Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love – a campy dark comedy for the angry and the disenchanted.
Despite everything you know and value, Carlos Allende’s new novel COFFEE, SHOPPING, MURDER, LOVE (Red Hen Press; June 21, 2022) will make you root for its bitter, spectacularly superficial, and highly immoral protagonists. The story is both an experiment in empathy and a savagely camp, relentlessly unsentimental, incisive account of our worst impulses and our current deranged political moment. It’s a brilliant, laugh-out-loud work of dark comedy.
Set in Los Angeles, a year before same-sex marriage became legal, the novel follows the misadventures of two gay men for whom it didn’t get better: Jignesh Amin, an overweight, angry Indian-American working as a bookkeeper, and Charlie Hayworth, a socially inept white guy from Leitchfield, Kentucky. After Jignesh murders the beautiful office intern because she insults his writing, and Charlie starts dating Jignesh because he wrongly believes he’s rich, the two men embark on a madcap journey that includes a few other deaths, a money-laundering scheme, a gay cruise, and an ass-backward trip to Los Cabos, Mexico.
Last November, I found a dead body inside the freezer that my roommate keeps inside the garage. My first thought was to call the police, but Jignesh hadn’t paid his share of the rent just yet. It wasn’t due until the thirtieth, and you know how difficult it is to find people who pay on time. Jignesh always does. Also, he had season tickets for the LA Opera, and well . . . Madame Butterfly. Tosca. The Flying Dutchman . . . at the Dorothy Chandler . . . you cannot say no to that, can you? Well, it’s been a few good months now—Madame Butterfly was just superb, thank you. However, last Friday, I found a second body inside that stupid freezer in the garage. This time I’m evicting Jignesh. My house isn’t a mortuary . . . alas, I need to come up with some money first. You’ll understand, therefore, that I desperately need to sell this novel. Just enough copies to help me survive until I find a job . . . what could I do that doesn’t demand too much effort? We have a real treasure here, anyhow. Some chapters are almost but not quite pornographic. You could safely lend this to nana afterward!
COFFEE, SHOPPING, MURDER, LOVE will leave you cackling while also weeping at what shame does to the psyche, how social media demolishes the spirit, and how much fun it is to conjure abject moral decrepitude. Read below for an excerpt and Q&A with the author.
One time, Tommy caught me looking at him, and I smiled. I couldn’t help it. I wanted Tommy to invite me to his fabulous plantation-style house for a sleepover. You can’t reply with anger when someone smiles at you, can you? Well, Tommy did. He and his friends chased me through the schoolyard, and when they caught me, they threw me headfirst into a garbage bin.
“Why did you do it?” the principal, Ms. Sebold, asked him.
“Because he’s so faggy!”
“I know he’s faggy, but that’s no excuse.”
Oh, Ms. Sebold. I know I was faggy. I still am, and I will always be, I’m afraid. I used to butch up my walk, pretending I held big pomelos under my arms, as I walked down the streets of Leitchfield, Kentucky, when I was a teenager, but ever since I moved to California, I just flutter around, fabulously faggy indeed, throwing kisses and benedictions in every direction. Now I can laugh at your improper use of offensive words, Ms. Sebold, but back then, being called a fag by a teacher hurt as much as being thrown headfirst into the garbage bin had before. Maybe more. You don’t tell a nine-year-old boy that he’s faggy. You tell him that he enunciates well and keep quiet about the peculiarities of his demeanor.
Tommy got suspended for three days, and the school counselor had a talk with my parents. He suggested conversion therapy. My father proposed that I join the boy scouts. He thought that that might be enough to repress my effeminate mannerisms. I thought that that would be a fantastic idea and did a series of pirouettes to celebrate it. I loved the shorts, the cap, and the badges. And when I learned that the boy scouts uniform included a sewing kit, I almost fainted.
“We’re going to do embroidery?” I asked. “Like the sisters in Little Women?”
My mother started crying. In one of her rare compassionate moments, she pulled me to her bosom, and, between sobs, she called me her sweetheart. She’s the one that turned me gay, I suppose.
