These are my grandparents, Grandma Sweetie and Papa Owen, standing on their porch in Inglewood, not eight blocks from the Forum, where they lived for thirty-odd years. Allegedly, a white picket fence once stood in front of the house. But as far back as I can remember, the white picket fence just sort of laid there. And it wasn’t white. For the last ten years or so, their house had no front door. Don’t ask me why. Just a screen. No lock. This is Inglewood we’re talking about! But nobody ever gave Sweetie and Owen trouble, and I’m pretty sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Papa Owen looked like a juice man for Santa’s mafia.

 

 

I don’t even know my grandmother’s real name. Everybody called her Sweetie—her family, the neighbors, the mailman. I’m pretty sure her mail said Sweetie. She may have looked like an old bag lady, she may have smelled like stale Old Golds and freezer-burned ham, but Sweetie had the soul of a swan. She was the loving driving force of our family, a tender locomotive, who drank twelve Hamms a day, popped Tums like Tic Tacs, and ate nothing (and I mean nothing) but Swanson frozen turkey dinners, scrupulously avoiding the peas and carrots. If Sweetie was a tender locomotive, Papa Owen was a runaway train. He was ten longshoremen trapped in a phone booth. He was fifteen Cossacks crashing a retirement banquet. Papa Owen had a little dance which he often performed on weekends, which led from the sofa to the bathroom. It was choreographed by Jerry Lewis and a fifth of bourbon, and went something like this: He would lift himself from the sofa, pirouette, trip over a chair, knock over a lamp, laugh, and fall flat on his face. He would then stand, stumble to the bathroom, and hurl the contents of his stomach into the sink. Encore performances would follow, in intervals, until he passed out.

My lifelong love affair with baths began at Sweetie and Owen’s house when I was just a runt. They had this metal contraption that looked like a vacuum cleaner that you could stick in the bathtub. It would shoot out jet streams of hot water. It amounted to a portable, low-maintenance Jacuzzi. I would sit in the tub for hours. Every so often Papa Owen would stumble headlong into the bathroom to finish his dance. He would say: “Feels good on your little pecker, don’t it?” Then he would say: “Aaaawoooolka. . .pfff. . .pff. . . eeeeeeeyaaaaaalka. . .pfff. . .pfff.”

It did feel good on my little pecker.

The photo you see here is technically the only photo I have left of Sweetie and Owen—the only photo anyone has left of the two of them together. But there’s another image of them which is indelibly burned into my mind’s eye, an image which is nothing less than my grandparents’ story. The third act, anyway. In this other image, the one that no longer exists outside my mind, Papa Owen is slumped at the kitchen table with Sweetie, who is wearing her customary nightgown (agoraphobic, she never got dressed or left the house). Her hair is the wasted gold of a burnt lawn. It got that way from cigarette smoke. Her eyes are downcast. Not from wounded vanity, but from what appears to be a long preoccupation with something doomed and oppressive. Her hands are hidden beneath the table. You get the feeling she’s wringing them under there.

Papa Owen is seated to her right with one elbow propped on the table, which appears to be the only thing holding him up. He looks waxy, slightly transparent, embalmed. He’s wearing a light blue shirt, which is too tight at the arm pits. The collar was probably stiff once. Yet, somehow, Owen manages to make it look like a white shirt with no collar at all. He wears, as always, his elfin beard, coarse and wiry. On top of his beard sits a handlebar mustache which, like Sweetie’s locks, is tobacco stained. His hair looks unkempt but upon closer inspection one notices that it’s in fact combed. His eyes are beady, blue-gray, and laughing. Not the impish laughing eyes of mischief, rather the pointed laughter of a small but hard to swallow defeat. Still, there’s an unmistakable glimmer of determination in those laughing eyes that is only enhanced by his smile which, though half obscured by beard and mustache, seems clearly to have dirty jokes leaking out the side of it.

Taken together, these two venerable, slumping personages strike a balance that is not symmetry.

