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Screwball Noir

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Xavier Torres-Bacchetta/Corbis Outline
Barry Gifford, Barcelona, 2002

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. Out of money and options, Sailor falls under the influence of a band of local miscreants. Their leaders are a couple of sociopaths, Bobby Peru and Perdita Durango, who resemble wicked doppelgängers of Sailor and Lula. Bobby is hyperactively violent but Perdita is even more terrifying: “the type’ll bite and once the teeth are sunk you’d have to chop off the head with a hatchet to pry loose.” Sailor and Lula manage to escape with their lives, but only after Sailor is sentenced to ten years in prison for his part in a botched armed robbery. So ends book one.

What we have here, on the face of it, is the classic noir plot: a sympathetic, down-on-his-luck hero saves a woman, but in doing so, he ends up in a world of trouble; the more desperately he tries to make things right, the worse everything gets. Gifford understands the genre intimately. He’s the author of two excellent studies of film noir, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Out of the Past, and in the early 1980s he cofounded and edited Black Lizard Press, the publishing imprint largely responsible for the renewed critical interest in such noir masters as Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis, and Charles Willeford.

But from the opening pages of Wild at Heart, it’s clear that Gifford has limited interest in the traditional stylistic conventions of hard-boiled fiction. His plots are not tightly wound but capacious, even languorous at times. Most of the chapters, which average two pages in length, consist of nothing more than aimless conversations. The plots, especially in the series’s later volumes, are determinedly whimsical and slight. In Sailor’s Holiday, the Ripleys’ son, Pace, is kidnapped in New Orleans by a barefoot madman; he escapes when the maniac is serendipitously killed in a street mugging. In Bad Day for the Leopard Man, Lula is taken hostage during a bank holdup. She escapes when her captors, on the way to pick up her ransom money, hit a pothole and swerve into an oncoming Mack truck.

A pattern begins to emerge. The stories accelerate to their climax but then, in the decisive moment, the action occurs with bathetic abruptness:

It was several seconds before Ernest Tubb realized that he’d turned his Mark IV in the wrong direction on a one-way thoroughfare. By the time he saw the nose of the White Freightliner and heard the horn blast it was too late for him to do anything about it.
“Oh, Glory!” Ernest Tubb said, and then he was history.

This is Pace Ripley describing to his father the climactic scene of Sultans of Africa:

“We was gonna hide out at a abandoned farmhouse—least the Rattlers thought it was abandoned—and turned out a crazy man with a red beard was there. He shot both Lefty Grove and Smokey Joe. I was gonna be next, but he got to talkin’ with me, all kindsa strange talk, and when he went to the head I got the drop on him with a pistol crossbow and let him have it….”
Sailor and Pace stood and hugged each other.
“It’s okay now, son,” said Sailor. “Looks like the Lord done pulled off another one.”

It’s easy to empathize with the exasperated police captain who, after listing off the various kidnappings that the members of the Ripley family have suffered over the years, says to Sailor: “I didn’t know better, Mr. Ripley, I’d be mighty tempted to conclude kind of a pattern been developin’ here.”

This farcical, screwball aspect of Gifford’s work extends to the names he gives his characters, which range from the baldly figurative (Archie Chunk, Party-Time Partagas, Charlie Chases Weasels) to the plain absurd (Coot Veal, Arturo Okazaki y Pintura, Pea Ridge Day). Others are self-contained punch lines: Oh-Boy Wilson, a truck driver killed in another head-on collision; the teenage temptress Consuelo Whynot; the defense attorney Irving Bocca; and an Italian lothario named Federico Cazzissimo who has penis augmentation surgery. Sometimes Gifford can’t help himself, as with this spur of dialogue, which concludes a chapter of Sailor’s Holiday:

Oh, Dal, you won’t believe what Esther Pickens heard about Ruby Werlhi and Denise Sue Hilton’s son-in-law. You know, Walker French-Jones, the tennis pro?

None of these characters appear anywhere else in the novel.

So what exactly is Gifford after? One hint can be found in his use of place names. At first glance, they appear as far-fetched as those of his characters: Pass Christian, Mississippi; Plain Dealing, Louisiana; Titus, Alabama; Patagonia, Arizona; Cándido Aguilar, Mexico (cándido means “artless”). Some towns—like Iraaq, Texas, and Divine Water, Oklahoma—are invented, but the others exist. Gifford’s mode is not fantastical but satirical. The exotic names are signposts for the wilderness of the American South, and particularly the borderland, which is rendered here—as in the novels of Cormac McCarthy, Charles Portis, and, to some extent, Larry McMurtry—as a bewildering country unto itself, dominated by violence, folklore, and mysticism. “All the trouble this world’s seen since the beginnin’ of time ain’t been the doin’ of no devil,” says Sailor. “It’s been the result of two things, organized religion and greed.” Profiteering Christian institutions therefore receive some of Gifford’s most rascally name-calling: St. John the Baptist College of Cosmetology; the Church of Reason, Redemption and Resistance to God’s Detractors; Naomi “Hard Cash” Kamil’s Just A Closer Walk With Thee Nursing Home.

The satire blunts the sense of dread that one has come to expect from authors working similar terrain—particularly McCarthy—but it serves another purpose. Gifford’s project is a logical if extreme extension of the noir genre. The roman noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, such as those championed by Black Lizard Press, proposed that all was not right with the American dream—that a powerful, unventilated angst lingered from the war years, bubbling like lava at the lower depths, always threatening to explode in a paroxysm of violence. You read Jim Thompson’s novels, for instance, in anticipation of that explosion. In Gifford’s fiction, written four decades later, the violent impulse is no longer contained. It’s everywhere. It saturates the landscape. The American dream has become its own worst nightmare. Gifford’s response is bitter laughter. In a diary entry, Lula articulates the novel’s vision of the world:

Maybe before everything goes forever ass over backwards…people everywhere will come to their senses and stop their feuding and bad behavior but I hate to say I doubt it. I think this version of civilization is already tipped over too far to get right and there aint no way in anyones heaven or hell to keep us poor fools from being ramroded down the chute.

Gifford punctuates his narrative with vignettes and anecdotes that reflect this brand of amused nihilism. Sailor is an avid newspaper reader, and he is constantly coming across stories that support Lula’s despair:

Listen to this: Out in California a guy claimed God told him he could drive his truck through cars, so he drove it into eighteen other vehicles on a freeway durin’ the mornin’ rush hour. Injured dozens, killed four and stopped traffic for half a day.
“Item here in the Jackson paper. Headline says, ‘Sorrow Ends in Death,’ and underneath that, ‘Boy, 12, Hangs Self after Killing Red Bird’…Here it is: ‘Conscience-stricken after he had shot and killed a red bird, Wyatt Toomey, twelve years old, hanged himself here last night. The body was found by his sister. A signed note addressed to his parents told the motive for the act.’ This is what he wrote: ‘I killed myself on account of me shooting a red bird. Goodby mother and daddy. I’ll see you some day.’”
“Jesus, Sail, that’s a terrible story.”

Terrible, yes, but also perversely liberating. “Kinda creeps up on a person that there ain’t much he can do to influence his outcome,” says Sailor, a sentiment that is echoed by numerous other characters. The experience of reading Gifford is like starting a car and realizing, too late, that someone has cut its brake lines. A spectacular wreck is imminent, so you might as well enjoy the adrenaline rush. Romeo Dolorosa, the deviant villain of Perdita Durango, embraces this fatalistic logic wholeheartedly:

“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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