Panic in the City: On Duncan Birmingham’s “The Cult in My Garage”

November 11, 2021   •   By Gabriel Hart

The Cult in My Garage

Duncan Birmingham

DUNCAN BIRMINGHAM pays the bills writing for television, yet he brims with so much wit, insight, and observation that it would be neutering to confine him only to that field (remember, some of the greatest literary voices also wrote for TV: Harlan Ellison, Salman Rushdie, Wanda Coleman). Birmingham’s hitlist includes pieces for indie-lit venues like Mystery Tribune, Juked, and Joyland — work that’s all compiled in his first collection, The Cult in My Garage. Birmingham’s overall hustle has legs; it’s balanced, even magnetic.

Birmingham compresses the contemporary Los Angeles experience by wielding its mediocrity as a weapon to break down our presumptive defenses. He bravely chooses inherently slippery subjects, where one false move by a lesser hand would have you reading fluff for lifestyle magazines. Only he could pull off a story like “The Foodie Detective” — a dive into the high-risk cuisine underground where chefs hold clandestine pop-ups to present elaborate plates of endangered species — and make it absolutely riveting. The story begins as an infiltrative assignment for the narrator, only to blow wide open into a caper-heist you never saw coming. The tale is so original and effective that it’s no wonder Mystery Tribune called first dibs on it.

There should be a sharp distinction between those who try everything just to see what sticks and those who effortlessly show their range because they just can’t contain themselves. Birmingham belongs in the latter category, specifically for stories like “Classic Amy” and “Revenge App” — in which he introduces Black Mirror–type sci-fi elements to expose our present dystopia. “Amy” is the winner here: after the eponymous heroine is dumped via text by a desert rave DJ, she’s immediately set up with a wealthy, well-put-together dreamboat, only to sabotage the relationship by sleeping with her neighbor’s house sitter. “So, a smart, handsome CEO took you out for drinks and you went home and smooshed a homeless stranger on your apartment floor?” says her friend. “He’s not homeless, he’s plant-sitting!” says Amy. Then she gives vent to the modern woman’s existential battle-cry — “Why am I always attracted to the wrong men?” — before marching off into therapy. Her shrink flagrantly diagnoses her with EED (Extreme Emotional Dysfunction) so he can prescribe her Cupid’s new wonder drug, Adorix™. “A love potion? So cheesy […] will my insurance pay?” After the drug is administered, Amy is even more uninhibited, dangerously so, until it’s revealed that she’s been given a mere placebo — thus exposing a deeper neurosis. This plot twist, if perhaps a bit too cute, is shrewd testimony to the fact that our polluted city tends to spawn all manner of panicked behaviors.

Amid the Swingers-esque bravado of most of his male characters, Birmingham steps into women’s perspectives with aplomb. In “There Are No Hills on the Cape,” a young woman named Lilly recharges at her well-to-do parents’ home in Cape Cod, after an undisclosed #MeToo scandal involving a celebrity named Russell. Russell’s mounting sexual misconduct allegations lead to the story breaking across all the gossip sites, with the media claiming that Lilly is in hiding when she didn’t do anything wrong. Meanwhile, she finds herself tempted by myriad coping mechanisms that make Cape Cod a cruel purgatory. There’s a twist here that made me empathetically curse out loud; without spoiling the moment, let’s just say that her parents reveal their warped values in one devastating line of dialogue they can never take back.

Some stories are so up to date they boast COVID-19 timestamps, like the sublime “Non-Essential Workers,” which might be my favorite piece of pandemic writing. At first, I dismissed it as just a mere dream diary — until I remembered how vital, vivid, and deeply symbolic our nocturnal escapes were during the early days of lockdown, as if we were all trying to collectively purge, or communicate something profound through our collective unconscious in response to these unprecedented times. “That’s just it. They’re not my dreams […] dreaming about the dog walker or someone else’s dad?” the protagonist comments. “Maybe, you miss them?” his companion suggests. “Maybe you miss all those day-to-day interactions. Seeing faces. Trading smiles. Connecting. It’s the kind of stuff that makes us feel normal.” Even surface relationships, especially in a city like L.A. that feels overrun with them, are just as important as our closest inner circle.

In some cases, Birmingham allows his fiction to shadow his day job. In “Good in a Room,” we witness the inherent insanity of the industry writer’s office: you can feel the creative pressure but also the tacky head games that threaten to derail it, how comedy veers into drama when you add competition to the mix. We’re reminded how unglamorous the job is, the parasitic habits co-workers use to garner favor transcend industries. “Every Wednesday morning like clockwork he trots in another pink rectangle of hipster donuts,” the protagonist observes, seething with hatred because his jokes are being stolen by someone whose hospitality no one asked for. Birmingham sprinkles his own magic on these scenes, cataloging every deceptively inconsequential detail in a way that suggests the whole setup could explode at any second.

Of course, in Hollywood, the work is never done — even the Chateau Marmont poolside power lunch in “Irish Goodbye” is fraught with mindfuck, a psychic pissing contest in which two men duel with loaded gossip and competing résumés. Birmingham nails that cringe of obligation, when you’re already planning your escape before your arrival. “Two mixed drinks, four max. […] Four drinks, three hours and I’m out. Plus, I have my head cold as an excuse and administering medication to my cat as a back-up.” Deception, he shows, is commonplace in a world where you’ll never really know the full truth once you or your significant other exits the room. He doesn’t preach against the mutually deluded, however, since lies are also the glue that proves we’re stuck with one another.

But even loyalty is dangerous if your old friends aren’t evolving along with you. We’ve all had loved ones who have wandered, deviated, fallen by the wayside due to bad habits or hungry ghosts, but in the title story, “The Cult in My Garage,” Birmingham zeros in on the most repellent kind of faithless friend: The Bullshitter. Owen has the gift of gab, but all he ever uses it for is self-serving grift — you know the type. After he slithers into his more responsible friend’s garage to live rent-free, he makes himself more at home than anyone bargained for. The carport quickly morphs into an impromptu church that draws a crowd of those desperate for a next-level life coach. Even the responsible friend’s wife falls for Owen’s cult of personality — probably because of her husband’s prominent lack of one.

Duncan Birmingham’s immaculate writing chops cast an unexpected spell on me as I read through this collection. When he wasn’t making me miss some of the most unbearable aspects of Babylon, he made me laugh hysterically, if not maniacally, at its reflection. These stories from our very-now L.A. ride the edge of existential grimness while finding the courage to seek genuine sentiment, even solace, in the superficial.

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Gabriel Hart lives in Morongo Valley in California’s High Desert. His literary-pulp collection Fallout From Our Asphalt Hell is out now from Close to the Bone (UK). He’s the author of the Palm Springs noir novelette A Return to Spring (Mannison Press, 2020), the dispo-pocalyptic twin-novel Virgins In Reverse / The Intrusion(Traveling Shoes Press, 2019), and the debut poetry collection, Unsongs Vol. 1.