The kitchen is murky, but lighted just well enough to discern Owen’s shadow, though not Sweetie’s. Behind them, fastened to the faded floral wall paper above their heads is a bulletin board. There’s all manner of cards and papers fixed willy-nilly to it, although looking at Owen and Sweetie and the general state of things, it’s hard to imagine the significance of these artifacts.

They’ve just finished dinner. Owen has cleaned his plate. Sweetie’s plate, pushed to the side, is still half full. The table is riddled with dirty platters, coffee cups, a disproportionate number of forks, and a sticky bottle of salad dressing. In the very center of the table, the dramatic center of the photograph itself, as though it were placed there like a statement, is a heaping bowl of spent chicken bones and gristle.

I think about this picture often, and from time to time I hold it in my hand. Recent years and a number of circumstances have allowed me to penetrate this photograph in greater depth, to identify nuances so subtle as to be invisible to the outsider. And the more I am able to distinguish within this picture, the more I am haunted by that damn bowl of chicken bones.

When I was married to my first wife, I kept thinking about having a vasectomy. I had lived in a place where there was a population problem, big-time, and as an undergraduate I’d been taught by Paul Ehrlich, who wore a little broken male symbol on his lapel. I believed that population control should be a priority for everyone, and that by foregoing reproduction, I was doing my part.

My wife agreed, but every time I talked about getting an appointment with the urologist she said, “No, please don’t do it, because it’s going to make me feel as though you’re mutilated,” so I didn’t get snipped and tied off until after we divorced.

This went on until we were both nearly 40 and she said, “I want a baby.”

Surprise! But I’ll skip over everything between that and the first contractions.

It was time to go to the hospital, yes, so we went, but the nurse said, “You’re having contractions yes, but enough dilation no, so go back home.”

Bummer! We went back home for a while, and when we came back, yes, it was clearly underway. So we sat in a little room waiting.

We knew it was a boy. We even had a name for him, no problem there. I did tell a full-of-himself neighbor that we were going to name the kid Lud, and he believed me for a long time, at least until we got back from the hospital with the kid.

“So this is Lud,” he said, and I said, “Nope.”

But although we had decided on his name we had not decided what to do with his little dick. Some said the father and child’s dicks should match, and since I was born the child of middle class WASP parents in the forties I was cut.

On the other hand we had been living in the rain forest with men and boys whose dicks had not been cut, and had gotten used to seeing boys with intact foreskins, and I, at least, had gotten used to seeing grown men with their foreskins, such as when we swam across rivers or had to piss.

One time this old guy died and when the women were washing his body I noticed that he had been circumcised, which surprised me, so I asked how that had happened. They said that during the war with Japan he was up at the American base for a while, and he saw Americans with no foreskins and he liked the look, so he convinced an American doctor to cut his off. If I had heard that story without seeing the guy’s dick I would not have believed it, but there it was. Wasn’t, actually.

So we were in this little room at the hospital waiting, and in came this nurse. I thought she was very pretty and I liked her long hair and she was shapely, too. She reminded me of an R. Crumb woman, except she was normally-sized and not weird.

She hopped right up on the bed next to my wife and said, “What are you going to do about circumcision?”

My wife said, “We haven’t been able to decide one way or another.”

And the nurse said, “Well, I can never predict what anybody’s going to do unless I know they’re Jewish. Otherwise I never know and then sometimes when I think I probably know, I’m wrong. I get a lot of heavy-duty natural people in here and I figure they’re going to leave it alone, but then they say, all surprised that I would ask, ‘Oh no, of course we’re going to have it cut off.’ And I’m polite so I never say ‘What, you’re heavy-duty natural people so you should leave it on, what’s wrong with you?’”

I said, “You asked us.”

She said, “I asked, but I didn’t give my opinion. I never say anything, because it’s none of my business, and I’m only telling you so that you won’t think that just because you look like sort of natural people, you know, long hair, beard, I’m assuming that you’re automatically going to let it stay.”