I felt incredibly disappointed when I found out that the regular sewing kit, the one that most cub-scouts carried, had only threads in four colors. Black. Gray. Military green, and white. Imagine trying to embroider a Strawberry Shortcake or a My Little Pony with only those four colors. You need blue. You need pink. You need purple! The sewing kit was but an emergency kit, meant not for doing embroidery
but for mending rips and sewing buttons.
The meetings weren’t that fabulous either. Au contraire, I got beaten, bashed, and insulted every time by those little barbarians. I got knocked unconscious, playing tag. Playing tag! Can you believe it?
Now, the pack leader, Akela, was this twenty-something, Black-Irish guy with a permanent stubble whom I found rather intriguing. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the tuft of hair poking out above his collar. It was as if Tommy had killed me and I had been sent straight to faggy heaven. Akela liked me too. Or at least he felt sorry for me, I couldn’t tell.
“Are you okay, buddy?” He used to say, extending a hand to help me stand up after one of the boys had tripped me.
“I’m all right,” I’d reply, cleaning the blood from my nose, pulling down my shirt and offering him a smile that now I realize must have made me look as crazy as Vivian Leigh playing Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
A year or so ago, Tommy came up on my Facebook feed as a suggested friend. He no longer goes by Tommy, of course, but by Thomas. He graduated from Brown University. He’s married and has two girls. His forehead became more prominent, and he has a bit of a dad bod, but that only makes him more attractive. I was so in love with him, despite everything. Tommy was everything I would never be: wealthy, handsome, athletic, and manly. He’s shirtless on his profile picture. He’s on a boat, carrying a big mahi-mahi he has just caught. Seeing him laugh in that picture reminded me of that other time he caught me, dropped me to the floor, and while his friends held my legs and arms, he sat on my chest and forced me to open my mouth with his fingers. Is he fixing to kiss me? I remember I thought. I closed my eyes, only half horrified. When I opened them again, I saw a thick, yellowish phlegm coming down . . .
Life’s so weird. I look now at Jignesh, glaring at the car in front of us as if he was about to ram into it. One can exchange all sorts of bodily fluids—the number of times I’ve eaten ass!—but that one time Tommy forced me to eat his phlegm, I cried in my bed for an entire weekend.
I’m sure that when Tommy remembers it, he feels guilty. He and his friends must giggle with embarrassment when they meet for a beer, and loser Charlie comes up in their conversation. “We were so mean to that poor bastard,” they probably say, then finish their drinks and hop in their Lexi or their Bimmers or whatever expensive vehicle they drive now, and go home to their wives, watch TV on their sixty-inch flat screens and hope their kids don’t grow up to be as awful as they were. I know they feel guilty because one of Tommy’s friends apologized once, via Twitter, so my forty-two followers could learn what a loser I used to be in elementary school, and his three hundred and fifty thousand followers could see what a big man he had become. He received a lot of praise. I know because they included me in every reply. I tweeted something along the line of thank you. It means a lot to me, #itgetsbetter . . . Way to go, Joe! one of his followers replied. So proud of you, Joe! another did. You’re a big man, Joe, with a big heart, and deserve the best, tweeted another.
Q&A WITH CARLOS ALLENDE
Carlos Allende is a media psychology scholar and a writer of fiction. He has written two previous novels: Cuadrillas y Contradanzas, a historical melodrama set during the War of Reform, in Mexico, and Love, or the Witches of Windward Circle, a horror farce set in Venice, California. Based on his research on narrative persuasion and audience engagement, he developed the course The Psychology of Compelling Storytelling that he teaches in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. He lives in Santa Monica with his husband.
Where did the idea for COFFEE, SHOPPING, MURDER, LOVE come from?
Growing up, I had a recurring nightmare: I dreamed that I had killed someone in the kitchen and that I had to get rid of the corpse before my mother found it. I used to wake up believing that I had really killed someone. The feelings of guilt were so intense I would spend a few minutes sitting on my bed trying to remember whom I had killed. With time, I realized that the corpse represented the shame I felt for being gay.
