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Screwball Noir

The island of Petit Caribe, where I was raised,” said Romeo, “is approximately one mile long and three miles wide. There were only two automobiles on Petit Caribe back then and of course one day they collided with each other.”
Adolfo laughed. “But how could that happen?” he asked.
“How everything happens, Adolfo. It was in fact impossible for it not to happen. This is the working of the world.”

An obese, chain-smoking truckstop waitress follows this observation to its logical conclusion:

This health thing’s gone just about far as it can now, I reckon. What with AIDS and the Big C, not to mention heart disease and drug-related crimes, might as well let yourself go a little and get some pleasure out of life.

Yet Gifford stops short of downright cynicism. When you look beyond the hysterical nomenclature, farcical plot twists, and batty digressive flourishes, ultimately what you are left with are voices. Conversations, particularly intimate conversations between Sailor and Lula, are the novel’s heartbeat. Sailor and Lula earn the reader’s empathy because, despite all the mayhem they are made to suffer, they remain sane and morally inviolate. Lula never comes close to loving another man, despite the fact that Sailor is at one point locked away for ten years; Sailor only commits crimes of honor, and he never strays either, even when he’s pursued by a twenty-two-year-old sexpot with white-blond hair and green cat’s eyes named Jaloux Marron. Their love endures. In contrast to the ugliness of the characters that surround them, there is a remarkable feeling of tranquility in the moments they share together. There is always the sense that all they want is to be left alone, in peace and solitude. (Now if only deranged maniacs would quit kidnapping them…) When Lula awakes from a nightmare in the middle of the night, in a strange hotel room, she always finds Sailor right beside her. He calms her down. One evening Lula has an upsetting dream about a horse:

“And I’m sorta cryin’ but not really sad? I can’t explain the feelin’ exactly…. The horse is furious. He gets up and chases me across the bridge and into and through the old barn. Then I woke up. You were sleepin’ hard. And I just laid there and thought about how even if you love someone it isn’t always possible to have it change your life.”
“I don’t know what your dream means, sweetheart,” said Sailor, “but once I heard my mama ask my daddy if he loved her. They were yellin’ at each other, like usual, and he told her the only thing he ever loved was the movie Bad Men of Missouri, which he said he seen sixteen times.”
“What I mean about men,” said Lula.

Gifford wrote the first six of these novels in the early 1990s. His other novels from that period, such as Arise and Walk and Baby Cat-Face (which also features Sailor and Lula), share the same mix of brutality, coarseness, and grotesque spiritual fervor, though they often lack the moments of quiet beauty that distinguish the Sailor and Lula series. In the past decade, however, Gifford’s style has mellowed. Do the Blind Dream? is a collection of eerie, often elliptical short stories in which the absence of violence is far more haunting than the farcical sadism of his earlier fiction. Wyoming (a novel entirely in dialogue), Memories from a Sinking Ship, and the story collection Sad Stories of the Deaths of Kings form a tender, autobiographical trilogy about the adventures of a boy coming of age in 1950s America.

The final Sailor and Lula novel, The Imagination of the Heart, bears some resemblance to these more reflective works. Eighteen years after Sailor’s death (car wreck), Lula is celebrating her eightieth birthday by returning to New Orleans, where they lived together for much of their lives. This is shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and the city is a “ghost land.” Mounds of trash pile up on street corners, the stoplights don’t work, and bodies are being dumped into the Mississippi. A postapocalyptic hush has settled over the city, and over the novel. The fever dream of the first six volumes has come to an end, but chaos still reigns. “I am ready for an answer why theres endless madness and suffering on the planet,” says Lula. “All I know is everything been out of control from the beginning.”

Her running conversation with Sailor has also been silenced, or at least has diminished to a monologue. For the first time in the saga, she speaks directly to the reader, through diary entries written in unpunctuated, elegiac, and brokenly lyrical prose:

[I’ve] heard how the planet is getting too hot for humans and anyway pretty soon once all the ice melts up north they already got polar bears eating each other everyone living next to water will be under it. None of this news is easy to swallow maybe itll come down to what Isaiah said about hail sweeping away the refuge of lies and waters overflowing the hiding place because there wont be no place to hide people are either all in this boat together or there aint going to be no boat to be in.

We know Lula too well by this point to take her at her word. Yes, she’s suffered, she’s had her doubts, she fears that our civilization is lost, but she still believes in one thing wholeheartedly—she believes in love. For a novel so steeped in nihilism, it is stubbornly optimistic on this point. Lula is confident that she will meet Sailor again, and in a surprisingly tender, three-line chapter at the end of the novel, she does. It could be no other way.

Ain’t no way human bein’s can control their own lives,” Lula says earlier in the novel, “and ain’t no way they ever can stop trying.” The thrill of the Sailor and Lula books is in seeing how horribly a human life—or an entire society—can spiral out of control. But the gruesome dismemberments, car wrecks, and point-blank gunshots only entertain for so long. The image that lingers in the reader’s imagination, long after the series ends, is far more sedate and ordinary: Sailor and Lula, embracing in a cheap motel bed, telling each other stories to ward off the nightmares that they know will come.

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