emblazoned with the number 69 and fastened to the chassis, chatter like a hi-hat. Murphy ignored him. Quince chirped shut up and took a swipe at his brother with his warped, slack-strung Wilson racket. It was a symbolic swipe; Travis was several yards away. Travis shut off his bike. All became quiet, except for the medieval Catherine-wheel creak of the decelerating merry-go-round. Murphy and Quince scooted backwards towards the center, where centripetal force was weaker and the median distance from Travis was greater.
“Chickens,” said Travis. “Gay chickens. Bok bok bok bgok. Bok bok. Bgawwk.”
“Shut your trap,” said Quince.
Murphy knew that if he jumped off first and ran for home, Travis would dog him on his bike, tackle him, and steal his shorts as a trophy. And that would give Quince a chance to run to his own house, where his mother would shelter him from his brother, at least until seven when it was time for her to go play bezique at cousin Coretta’s in Bastrop. Then Quince would be alone with Travis once again. Similarly, if Quince took off first, Murphy could make it home unmolested.
“Quince, run,” Murphy whispered into the back of Quince’s neck.
“No way Jose,” said Quince. “You run.”
“No way Jose.”
And so nobody moved.
“Hey you guys,” said Travis, “I know a way to make that go really fast.”
There was a tone to Travis’s voice, high and melodic, that Murphy did not recognize. It had a conspiratorial tone. Travis looked around, as though making sure they weren’t being watched by thieves who might steal all the coming fun, then got off his bike and let it down gently to the ground. He grabbed a bar on the merry-go-round, and let it drag him till they both stopped.
“Get off.” Murphy held his breath. “C’mon, I’m not gonna get you, Jesus.”
Murphy thought Travis sounded sincere. Murphy elbowed Quince, and they both carefully climbed off, sure to stay opposite Travis. Travis picked up his bike and walked it over to the merry-go round. He positioned the rear tire tangent to the curve.
“Gimme a hand.”
It did seem that Travis was contriving something that had nothing to do with capturing Murphy’s shorts, so after a moment’s consideration, Murphy elbowed Quince again. With bottom-of-the-food-chain caution, they made their way around the edge of the merry-go-round.
“Okay, Murph, grab the seat from underneath. Quincy, grab the other side of the seat. Don’t burn your knees on the exhaust pipe.”
As far as Murphy could remember, Travis had never called him by his name. Maybe they were going to be friends. Have a club. Race bikes. Smoke marijuana joints and beat up Quince together. Steal shorts from big kids. From girls! Travis grabbed the back wheel by the spokes.
They lifted. Travis guided the back tire and placed it carefully and precisely on the very edge of the merry-go-round, like a needle on a record.
“Okay, good. Now get on.”
For an instant, Murphy thought he meant on the bike, but Travis got on it instead. He started it, and let it idle.
Quince and Murphy climbed onto the merry-go-round.
“Okay, now get across from one another, near the edge. And get rid of the fucking rackets. You’re gonna need both hands.”
Travis slowly opened the throttle. The wheel spun on the diamondplate steel of the merry-go-round, stripping off a little of what was left of the old blood-clot-colored paint.
“Murph, give the dirt a little push with your foot,” said Travis. “A liiiittle push.”
“Now pull your foot back in before it goes under the wheel.”
The merry-go-round started to slowly turn. Travis sweated and squinted, concentrating on keeping the rear tire straight and in even contact with the edge of the floor of the merry-go-round. They picked up speed. Pitchfork-shaped systems of veins in Travis’s hands bulged as he held the bike steady, staring over his shoulder at the rear tire.
“Hold on,” said Travis, in yet another tone Murphy had never heard before, this one pitched at a note harmonic to the whine of the bike and conveying what Murphy decided was radical sincerity. They were going almost as fast as Quince and Murphy could go under their own power. Soon, they were going as fast as they had ever gone. Faster. Murphy shut his eyes. He had been holding a bar by his hands, but now he had the crooks of his arms and knees around it. It felt like he was being sucked into a Boeing engine. Surely his knees and elbows would give out, his limbs torn away, his torso with its quartet of blood-squirting stumps flung a hundred yards into the scrub-oak, where he would bleed to death, face up, and vultures would eat the eyeballs out of his head. Everyone knew that carrion birds ate the eyes first. Faster. The bike’s engine rose from a buzz to a hiss.
Then, a jolt and a scream. Murphy opened his eyes for an instant. Quince was gone. Another jolt. Murphy’s legs and arms opened out straight like switchblades, and then he was in space; an object in a chute of simple momentum. He hit the ground, bounced back up with fresh topspin, and tumbled end over end like a baton. He finally came to rest by the warped slide that he’d poured Orange Crush down earlier in the day. He looked up into the sky. A cloud shaped a little like Oscar the Grouch floated by. Somebody was crying. Murphy recognized Quince’s peculiar bawly gulps. No minibike engine hissing. A sudden stinging in one eye. Blood, from a split across the bridge of his nose. Travis’s head suddenly obscured Oscar.
“Got both you gays today.”
He waved Quince’s blue shorts in Murphy’s face. Then he pulled Murphy’s shorts off, lifting him momentarily off the ground. One of his Hush Puppies came off. He lay still.
“These smell like piss,” said Travis, holding Murphy’s many-pocketed tennis shorts by a single belt loop. “You still wet the bed, you weenie?”
Travis kicked him in the armpit, then disappeared. Oscar had reformed into a regular old cloud. Presently Travis’s minibike could be heard. The buzz of the engine diminished as he drove off into the mesquite. Then silence again. Even Quince had stopped crying. He waited for the cloud to change into something. Anything. A telephone, a Lucky Charm, a pineapple, a guillotine blade to chop off his head. But it didn’t. It just stayed a regular old cloud, scudding peacefully off towards San Antonio.