Ivyland

A Novel

Miles Klee

“Delightfully manic and sharply intelligent... Klee is undoubtedly a formidable talent in the making—he can make sentences crackle with an intensity and humor not seen since David Foster Wallace.” —Publishers Weekly

“The exquisitely talented Miles Klee's Ivyland is a weird, sensitive, totally messed up and wonderful book.” —Choire Sicha, editor, The Awl

Ivyland is a harsh, spastic novel about drug-addled misfits clawing their way through a wrecked future that feels disconcertingly familiar. As if that wasn't enough, it's also got evil caterpillars, flung jellyfish, great prose, new drugs, sharp jokes, a stolen ice cream truck and a miracle tree.” —Justin Taylor

“Miles Klee’s fiction is not only devastatingly smart; it’s also ruthlessly hilarious. But I love it most for the manic comedy it manages to wring from despair: that’s a talent that’s likely to be more and more valuable in the coming years.” —Jim Shepard

“Apocalyptic, word-drunk, inventive, hilarious--and that doesn't begin to cover Miles Klee's exuberant first novel. His catastrophic caterpillars alone are worth the journey; both the vision and the language delight.”—Andrea Barrett

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About the Book

NAMED A FINALIST IN THE 2013 TOURNAMENT OF BOOKS.

 

It’s spring in Ivyland . . .

Debut novelist Miles Klee takes a landscape of drugs, decay, loss and, perhaps, hope, and manages to make the ensemble wryly funny: something only a few notable contemporaries such as Jeff Vandermeer and Michael Chabon have been able to do. Post-urban New Jersey is instantly recognizable in this interlinked series of short vignettes.

. . . and Lev’s living room is puddles of water and sun, and a bunch of those furry caterpillars are hauling themselves from surface to surface.

Populated by a bumbling, murderous citizenry of corrupt cops, innocents, ravenous addicts, lovesick geniuses, and cynical adventurers, Ivyland operates in the shadow of a giant pharmaceutical corporation that thrives on people’s weaknesses . . . and may have an even more sinister agenda. It’s our world, only a bit more extreme, and lovingly, precisely depicted with the adept skills native to a master of dark humor.

Publication March 15th 2012 • 250 pages
paperback ISBN 978-1-935928-61-4 • ebook ISBN 978-1-935928-62-1

About the Author

Photograph of Miles Klee © Isabel Klee
Miles Klee was born in Brooklyn. He studied at Williams College under writers Jim Shepard, Andrea Barrett and Paul Park, and now lives in Manhattan. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Awl, The Huffington Post, The New York Observer, Salon, The Millions, and many other publications, online and off-.

In the Media

The Morning News Tournament of Books, December 20th 2012

Full Stop, June 20th 2012

Weird Fiction Review, June 18th 2012

Tumblr, June 14th 2012

Other People Podcast, June 13th 2012

Riot of Perfume, May 22nd 2012

Neon, May 16th 2012

Blogcritics, April 15th 2012

The Rumpus, March 23rd 2012

Flavorwire, March 22nd 2012

Vol. 1 Brooklyn, March 21st 2012

The L Magazine, March 20th 2012

The Awl, March 20th 2012

Toronto Standard, March 16th 2012

The New Inquiry, March 15th 2012

Electric Literature, March 15th 2012

Largehearted Boy, March 15th 2012

The New York Observer, March 14th 2012

BOMB, March 13th 2012

The Wall Street Journal, March 9th 2012

Interview, March 7th 2012

Publishers Weekly, March 5th 2012

Bookmunch, February 29th 2012

Vol. 1 Brooklyn, December 7th 2011

New York Observer, August 30th 2011

Read an Excerpt

For whatever reason, chest-deep in a bathwater ocean, “Dr.” Leviticus Van Vetchen is screaming with joy.

“It’s alive!” he screams, and I’m ringing hard enough to be equally revved minus the exact circumstances of why.

“It’s alive!” I scream.

He pulls what’s alive from the water, cupping it like communion. I stumble closer through the surf and freak when a fish grazes my leg.

“A sea dollar,” I sing admiringly when I finally see.

“A sand dollar,” Lev corrects, turning it over. “An alive sand dollar.”

To my revulsion, the sand dollar has actual moving parts on the underside, wiggling hairs arranged in a star. The amount of Belltruvin in my system plus plain old revulsion makes me barf hard.