Years later, now happily married and living in Los Angeles, I had the dream again. I realized I had to canalize those feelings into a story. I did not want it to be something unpleasant, though. I wanted to write something easy, a campy dark comedy, silly and unapologetically frivolous but disturbing enough to make readers think.
I had no plot, so I decided to recycle an old exercise from a writing workshop where the prompt had been a broken coffee pot. In that story, the office manager keeps breaking the pot to force the office intern to go get coffees for everyone. I titled the first sketch Ms. Evilseed’s Crime, and it was going to be the true-life story of a dear friend of mine whose husband left him for a younger man and also because he was insufferably bitter and negative—I love tragic characters. But then I got too busy revising the final draft for my previous novel Love, or The Witches of Windward Circle, and I temporarily abandoned the project.
Months later, another friend told me that he had been arrested once. I couldn’t believe it! He was the nicest person I’ve ever met. I decided I needed to tell his story instead. His felony, unfortunately, had been rather dull; it wouldn’t make for a good book. I was, nonetheless, already revved up. I would tell the story of a lifelong victim of prejudice pushed to a life of crime. I identified a first victim, the office intern, and gave him a paramour, Charlie, inspired by another dear friend. Ms. Evilseed died; the broken coffee pot survived; Charlie became tied to Jignesh, and the title changed to Coffee, Shopping, Love, Murder. It wasn’t until I read the title aloud that I realized that Murder and Love needed to switch places.
COFFEE, SHOPPING, MURDER, LOVE is a romp of a read, despite the fact that the two protagonists are absolutely irredeemable characters. How did you manage that?
We root for Jignesh and Charlie because we’re inherently attracted to others’ pain. Not because we enjoy seeing others suffer, but because we want to help. It’s in our nature. Sympathy, however, relies on perception, and perception relies on clarity. Thus, I made sure their distress was always evident and the manner to resolve it clear enough so that it would become the story’s goal. Then, I just planted a series of challenges that delayed goal attainment and constantly rewarded the reader’s progress with humor. One learns to like them and enjoy their misadventures, not because of what they do to others, but because of what they give you, as a reader: a lot of laughter and excitement.
You’ve said much of this story, and the shame your characters feel is borne out of the way you and other gay people were treated for generations. And despite recent improvements, that shame and anger you felt have never fully gone away. How did that manifest itself in this book?
Jignesh and Charlie are, of course, cartoon exaggerations, but they represent two parts of me and, I presume, many queer people. A part that is still angry for being forced to feel inadequate, and a part that still feels inadequate and wishes to be saved. Both are the product of a life of abuse. Things have changed, of course. Nowadays it’s okay to be gay. However, the scar remains. Just like you cannot erase your accent when you move to a new country, you cannot change what life made you. Jignesh and Charlie represent the avoidant and anxious dimensions of people growing up with insecure attachment. In the case of Jignesh, because he is big and strong, constant rejection leads him to become arrogant and unkind. He wants to be accepted and attain recognition, but he doesn’t believe he can trust anyone. In the case of Charlie, because he’s weak and small, the unrelenting abuse turned him into an incompetent pushover. He’d be willing to turn to anyone for help. In the end, all they want is to be loved.
Do you expect the themes in this book to resonate with young gay people as much as they do with older generations?
I hope they do, but I am not sure. I wrote the novel thinking of a middle-age-and-older audience, and it is social satire. Younger audiences may not understand Jignesh and Charlie’s idiosyncrasies because being gay in the 21st century is very different from what it was in the 20th century, and both characters are products of the time when they grew up.
Why are black comedy and camp the right genres to explore ideas of guilt and shame?
