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Sunday, July 30, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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''Bongwater''

"Bongwater" by Michael Hornburg Grove Press, $17

Michael Hornburg's publicist believes his first novel will become "this decade's `Bright Lights, Big City' for the grungeoisie." It's hard to imagine this, and even harder to understand why an author would consider such a distinction a worthy goal.

After all, nobody reads anymore, one "Bongwater" character tells another. Nobody works anymore, either. Hornburg brings us the struggling-artists' guide to Portland, including cheap sex, drugs, strippers, drag queens, an accidental house fire and air that "smells like worms." Hornburg's version of Manhattan's East Village looks even worse: Take all those bad things, add violence and concrete.

Hornburg splits his time between the two cities, showing us Portland from the unemployed filmmaker David's eyes, and Manhattan from the aspiring actress Courtney's point of view. The two were roommates in Portland before Courtney accidentally burned down their house, and the book builds to their eventual reunion. Hornburg, who lives now in Brooklyn, takes his inspiration from the '80s Portland of filmmaker Gus Van Sant, writer Katherine Dunn and musician Courtney Love.

It isn't Hornburg's fault that he knew Love before People magazine did, but this writer and musician, who counts himself among Love's ex-lovers, needs more than a hip background to create good fiction. He offers a number of memorable metaphors, but emphasizes insiders' minutiae over substance. The end result is like a bad tourist guide: plenty of street addresses, building names, and insider's tips, but little reason to stay and explore.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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