And we looked at each other, actually all of us, and I was thinking, Well if this isn’t a clusterfuck I don’t know what is. Am I being told I’m a light-duty natural person so it’s OK to circumcise my son, or am I being told that since I’m at least light-duty maybe I shouldn’t, or am I being told I’m not heavy-duty even though I spent years in the rain forest with people who didn’t wear a lot of clothes and only one guy was circumcised, or just what am I being told here? If I do it does that elevate me to heavy-duty? Do I even want to be a heavy-duty natural person?

And I had other questions, too. If it’s my wife’s baby then at least is the kid’s dick mine? Am I being the patriarch by controlling his little wiener or is she being the matriarch and controlling his wiener herself, in which case that’s not a very good thing since it’s not her dick. Of course it’s not mine, either.

It was confusing.

I looked at my wife but I couldn’t judge what she was thinking so I said, “We’ll decide later, but thanks for the tip.”

And then of course everybody started laughing, but I hadn’t meant it to be funny. Even so I pretended I had, so as to be thought of as wittier than I really was.

The labor was long and hard and she went for the epidural block and I had no criticism of that, Lamaze or no Lamaze. But I have to say that when the midwife grabbed these big scissors and made the episiotomy I was a little taken aback. I knew it was likely to happen but it was so matter-of-fact, grab from the tray, open, snip and there’s a huge fat cut, which of course made me think of the foreskin even though I knew it wouldn’t be done like that, since I had at one time held a little Jewish infant while the mohel did his thing.

Then eventually he starts coming out and my most enduring memory of that is looking at my wife’s pudendum and thinking, Oh my God, that’s what it’s really for, which forever changed the way I thought about a woman’s sexual parts.

Then he was out, OK, head first and that was fine, here’s the umbilical cord, fine, and then Jesus Christ here are his genitals, hugely swollen, and I thought, Is that what we men really are, mostly dick?

Then when he was out and lying on her chest and I realized that no matter what I did he would always be more hers than mine, I said to the nurse, “We won’t be circumcising him.”

I called Brad Listi from some sleepy little suburb in Sacramento. We chatted. I think I strong-armed the poor fellow and told him that I wanted to read at TNB’s first L.A reading. He’s too kind. Dear and charming.

I got the gig.

So, L.A.  I had to go. Haven’t seen my birth city in years. Memories of crowded streets and concrete buildings tumbled through my head. 

I gassed up and hit I-15.


On my way in, I picked up a friend of mine, Christy, at the Ontario airport. Ontario is ugly. My friend is not. She’s gorgeous and has the deepest blue eyes I’ve ever seen.

We zipped into Eagle Rock where my mom’s side of the family was having a family reunion. We ate tacos, drank beer, yapped it up, and I danced to some Michael Jackson cuts, slapping my aunt’s ass who was grooving in front of me. People cheered and snapped pictures.

I love to dance. 

Go figure.

I’m supposed to be the rock and roll dude. All spikes and metal. But I love a good beat. And when I hear one my ass shakes and I start snapping my fingers and smashing my brown eyes. What can I say?

Give me Al Green and I’ll give you my body. Hips, dude energy, and all. I’m easy that way.

Way.

* * *

Saturday night I caught up with Rich Ferguson, Lenore Zion, and Megan DiLullo for some drinks.

Zion: cute, funny, and she has nice hands. I like girls that have nice hands. I couldn’t believe that I was in her presence after all these years of literary tomfoolery. It was surreal.

Megan: tattoos and black hair. Rock and roll with a hint of danger shifting in the background. I think she could kick my ass. I didn’t provoke her. After all, I had to read the next night. Didn’t need a black eye. Or two.

Rich: what can I say? I met the man before. But Listi told me years ago this dude was the salt of the earth. And he is. If I had just a dash of what this man carries in his heart I’d sleep better and would have a better appetite. He kicks ass, period.

We talked music, movies, and literature and I think I may  have dropped too many F-bombs. But fuck it.

I cuss. 

So there.

That night I slept horribly. Had a weird dream one of my ex-girlfriends – disguised as a maid – was at the hotel door demanding we talk about our problems. Huh? Everything was a problem to her. The color of the sun. Bargain car tires. Green beans. The taste of water.