“Can I keep it?” I hear as a wave tosses my barf right back. One and only time he’s asked my permission. I spit and look again. The sand dollar’s hairs are churning frantically. “I’ll keep it alive.”

“This, what you’re doing right now,” I murmur, spitting, “is I think killing it.”

“Nonsense,” says Lev, who stabs a hole in it with his lucky scalpel. He threads a bit of seaweed through for a leash, ties it off and drags the little guy up the beach like some reluctant toy dog as wave after wave chops me down.

*

Hold on. Giving you the wrong impression. Lev’s dad, Brutus Van Vetchen, is a respected medical mind, inventor of the operation that bears his name. Leviticus inherited a fairly great brain from the man and zilch from his mom, who died of ignored appendicitis in some Hare Krishna offshoot commune whose pamphlets regular Krishnas wouldn’t wipe their asses with.

“Here,” Lev was telling me a few months ago, poking a dirty mechanic laid out on the silver table in the back of our truck. The business of stripping cars continues undisturbed in the garage outside, screams of metal cutting metal. “Just got to cut in and do the injection. Easy.”

“O. So what’s this guy actually want?” I pat the dude’s ample belly and something inside adjusts with a groan.

“Doesn’t matter what this guy wanted; I’m training you to assist me in something a little more complicated and lucrative than cut-rate coz surgery. If an Adderade drip would help you pay attention, say so.”

“VV.”

“VV.”

“You can do that?”

“If ably assisted. Like I said, surprisingly easy.”

“Why so expensive, then?”

“That’s the thing. When my daddy was first working things out, he lost all these volunteers. Tried different anesthetics, but these guys weren’t waking up. The surgery worked, aside from the fact that no one lived through it.”

As the machinery outside fades down, you can hear our guy snoring lightly.

“And out of nowhere one day, Daddy says, these three guys walk into his office, real genteel assholes in matching suits, even, say they’re with Endless, and they give him a tank with their weirdo insignia on it. Hooked up to a mask. All they say is he should call when he’s ready for more.”

“Hallaxor?”

“Gas of the gods. Keeps operating prices high. Plus it scrambles your brain’s limbic system for life if you’re among the allergic 2% of males, not that they admit it. Read a case where the kid lost. The ability. To laugh.”

“How’d they make it?”

“Think he asked? This was a miracle dropped in his lap. Ordered a million cases and kept his mouth shut.”

“Wish we had a tank. Mystical.”

“Lucky for you, we’ll need it for our new operation. A lot.”

“Don’t have that kind of money. Or a hookup.”

“Won’t need money.”

“D’you say only guys can be allergic?”

There’s a grunt. We watch the fat mechanic wake up and absently grope his legs.

“Where the fuck are my calf implants?” he goes.

*

“Funny,” I tell Lev the day before. It’s spring in Ivyland, and Lev’s living room is puddles of water and sun, and a bunch of those furry caterpillars are hauling themselves from surface to surface. “I remember this dumbshit Henri Jackson I think?”

“Henri,” Lev repeats, glassed over and ready to ramble.

“From high school. Said so many poor people died cause they couldn’t get VV.”

“Shit’s unethical, scare you into getting something can backfire that bad. Hundred times more people growing up half brain-dead and hormonally insane ’cause of the gas than dying cause of H12. God. Or you never got VV, and someone offers you gas at a party: shit, son, you can turn into the walking dead overnight. Speech fucked, and forget higher language processing. Circulatory system a shambles. Emotionally unbalanced.”

When the lights go out, we each ask if the other paid utilities. Lev tries his pirate juice-sucker in the basement, flipping the switch peevishly a dozen times. No dice: not a rolling blackout. Blotted sirens in the distance confirm—it’s citywide. We swallow some pills and head out to the corner, where we find Jack gnawing on Motherclucker Wings in his squad car, which is covered in caterpillar silk, meaning he’d sat there all day. Looting reports seep out of his transmitter.

“Jackalope,” Lev says, knocking on the roof. “What’s all this then?”

“Look up,” Jack says, snapping the transmitter off with a sauced finger.

If the bright new street sign isn’t a prank, Clark Ave. has been renamed “Bladderade Boulevard.” As in, the Adderade flavor that helps old folks with urine flow and control.

