Barry Gifford is now more than forty years and forty books into his career, yet still no one seems to know what to do with him. Andrei Codrescu calls him “a great comic realist,” while Pedro Almodóvar likens him to the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Jonathan Lethem describes his style as “William Faulkner by way of B-movie film noir, porn paperbacks, and Sun Records rockabilly,” and also reaches for the Abstract Expressionist artist Philip Guston’s late period. David Lynch, who directed two of Gifford’s screenplays, Lost Highway and Wild at Heart, says that reading him is “like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad,” which is an odd statement, given that things in Gifford’s novels tend to go very, very bad, and quickly too. “Death and destruction,” as one character says, “ain’t never more than a kiss away.”
Gifford’s admirers can’t be faulted for imprecision. He’s a moving target, as omnivorous as he is prolific, having published poetry, novels, story collections, memoirs, biographies of William Saroyan and Jack Kerouac, art criticism, plays, screenplays, a libretto, and nonfiction monographs about horse racing and the Chicago Cubs. Even this kind of classification is inaccurate: his history of the Cubs is really a memoir, his poems read like prose, his prose like poetry.
His most remarkable achievement to date, the Sailor and Lula saga, is equally hard to pin down. It is composed of seven discrete works—Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula, Perdita Durango, Sailor’s Holiday, Sultans of Africa, Consuelo’s Kiss, Bad Day for the Leopard Man, and The Imagination of the Heart—that follow, rather loosely, the turbulent lives of two star-crossed lovers over six decades. “Like Romeo and Juliet only nobody dies,” Gifford writes at one point, though this is, again, somewhat misleading, since by the end of the saga very few characters have been spared a gruesome and abrupt death. Most of the volumes hover around seventy pages, so it might be more accurate to describe them as novellas, or to classify the entire series as a single novel. But what a peculiar novel it is.
It begins as it ends—with our heroes in the grip of a passionate love affair. When Wild at Heart opens, Lula Pace Fortune and Sailor Ripley, both twenty years old, are about to be reunited. Sailor has served two years at the Pee Dee River Correctional Facility in North Carolina for manslaughter: he accidentally killed, with his bare hands, a man who was assaulting Lula. He’s a romantic, in other words. Lula’s mother disapproves of him, so the couple flees across the country in Lula’s white ‘75 Bonneville convertible. They hope to make it to California, but they only get as far as Big Tuna, Texas (“100 miles north of the Mexican border on the south fork of the Esperanza trickle”), before their car breaks down …