Lord have mercy.

Please, sir, send me some mercy.

* * *

I walked into Hotel Cafe and saw some dude in a beanie: Duke Haney. In the flesh. He was there right in front of me. Crazy.

“Haney?” I asked, and went in for a hug.

“Reno?” he asked.

See, folks, I’m a huggy-type guy. Sure, I gave the man a handshake like men do, but I went in for the hug because I have an affinity with the dude. He’s a happening thoughtful, talented, man and I knew this long before we met eyes.

Then I hear: “Is that Reno Romero?”

I turn and there’s Listi standing there. Listi, people! With eyeballs, fingers, and tennis shoes. This is another happening dude. But you know this. Or should know this. And I owe him billions for giving me a forum.

Then: Rachel Pollon. Dear, adorable, and way cool. Everything I figured she’d be. Great eyes and a lover of pooches.

Does it get any better than this?

I was in heaven.

* * *

First to hit the stage was Stefan. Funny guy, solid writer, and he delivered a great intro to his reading and carried a tiny guitar that apparently can’t be tuned. He killed.

Next was my turn. Some story about putting a book on hold, some concert I went to, and straight memory. I think it went down well. Heard some laughs. I think. But not too sure. I hopped off stage thankful and feeling slightly giddy. Buzzed from the vibe. Or maybe the Guinness I bought from some chubby dude that was bartending.

I chatted with Phat B and found him dear, smart as fuck, and cool. Hey.

Lenore took the stage and talked midgets and fear. I, unlike most folk, love fear. I find it appetizing. Like a good Kir Royale. Or a basket of wings extra hot. Anyhow, she’s cute. But, I already addressed this. She was great.

And then Ferguson took the stage.

That motherfucker.

The pictures say it all. Nipples, feet, pink suit, and genius. A true Bond Girl. He blew us off the stage and took over Hollywood like I’m sure he’s done a zillion times. It was a stellar performance. Part philosophical, part comical, and nothing less than astounding. The house roared and later that night I locked lips with him minus the tongue.

(I would have given that handsome devil the works, but we didn’t agree on what bands were cool and which ones sucked dick. His loss. I’ve heard I have a real soft tongue and give one hell of a kiss.)

Anyhow, this guy is the real deal and a glorious, beautiful, human being.

I was floored.

Everyone was.

After we were done drinking and spanking each other we moved across the street for more drinks and more irresponsible adult crap. 

I met Milo Martin, his girl, Ben Loory, and Listi’s wife. More sweet people.

Shit! Does it get any better?

And that’s when I told Rich that Rush sucks.

And they do. I pinched up my nose and gave my best Geddy Lee impersonation. It was the best thing I ever created in my life and Rich was sickened. He likes Rush.

Haney agreed with me.

“They suck,” he told Rich.

“Fuck you guys!” Rich shouted.

We all laughed our asses off and I will never forget that moment.

Ever.

Folks, as I write this the word count is telling me I’m over the thousand words. I’m out of time. Way.

In the end, Haney gave me and the girl with pretty blue eyes a ride back to our hotel. We floated through the Hollywood streets and I was yapping some lame shit in Haney and Christy’s ears. What I said, I can’t tell you. But I was loud and ridiculous.

Which is normal.

That night I didn’t dream of that ex-girlfriend in a maid uniform. Which was fine by me.

Okay.

I’m done.

What a great time. Full of love and craziness.

And that’s me.

I love you all.

Really.

“The best models are those you’ve slept with,” was a line from one of her teachers that Ulli liked to repeat. ‘Happy New Year’ is what she called the picture, and you could buy it as a postcard in souvenir shops and book stores around West Berlin. This was 1988, when the city was still surrounded by Communism. The Wall was still intact. So were my dreams of becoming an actor. I was 22.