“Someone’s taking a territorial piss,” Lev says.

“And the locals would rather starve, given their history with that someone,” Jack says, opening a wet nap and wiping his chin. “Add the caterpillar invasion and fuck. Don’t know why we even try this law-and-order thing anymore. Let a dump be a dump.”

The distant sounds of shouting and breaking glass are like a TV heard through cheap walls. As we walk around to see which other streets have been changed, I wonder: when was the last time someone told me anything? Estronale Avenue. Belltruvin Lane is getting tear-gassed by a phalanx of beefy contract riot cops, who cheer and chest-bump each other when a can actually hits a civilian. Sure beats a Middle East war zone, boy. Hallaxor Heath is already empty, its trees stripped by caterpillars. Shreds of protest signs wheeling in the breeze past compliant brick row houses, building blocks that a kid outgrew, organized for neglect.

“I’m not sure they know what a heath is,” Lev remarks. “I’m not sure I know.” He concentrates. We float on. Things that happen here don’t matter.

We stop in Sipwell’s. I finish my Belltruvin and get really ringing, rejoice at the return of color. My line of piss glows in the destroyed bathroom stall, flecked with these piercing neon sparks. It’s heavenly. Sighing never felt so good. A crack cuts across the wall above the toilet, a small Φ engraved farther up. Maybe supposed to be an ass, because nearby someone’s written “Greeks ♥ Sodomy,” and below that, “The South done fell again,” and below that, “to get sodomized by Greeks.”

What strikes me as so funny is that nothing’s funny at all, and I take a moment to collapse with painful gasps of laughter that are themselves the funniest things and over too soon.

Back at the darkened bar, ThunderDan and Lightning Rod are on the air, roasting a stuttery caller alive, and Lev bobs sharply, swatting away candles as Patrick the bartender attempts to set them up. I nod a what’s-up to Leo Clafter, the only other guy around. He’s drinking Puff Adderade and grimaces at the bottle after each sip, flicking caterpillars that show up on the bar. Speaking of people messed up by gas. Even having Lenny around half your life is better than being that guy.

In walks the bald bouncer-looking Belltruvin Fairy, picking me out right away.

“Slow day,” I say, taking out my expired driver’s license so he can stick it in the slot of his chunky black handheld for a photo record. Lev says they use the info to spike your health insurance premiums with “suicidal tendencies,” but I don’t have insurance, so win-win.

“We got you on file,” the Belltruvin Fairy smiles, “forget it.” He tosses me a sample bottle. “You’re lucky,” he says. “Here last night, some joker tried to steal the whole bag.” Patting a duffle, the rest of his supply rattling inside. “Had to break the kid’s nose.” He heads for the bathroom, punching his open palm nostalgically.

“Sorry, Lev, don’t like it any more than you,” Patrick is saying.

“You love it,” says Lev. “Gives you a boner.”

“Wiseass, I talked to the Ivyland Mayoral Council fucking today, soon as I found out. They’re wiped. Broke as a joke.”

“Just try to sell out harder than this.”

“I’m supposed to feel sorry for you? Can’t make a living selling this Adderade shit, ’cept maybe to crazy DH right here. Endless’s got no alcoholic stuff at all. Thank God Lenny isn’t here to see this is all.”

Damn but Lenny is mean—probably worse when he gets paroled. I forgive him. Hell, I forgive everybody. And Ivyland, I love you too: a castle of cards that against sick odds just doesn’t fall over. Schools keep slashing budgets, stolen car parts spend a day under your hood before the next guy takes them, and craziest of all, people can still be polite. The pharma giants that built us up got crushed by Endless a decade ago, and now Endless is here to claim the spoils. Easier to change a place’s street names than bulldoze and redraw the map.

“Shot of tequila, please,” I say.

“Fuck’s the matter with you,” Lev goes.

“Hey. Rememberator 5000. Just got through saying there’s no alcohol,” Patrick reminds me.

“No tequila?”

“No nothing, DH, except this swill!” Lev yells, winging Leo’s bottle of Puff Adderade at a rickety stool, breaking off a leg. Leo seems vaguely satisfied.

“My mom’s sure not going to be happy,” I realize.

“I’m dreading this, yes,” Patrick sighs.

