Emmy-winning actor Michael Imperioli’s debut novel, The Perfume Burned His Eyes, appears to present a simple coming-of-age tale – an innocent 16-year-old moves to New York City – but below the surface lies a complex and evocative narrative with emotional heft. The book’s title is taken from the lyric of a song by Lou Reed, but this novel might well have been entitled In the Thrall, since thralldom is the tumultuous space inhabited by this novel’s young narrator.
It is 1977, and Matthew and his mother move from the borough of Queens to Manhattan. Uprooted, Matthew finds himself in a new school and job as a delicatessen delivery boy. He delivers to a stranger two flights up from his apartment, a man with a guitar, sitting on the floor next to his exotic girlfriend, Rachel, who spouts references to reincarnation and karma. The man is over-the-top and mercurial and hears melodies in pure speaker-static. The man is engaged in birthing what will eventually become known as ‘punk rock’. The man is Lou Reed.
Imperioli takes a unique approach to this genre, tying his protagonist to an actual musical icon shown working out lyrics that will end up in his songs, including “Street Hassle” and “Romeo Had Juliette”.
The narrator is immediately swept up into the bewildering maelstrom that is Lou Reed. Over his head and off-balance, Matthew continually tries to please him. Reed gives Matthew tasks where success is barely possible. When Matthew tries to perform them, Lou is already off on other tangents requiring new tasks, such as driving a van (without a license or experience) across the city in a torrential rush-hour rainstorm to deliver a heavy piece of musical equipment.
In a bar for the first time, Matthew must engage with the streetwise bartender to order drinks for Reed and a drug dealer, both of whom disappear. Matthew, looking for Reed in the men’s room, ends up having to copy onto paper towels a lengthy paranoid screed scrawled on the stall by Reed. Matthew is often found waiting for Reed to return from bathrooms. Matthew is in the thrall of Lou Reed, and it does not end well.
Matthew, befriended in school by Veronica, who is into both witchcraft and turning tricks for cash, is soon in love but finds it difficult to keep up. She buys him a talisman to wear for “protection” and, to “redeem himself”, requires him to accompany her to a friend’s apartment to watch porn cast onto the wall by an antique projector. Matthew tells us that Veronica is “streetwise, mature and mystical … I would have followed her down into the sewer … until she was ready to come up for air.” Matthew is in the thrall of Veronica, and it does not end well.
Matthew is taken under the wing of these strong characters, but in each case, this normally protective relationship is turned on its head. Imperioli famously played the role of Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos, and the reader might recognize this inverted dynamic echoed in the relationship between the characters of Tony Soprano and Christopher, where being taken under one’s wing carries its risks.
The author presents this first-person account in the language of a teen trying to please everyone. Imperioli deftly conjures the city’s mean streets and their denizens, recreating the milieu complete with sights, smells, and music from jukeboxes. Imperioli’s language is vivid and specific (e.g., Matthew noticing Rachel’s facial stubble growing through the make-up), and he knows how to put his sympathetic narrator under pressure. As Matthew strives to ingratiate himself, his internal tension is palpable.
There is a Massachusetts road trip where Matthew and his mother stop in Salem, touring the home of a judge who had sentenced many women for witchcraft in the 1600s. Oddly, even though this visit occurs in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy involving Veronica, who had immersed herself in witchcraft, she is not mentioned. The road trip also includes a diner scene that hews perhaps too closely to Jack Nicholson’s iconic diner scene in Bob Rafelson’s film, Five Easy Pieces.
Also problematic is Matthew’s extreme reaction upon finding Reed’s apartment empty, including transcribing what he thinks could be Lou’s final lyrics from a wall onto his own body. The consequences of his actions are so outsized that one can question whether the author has laid a foundation sufficient to make this climactic plot point believable.
That said, however, The Perfume Burned His Eyes is a deft debut with a poignant epilogue. It is 2013, and adult Matthew is driving the 101 in the rain out of Los Angeles, crying in the immediate aftermath of the news of Lou’s death. “I cry for never having known you once I was old enough to understand who you really were,” Matthew thinks, “and the magnitude of the art you made.” While this scene could well have descended into cliché, Imperioli avoids this pitfall as he brings his strong story home.