Ulli was the worst of friends, and we loved her. She forgot about my best friend Ollie, my ex-girlfriend Maike and me for months at a time, until she once again needed unpaid models for a photo shoot. Ulli smelled of Nivea lotion, her whole car smelled of it, as though she had rubbed it into the seats. She was a wet dream, tall, with long, shiny hair and pouty lips and padding in all the right places. But when she opened her mouth, her Rhineland drawl cracked the image. She was given to whines and complaints, and all of us listened. It was better to listen. The one time I contradicted her complaints, she took off on me. In front of the out-of-the-way movie theater where she had driven us.

Ulli’s assignments always involved nudity, and just to please her and be near her, I readily exposed all my flings and girlfriends to the needs of her camera. She smeared us with black paint and feathered us. She poured Blue Curacao over our heads. I faked sex or had sex in front of Ulli’s lens.

Ollie had once slept with her and said she was a screamer. He had also slept with Maike, when she hadn’t been my ex-girlfriend yet, and she was pregnant now, from him, from me, or from her new lawyer boyfriend. All viable possibilities. But she wanted me to accompany her to the abortion clinic.  Ulli knew all this, but there was an important deadline coming up, and she invited Ollie, pregnant Maike and me to pose together in the nude, and we did without a complaint.

One cold October afternoon, two weeks before the abortion, I abandoned two friends who had come to visit me in West Berlin, because Ulli called. She needed to take pictures and make some money. She needed me to come over, because her teacher and boyfriend had dumped her. I left my friends in a hurry and went over to Ulli’s apartment.

I knew what her call meant and I knew I might not have been the first one she called. I was hardly in the door when she grabbed me. Her face was wet, her nose running. Stroking her hair, I could feel the scar from the time her father had thrown her onto the bed, her head hitting the wall. Everyone knew this story about her dad in Düsseldorf, this one and many others.

“Why did he leave me?”

“I don’t know,” I said into her hair.

“He said I was immature,” she sobbed.

“No you’re not.”

She pulled me down onto the floor, took off my studded belt, wrestled the tight black pants off me. I had forgotten to bring condoms and worried. Ulli was promiscuous, AIDS was a possibility. And yet I didn’t protest when she sat down over me, stuffing me inside her the way you would stuff a croissant into your mouth after a long night out. Her eyes were red, her face puffy, but she was beautiful, and I wished to burn the image of naked Ulli into my brain. There was so much reality – it kept hitting my face, I could hardly see. And then she started screaming, and my ex-girlfriend Maike had been silent, always silent, and Ulli screamed as she was riding me. She screamed violently as though my body were a bag of knives.

I didn’t want to come too soon and had once read a story of a guy who was thinking of sledding in arctic forests to cool himself off. I imagined that sled, the cold, the frozen tracks in the deep snow, and that picture of the guy on his sled in the Nordic wilderness turned me on. So instead I thought of AIDS some more. Ulli screamed and I thought of going to get an AIDS test, which was free in a clinic half a mile away, and I imagined the grave face of the doctor who would give me the bad news. And it did cool me off, only not in the way I had hoped for.

Not to lose momentum and to show her what a great lover I was – after all, this was Ulli, wet dream Ulli, gorgeous, glamorous Ulli – I turned her around and thrust as hard as I could. I knew Ollie had never gotten over her, and I was already looking forward to telling him that yes, she was a screamer. It was a revelation, she seemed to really and ferociously enjoy herself. “I can’t anymore,” she finally said into the carpet.

The best, though, was the aftermath, the slightly awkward time we took to acknowledge what we had just done, with half-smiles and kisses. The resting on the carpet, her Rhineland drawl announcing that we needed to take those pictures. “The best models are those you’ve slept with,” Ulli said almost tenderly, and I grinned.

She told me not to get dressed and handed me two sparklers, which I was supposed to twirl around my butt. In front of a black background I lit them and twirled and burned myself and twirled some more. Then she gave me two sticks of Bengal sparklers, and their green flames shot up, thick smoke quickly filling the room. And I twirled again and Ulli’s shutter kept clicking and clacking away until the Bengal sparklers exploded, and the burning tips shot into the blue carpet and set it on fire.