“Patrick,” Lev says, “during Prohibition they had these things called ‘speakeasies.’ ”

“You can stop right there,” says Patrick. “Might just sell.”

Lev’s face goes loose.

“To . . . Endless?”

“Or any lunatic who wants to run a bar stocked with their garbage. Or shit yes, Endless, if they want. They’re taking the whole rest of the block.”

“This kind of horseshit makes you go deaf,” sneers Lev. “Let’s go.”

“You gonna pay for Leo’s drink?” Patrick calls after us. “Wanna fix that stool?”

Finding the afternoon of hot early spring, I suddenly have the thought: why not be optimistic again? Ivyland smells uncommonly clean, or has simply lost its scent of smoldering garbage.

“Lev,” I say, “Sipwell’s is behind us. Wish I’d gotten some ice, now that I think about it. But see how peaceful.” I breathe in the peace around us, an insane peace. Every cell in my body abuzz. I mean really—do you know how nice things get? Because when it’s going good I can’t even take it, I’m feathers inside.

The bus whips past a corner where it’s supposed to stop. We drift toward the duck pond and Christ, this time of year, with the baby ducks … I’m pretty sure I’ll weep with joy if I see a duckling dip its top half into tea-brown water and shiver off a spray of drops when it comes back up for air. And I do. A team of caterpillars hover just in front of my face, rappelling on invisible threads.

“I know,” says Lev. “This place.”

“I need to sit down,” I say.

“I know.”

“We could try The Grate?”

“Jesus, DH, every bar is gonna be the same.”

“Wish we had some gas.”

“I know.”

Three Collars materialize with their popped pastel polos and cold silver neck chains and E.Clipse sneakers and bright hair frosted and dangerous in the sun.

“ ’Sup, Leviticus,” says their leader. “Know where a friend can get a T?”

“Bound to be more now that Endless is here, they make the shit,” says Lev.

“Yeah. Fucking named our street after their tampons.”

“Pussified our territory,” says the one in lavender.

“But yo,” says the leader, “I want the hookup with some cheekbones.”

“What’re you, fifteen? I shouldn’t do anything till after puberty.”

The other Collars laugh cruelly with sharpened teeth. Their leader pulls out his well-concealed piece and strokes my throat with the barrel, but the metal chills pleasantly at least.

“Or you’ll do it now,” he says.

*

Back home, we’ve got him on the kitchen Ping-Pong table with the other two off in the living room, going to town on my free Belltruvin. Only because Lev said to let them.

“Sure you want?” Lev asks.

“I’m pasty-white and zitty as shit. Don’t make me say I need it.”

So Lev puts him under with a handful of tranqs and makes a diagonal slice in each cheek with his lucky scalpel. Then he starts looking around the room for something to slip into the bloody slits. He finds an old square coaster and breaks it into two jagged halves that really don’t fit.

“Lev?”

“I know. Time to leave.”

“Okay.”

“You understand what I mean by ‘leave’?”

“Go away.”

“Go away from here. Ivyland.”

Ivyland. Clark Ave., or Bladderade Boulevard. New Jersey and its backward natural law. This wet, eroding house. Its mold. Suddenly I couldn’t be angrier at the places that made me, and a bubbling starts in my lungs from badly wanting gas, shrapnel that cuts up the bloodstream. This little pain is Lenny. This one is gridlock on Route 22. This is me fucking up with Mom. This is me, me, me.

“Let’s,” I say.

We leave the leader unconscious on the table and move into the living room, where his cronies are rung out and drooling—light poppers. We roll them over and take their guns and money and any Belltruvin they couldn’t cram in. Before I can stop myself I punch the lavender one in the face, to see how it feels, and he smiles back with a wet split lip.

Lev’s car won’t start.

“I feel tight,” I say, muscles locking.

We walk towards the Parkway to hitchhike, back past the duck pond, eventually passing the pink slab of a middle school.

An ice cream truck appears on the road. After feeling for the Collars’ money in my pocket I try to flag it down as Lev kicks at the curb, only when it won’t slow up a change crashes over him like a wave: he spins into the road, pulls his gun and starts firing wildly as the truck skids, chuckling that we’re going to get some ice cream satisfaction dammit, specifically a chocolate éclair bar he’s craved since the end of last summer when the trucks stopped running, and he’s so committed that I start shooting, which I maybe hoped would validate his gut reaction. Which I hoped said, “hey, your emotions can’t be wrong, and I’m also feeling that heady mix of frustration and adrenaline that makes shooting guns an attractive option.” But only Lev hits the thing, a big white snaking crack on glass that goes red. Jesus do I swear that.

