Asphalt (novel)

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This article is about the Carl Hancock Rux novel. For other uses, see Asphalt (disambiguation).
Asphalt book cover

Asphalt is a dystopian novel of speculative fiction by Carl Hancock Rux published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in 2004.[1]


Racine, an expatriate DJ returns from an ill-fated stay in Paris to a war-torn New York City and finds himself lodged in a deteriorating civil war era brownstone mansion in a Brooklyn neighborhood devastated by poverty and despair.[2] Here he meets Manny, a cross dressing free spirit with a penchant for women and architectural history; Mawepi the stout bouncer and translator for the clairvoyant yet reclusive Holy Mother Lucinda; and Couchette, an emotionally scarred erotic dancer mired in denial regarding her famous jazz musician father's suicide. Immediately Racine finds himself creating the sonic backdrop for intense parties, orgies and conversations while Manny and the other residents chase their dreams in a transitional New York. Couchette is the troubled spirit with whom Racine shares physically intimate and emotionally frustrating moments. The story weaves depictions of Racine's childhood, including his mother's death by fire when he was an infant; his experiences living with his brother, Frederick, in the custody of an uncle who is a disturbed religious zealot; Frederick's mysterious accidental death; Racine's eventual abandonment and years in foster care under the guardianship of a caring alcoholic; and the truth of his recent trip to France to visit a former schoolmate, Benoit, and his girlfriend. Rux infuses his tale with Greek mythology, mirroring Racine's tragic life experiences with that of Euripides' Hippolytus who is physically dismembered by a monstrous force on his journey to redemption. The characters in Asphalt all employ different strategies for abandoning experiences that have consumed and distorted their views of reality and their conflict with memory and poses a rhetorical embedded question in abandoned buildings and the psychological aftereffects of war-torn cities as to how cultures and individuals handle suffering, loss and unresolved tragedy.

Principal characters[edit]

  • Racine—the protagonist DJ returned from a life abroad in France to a war torn New York City.
  • Couchette —erotic dancer whose mother has absconded to Bali and whose jazz musician father killed himself in the very brownstone in which she now lives.
  • Manny—heterosexual transvestite drug dealer, former student of architectural history; anti-imperialist radical and pyromaniac.
  • Benoit—Racine's childhood friend; an aspiring filmmaker.
  • Nathalie—Benoit's girlfriend.
  • Lucinda—Elderly Spanish speaking spiritualist known by her sobriquet "Holy Mother Santa"; landlord of a squatter's den.
  • Mawepi—Lucinda's guardian and translator.

Secondary characters[edit]

  • Frederick—Racine's older brother who died mysteriously when they were children.
  • Eddie—Racine's great uncle, a World War Two veteran turned disturbed religious zealot.
  • Emma—Eddie's twin sister, Racine's maternal grandmother.
  • Geneva—Racine's mentally ill mother who died in a fire when he and his brother were children.


L.A.WEEKLY "Asphalt,written largely before 9/11, is thick with images of and meditations on terror and terrorism, personal and cultural devastation, a post-apocalyptic New York, U.S. citizens living under a near police state, while citizenry of all races tote guns, real and metaphorical, whose bullets are anger and sadness. The music itself — rap, trance, jazz, rock & roll, R&B, techno, industrial — is a major character in the novel, underscoring emotion and politics, allowing Rux to excavate the damaged inner lives of his characters while ruminating on how the world around them feeds their despair and dares them to rise above self and surroundings."[3]

BLACK ISSUES BOOK REVIEW “The first lines… promise a mélange of literary forms and edgy melancholy characters…part postmodern parable, part contemporary urban portrait…it is fully formed, like an existential poem.”

EXAMINER "What makes Asphalt so interesting is that it showcases once artists amidst a post-apocalyptic culture that is firmly within the grips of a police state. The artists that (Racine) stays with are squatters living in a once-magnificent urban brownstone that has since decayed; people living in the French existentialist tradition. They can only get by, by having techno-inspired raves at night where they sell drugs and alcohol to all those who attend. All must contend with uncertain futures and a deep sense of loss, as though the world they once knew has crumbled all around them, and the only relief they can find is in each other and their commitment to whatever talents they have left. Rux's novel is written beautifully in a neo-1970s hipster style, and his writing is so effective because the attitudes, values, and mores that these artists abide by is subtly woven into his narrative and washes over us in undulating waves, constantly reminding the reader that art is indeed a state of being in many respects and not simply something that one does or is defined by the places or the conditions where one lives. Asphalt stands as a tribute to the resurgence that hit New York City's cultural hub just before the World Trade towers fell, and the result is a literary reminder of what many artists were once striving for when they first started out on their journeys, as the book takes the reader back to what had initially inspired them. But the tragedies of both poverty and exile forever remain capstones of that which once held so much promise. Even though Rux's portrait is one of decline and not of resurgence, there's no question that there's an heroic struggle that these artists endure here that forever remains the same. The novel transcends both time and space.“

PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY "The return of a club disc jockey to his Brooklyn roots (and a near-future, postapocalyptic New York) sets the scene for this elegiac, moody set piece by playwright and musician Rux. Back from a stint in Paris, reticent Racine finds himself drawn to a dilapidated brownstone filled with eccentric squatters. Dying "Holy Mother" Lucinda and her doting caregiver, Mawepi, let him crash while Manny, a sequin-wearing druggie, and Couchette, a sexy exotic dancer, make him feel welcome. Racine gets busy "spinnin' " at Alibi, the illegal nightclub in the basement, and ends up romancing Couchette, whose mother has absconded to Bali and whose father killed himself in that very brownstone. Everyone is emotionally scarred, but the music they dance to and play (from U.K. trance to rock, blues to jazz) binds them together in a dizzying kaleidoscope of visions and images. The novel intersperses surrealistic segments about Racine's turbulent childhood (including a battle with orchitus as well as mental health problems) that may or may not contain the key to his current manic state. An enormous rave party is planned in an anchorage space, and as Racine, Manny and Couchette arrive, a much-prophesied tragedy spells doom for the attendees. As a shocked Racine recounts his time producing music in Paris with childhood friend Phillipe, more confusion and disappointment settle over the narrative. Lyrically drawn though sometimes muddled escapist fare for the artsy set, this is an elegantly gloomy addition to Rux's artistic achievements.

BOOKLIST "Racine, a young man of sparse words and hidden emotions, returns from Paris to an unnamed community in New York that has long been neglected but is now on the radar of developers. Racine is invited to join a group of squatters living in a decaying brownstone; they have created a family of sorts and cobbled together an enterprise--a bootleg party venue--that provides them with meager financial support. Racine is the gifted DJ with a deep sense of how music moves people. Bartender Couchette is a beautiful dancer whose jazz-musician father committed suicide. Manny, who dresses in sarongs but attracts women, is the overseer. Haunted by their pasts, these vulnerable characters live in an atmosphere of ominous despair, with the imminent threat of eviction and demolition and occasional patrols of police and M-16s, in a neighborhood disconnected from the more affluent parts of the city by a bridge raised as part of an urban warfare strategy. Rux's lyrical writing blurs the lines between Dreamscape and reality. A dazzling portrait of urban life."