Less Than Zero

Plot summary

Titled after the Elvis Costello song of the same name, the novel follows the life of Clay, a rich young college student who has returned to his hometown of Los Angeles, California for winter break during the early 1980s. Through first person narration, Clay describes his progressive alienation from the youth party scene, loss of faith in his friends, and his meditations on important events in his recent past.

After reuniting with his friend Trent, now a successful model, Clay embarks on a series of drug-fueled nights of partying, during which he picks up various men and women for one-night stands. While partying, he tries to track down two high school acquaintances: his ex-girlfriend Blair, with whom he spent a disastrous week-long vacation before going to college, and his best friend Julian, with whom he hasn't spoken for months. In between parties, Clay looks back on a vacation spent with his parents and grandparents, during which he seemed to be the only person concerned that his grandmother was dying of cancer.

Over time, Clay becomes progressively disillusioned with the party scene as he witnesses the apathy of his friends towards the suffering of one another and those around them: at one party, he watches as the revelers joke and take Polaroids of his friend, Muriel, while she shoots heroin; at another, he and Blair are the only two who exhibit revulsion when Trent shows a snuff film, which sexually excites several partygoers.

Clay ultimately tracks down Julian, who he learns has become a heroin addict and turned to prostitution in order to pay off a debt to his drug dealer. Not believing what he has been told, Clay accompanies Julian on a job, where he is compelled by a male john to watch the man and Julian have sex for several hours.

After attending a concert with his friends, Clay accompanies them to a derelict alley where they stare at the corpse of an overdose victim which they have left there to decompose. Afterward, Clay follows the group back to the home of his drug dealer, Rip, who wants to show off his latest acquisition: a twelve-year-old sex slave whom Rip has been keeping drugged in his bedroom. After Clay admonishes Rip that he has no reason to risk losing everything he has, Rip chides him that he "has nothing to lose" before encouraging everyone to abuse the girl. Clay leaves, but Trent decides to stay so that he can rape the girl.

Now feeling completely isolated and with winter break coming to an end, Clay returns to college in New Hampshire.

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