The truck finishes its swerve to miss us, coasting to a crunching stop in thick hedges alongside the school, and when we get to it we see it’s crowded full of scared-looking people (for some reason most with briefcases), and the driver is hit—well, is probably dead.

“You killed him!” this woman with a goiter screams. “You gas-heads killed him!”

“What are you doing back here?” Lev asks, rubbing his temple with the grip of the gun, “This isn’t a bus, people.” Turning to me: “Don’t think they’re selling ice cream.”

“The song wasn’t on,” I say.

“Okay, out out out,” Lev says, and everyone bolts except the driver and one other dead person. As we reverse and get back on the road I turn the song on. It makes me ache just right. I drag the pair of bodies towards the back and go through every pocket. Lev finds an empty parking lot, grabs a wrench from the glovebox, jumps out, comes back in a minute with the truck’s license plate in hand. He starts the truck again.

“Lev,” I say, “it was a cop driving.”

Lev takes us to the soccer fields at the foot of Floods Hill, where they’re having a huge tournament. He pulls right in front of this other ice cream truck playing the same song as us, sweaty uniformed kids with fistfuls of money lined up. I remember the song out of nowhere, this ragtime number now weirdly overlapping itself, repeating on different cycles from two sets of speakers. The Johnstons’ real kid practiced it all the time that year.

The other truck driver is leaning out of his window to yell, but we can’t hear him over the songs grinding against each other in bad harmonies, and besides, he has a confusing accent. Lev tells me to sell ice cream while he handles things, so I shout to the kids that I’m giving away my stuff for free. They ditch the original line and mob my truck, shrieking, and as I go back and forth between the freezer and window I keep tripping over the bodies.

All this hoopla about the giveaway operation is pissing off the real ice cream guy even more; he jacks up the volume of his song, so I crank mine, and the kids in their muddy jerseys are so disbelieving it hurts. I shower them with popsicles and chocolate tacos and ice cream sandwiches. I need to be rid of it all.

Finally the real ice cream vendor steps out to get physical, but Lev appears between the two trucks, cocks his gun and puts a bullet through the guy’s windshield, making a giant twisted snowflake. Now it kind of looks like ours. The kids scream and run in no particular direction. Parents and players turn around and look from sidelines. The driver shrieks in a language; he’s lying in the grass, hands on head. Lev chucks the gun at him, jumps into our truck and drives drives drives.

“Won’t fool the dumbest cop in this town, even if that guy is an illegal.”

“Slapped our license plate on his truck to be safe,” Lev says. “We’ll get this to my cousin’s chop shop in Newark, make some adjustments. Take our cosmetic on the road.”

I get one look at the unrolling fields behind us, at Ivyland, at the children who fell over each other in the scatter, now staring down at their ruined ice cream like if they focus hard enough it’ll jump back into their hands, clean of dirt and grass. A last look at the kid whose birthday it might be, because he’s got this red balloon that he lets float away in the chaos, float up till it’s the head of a pin, till it’s nothing.

I got out of the hospital a while back. I’d never seen my mom cry like she did when I told them I didn’t need to be wheeled to the exit. Her shoulders jumped horribly with each sob. Her body wanted to be rid of a presence—me, I figured. I knew enough to let her keep going. Finally, on the ride home, somewhere in the smear of pocked concrete and For Sale signs I was slow to recognize as home, condemned houses standing merely because demolition teams were booked solid the next two years, she stopped long enough to say one thing: Thanks for sticking around this time.

I consider the bodies resting up against the freezers, their surprised faces, the ragtime still on maximum, a lone caterpillar crawling up the window’s rim, and I lose it. I don’t know. I guess Lev and I ruin people on the operating table, but they know the risks. And Lev says to shut up, ’cause all my shots flew off harmlessly into the trees, he killed them and he’s the one with peace to make. Now we’ll fix things, he says, help people from here on out, these two won’t die in vain. I say it’s not that, it’s that they didn’t expect it, they didn’t see it coming, and that’s not even what I mean.