Cult of Loretta
By Kevin Maloney
Lazy Fascist Press (2015)
139 pages, $11.95
Reviewed by Alyssa Gillon
Kevin Maloney delivers Cult of Loretta like a shadowed face over campfire, a memory of destructive love, a web of relationships dysfunctional as they can get, all centered around whirlpool Loretta. “If a modern day mountain man came out of the wilderness with a story in his eye, this might be the thing he’d tell,” Brian Allen Carr says in his blurb. Loretta jumps off the page. I heard Maloney read a short story in a bar about a year ago and had a hard time separating the narrator from the writer. My impression was similar—that the story really happened, stemmed from a witty memory, that the typed page in his hand was just a prop.
The first page of Cult of Loretta puts all the cards on the table, reveals that narrator Nelson’s relationship with Loretta—the singular fixation of his youth—erupts in an emotional garbage fire that he’s never fully moved on from. Loretta haunts her devotees, forever scars them: they are “broken adults searching for her face in their wives, always missing something, always remembering.” These early pages set up the question that propels the novel forward, makes you lean forward in your lawn chair to ask, “Well, how bad was it?”
The answer is: the worst. Loving Loretta is a nightmare. After the first time he has sex with Loretta, Nelson “didn’t feel anything until three years later when he hit the ground.” Loretta’s particular concoction of beauty, pain, and selfishness is as addictive as “screw,” as seductive as a second chance at life. Nelson and the guys make the same choice with each second chance they get, like “any man with blood in his veins who had a chance to sleep with Loretta would take that chance and gladly be destroyed.”
These rebirths come up again and again in Loretta. Nelson’s buddy Tyson kicks things off with a snorted handful of Comet and comes back renamed Blackbird. The novella’s energy builds to manic as Nelson and Loretta devote themselves to the psychologically bizarre throes of “screw,” a drug more potent and bonkers than any known to mankind. The peak of the drug’s hallucinogenic experience is literally a rebirth. Men tired from heroin lie curled like babies; Loretta is reborn after an injury and overdose. Maybe if Nelson can try again, from the top, he can find a way to live that has meaning. I’m inserting my own teenage concerns into the narrative—how many hours did I spend reliving moments and tweaking my actions for a more favorable outcome? Maybe exaggerated, there’s plenty to recognize in Nelson at gunpoint worried that he “wouldn’t get a second chance at anything for all of eternity.”
Much like a drug, pursuing Loretta provides a temporary relief for Nelson’s existential crises. Frustrated with his venture into meditation, Nelson “started crying, but then Loretta came into the bathroom and peed sitting next to him” and the thought “At least there’s this. What beautiful music!” To the weighty “What does it all mean?” Nelson and friends cry, “Loretta,” and for a while stop asking the question.
As cult leader, Loretta is aloof and apathetic. She takes advantage of the men who love her, offering sex and limited tokens of love, keeping her devotees within reach in case she needs a favorite pair of boots delivered. Loretta’s winning the battle of who could care less, tells Nelson “I don’t think I love you the way you love me…I don’t think I’ll ever love anybody that way.” She’s a fair leader; Loretta is scathed. She hurts herself as badly as she’s hurt others. She’s both a victim and a hero, and although she functions as an object of obsession in the novella, she’s pretty dynamic.
Cult of Loretta is a quick and wild ride, funny in a way that makes a campfire-listener shake her head with disbelief at the survivor. At times the story reads like a drug memoir, and there’s some raw and gross imagery I’d rather not revisit. Other than that, spend a day or two lost in Nelson’s unrelenting and tumultuous love story. Nelson’s here to tell the tale, to provide a deadpan screen for a melodramatic story about obsessive love that sticks.