Guilt and shame can be heavy subjects. Their effect multiplies if a story feels too personal, and nobody reads stories to feel bad. We read stories to improve our mood, reduce stress, or feel moved and inspired. Readers need to experience some pain because pain makes us engage, but if a story causes just too much pain, we abandon it. To stand the hits, readers need to be rewarded with occasional instances of joy, and few things make us experience more joy than having a good laugh. Humor reduces the fatigue caused by experiencing too much distress. Black comedies can be the right genre to explore heavy subjects because they provoke enough discomfort to spark change and amusement to make us want to stay and listen to the whole message. Camp is pure irony. Camp is funny because it is bad and because it is an accurate description of our most private feelings, those we strive to conceal from others. Camp allows us to laugh at ourselves without running any risks by putting the embarrassment in others.
Do Charlie and Jignesh deserve sympathy?
We don’t grant sympathy; we respond with sympathy. We don’t root for those who deserve our attention but for those whose distress is too evident to ignore. We can’t help it. It’s instinctual. Sympathy doesn’t arise from a simple judgment of morality, sympathy is an automatic empathic response, born from an understanding of what others are going through and enhanced by similarity and the rewarding effect of association. If you can recognize a little of yourself in Jignesh and Charlie, and if you find them funny, you’re more likely to sympathize with them, horrible as they may be.
Given that the two main characters are so morally repulsive, I hope it’s okay to ask, how much of your life is in this book?
A lot. I worked in vacation rentals for a long time, am married to an interior designer, and I based many of my characters on the worst possible version of people I actually know, mixed with a lot of myself. I draw inspiration from an authentic German intern for Nina, and a real Indian-American for Jignesh, although these people were close friends in real life and much, much nicer. I just liked how the two looked together. I believe “Nina” is safe back in Germany, and “Jignesh” is an adorable guy. Charlie was inspired by one of my best friends and Clara by a former co-worker. Even minor characters, like Jana and Lucille, were inspired by real people. I’m afraid I have no imagination. One thing must be said, though: the greed, the crimes, the selfishness, and the loose morals are all mine. Even the coffee addiction is mine. I simply stole other people’s clothes and had fun doing all kinds of despicable things in their name. What writer hasn’t done that?
The novel offers a harsh criticism of our addiction to social media and the superficiality of American, specifically Los Angeles culture. Why did you point your ire in these directions?
It’s not ire; it’s artistic expression. I love Los Angeles. This is where I live and where I have been the happiest. Los Angeles is my target not because I hate this city but because I love it. And because I love it, I want to celebrate it. Los Angeles is my source of inspiration. Now, lovely events don’t make for good stories, and nice characters are terribly dull, so, sorry, Angelenos, I had to draw from the worst of you, and your shallowness is both true and legendary. Why not use it for laughs?
There are, nonetheless, two things from American culture, not just Angeleno culture, that I wanted to criticize. The first one is our adoration for the all-mighty hero. Yes, we need good examples, but I don’t think it is healthy that we always have to identify with the good guy for lack of relatable villains who could teach us a lesson. It creates the false illusion that we are always good and that it is the others who are bad. But we’re not always good. We’re sometimes selfish and mean. The bad guys aren’t a different species. So I wanted to create dissonance. I wanted my readers to root for morally repulsive characters while fully recognizing their behavior as highly reprehensible and impossible to justify so they would realize that sometimes, we are the oppressor. I wanted readers to experience what it feels like to be the bad guy and thus recognize how selfish we can be.
The second is how we use social media. We tend to use social media to enhance our self-esteem. The likes we get for a post become a substitute for others’ approval and an indication of where we rank in society. But self-esteem does not depend on others’ approval so much as on mood, on doing and experiencing things that make you happy. Getting recognition feels good but striving for recognition all the time doesn’t. It is incredibly taxing and, ultimately, a waste of time and resources.
Carlos Allende’s novel COFFEE, SHOPPING, MURDER, LOVE will be published by Red Hen Press on June 21.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto with a focus on tourism, lifestyle, entertainment and community issues. He has written several travel articles and has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He’s willing to take on any assignments of interest, attend parties with free booze, listen to rants, and travel the world in search of the great unknown. He’s eager to discover the new, remember the past, and look into the future.