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Only a phalanx of cross-dressing divas at a Junior Vasquez birthday party could match the drama in Frank Owen’s Clubland—and then, only if there weren’t enough (or far too many) drugs for the clamoring queens. The book revisits the early-’90s heyday of superclub Limelight and its club kid cadre, then hangs ringside for the spectacular implosion of ’96: Limelight owner Peter Gatien arrested on drug charges, and star party promoter Michael Alig imprisoned for the murder of infamous in-house dealer Angel Melendez. These are the headlines of tabloids past, pieced painstakingly together, all the names named; thanks to Owen’s dogged reporting as events unfolded, the juiciest bits here will be old news to Voice readers, where some of the material first appeared.
This isn’t to dismiss Clubland as redundant. Owen connects the dots in the Byzantine tale of a dozen double-crossers, from New York’s organized-crime families to South Beach’s burgeoning celebrity nightclub scene. His detached, thorough work gives yin to Alig compadre James St. James’s yang; the latter’s Disco Bloodbath (1999) relates the murder of Angel from the shrill perspective of a club kid. Owen posts his readers as flies on the walls that matter, even when they may prefer otherwise; the description of Alig huffing smack and preparing to remove Angel’s fetid legs with a kitchen knife is not for the faint of stomach.
Owen could have elevated his work’s sociological import by moving beyond the specifics of what and getting at the gnawing question of why. Still, Clubland satisfies by meting out the justice that many ’90s party kids never got to see—or perhaps never wanted to. Maybe in club land Alig was untouchable and never expressed remorse for killing Angel. But in Clubland the pretty boy honks out a dirt snake in his trousers, writhing in withdrawal in the backseat of a DEA car. Later, in prison, he becomes a sex toy for a militant black man. How’s that for fabulous? Clubland sees through the smoke, mirrors, and Ketamine; by the epilogue, Owen is disillusioned, but his angst makes for some pretty heady voyeurism.