Ulli dropped the camera and shrieked. I stood naked in all that smoke, staring at the smoldering carpet, and the still burning sticks in my hands. “Do something, do something,” Ulli shrieked and ran out of the room. I stomped with my heels on the carpet fire, then ran over to the window, opened it, and threw the lights down into the street. I stood naked by the window, two curious faces peeking out at me from a an apartment across the street, smoke escaping into the cold fall air. And for a strange moment – a moment in which Maike’s pregnancy, her cheating with Ollie, AIDS, Ulli’s teacher, my stinging feet, the smell of burned synthetics, Ulli’s screams from the kitchen, and my own future were whirling around me — I was happy.

There are certain hobbies that, while possessed of an inherent appeal, I would never take up because the subculture attached to them so repels me.

Take golf.I enjoy whacking the little white ball—I’m pretty good on the driving range, truth be told—but I would never go so far as to play the game for the simple reason that I don’t want to spend a whole afternoon with golfers.

The bad thing about being in the mental institution is that everyone there is crazy.

It really wouldn’t be so bad if not for that: it’s clean, it’s quiet, the food isn’t bad, and on top of that, there are plenty of doctors, so if you choke on something or have a stroke or a heart attack your chances of survival are increased.

But then, on the other hand, everyone’s crazy.

And when you’re crazy, that’s not what you need.


This is Rock ‘n’ Roll, but not rock ‘n’ roll music. This is some heroin addict losing a thumbnail on a G string, Al Green on his knees, Sleepy John Estes alone beneath a streetlight screaming, “Aaahh’m just a pris’ner!” into a Coors Light bottleneck. This is Mick Jagger finally castrated and Marianne Faithfull juggling his balls and a chainsaw. And this is accordion. Just accordion played by a Zapotec girl in a night alley that has no business being this orange.

You should know this: My wife is asleep in a Oaxaca motel named for the swallows who shit there, and I have what looks like blood on my hands; that the motel has no A/C, and a hot plate where we cooked our dinner, and the blood on my hands is just chioggia beet and not blood. This is nothing like the church group accordion that the upper middle class men played (in lederhosen) when I was a child at Strawberry Fest in Long Grove, Illinois, when polka was still as exotic as whiskey. This is accordion that virtuoso Guy Klucevsek can only swallow with an avant garde sleeping pill and a Transylvanian whore.

I am in Oaxaca City and I have to take a picture of this girl and her accordion, and the red cup that has only one peso in it, and the kids up the street destroying a piñata and eating its sweet organs, the simple pleasures of balloon and lightsticks occupying the children in the Zócalo before they take their shifts behind tarps, bearing clay burros, and yellow scarves, and wool carpets for sale to the tourists.

My wife and I are in Oaxaca trying to find our place in the world again, aged after a year of dealing with our sick parents. We force ourselves to shed hesitancy and over-protectiveness, and all manner of adult things behind food carts steaming with pigs’ heads, girls’ fingers dancing over keys that were never mother-of-pearl. My wife sleeps and I walk, stop for this girl—motherless, pearl-less—and it’s all I can do to pull out my camera.

I’m hungry. For dinner tonight: only two passion fruits and a cherimoya, a sautéed beet, the chile relleno with salsa roja my wife and I split at the Mercado Benito Juarez, passing so many stalls where intestines hang like ribbons. We’ve slept little, listened to so much music. But nothing like this. This tiny voice perched as if on a water-lily, driven by some failing engine—a horsefly with too-wet wings, food for some larger animal with a poisonous tongue. This asthmatic accordion scoring its attempts to fly, right itself; the instrument itself failing, played-out after one too many cigarettes—dirty and ugly and struggling and beautiful. There’s a reason why Tom Waits has a pathos Celine Dion never will. That reason is this girl’s accordion and its emphysema.

It’s all I can do to say, “Foto?” and I feel immediately blasphemous for doing so. You should know this: my wife is asleep and she cried before sleeping. Something to do with the bald old woman selling green maracas. Something to do with her knowing, in likely dream, that her husband is interrupting a nightsong.

She doesn’t stop playing, but nods, her little sister running out of frame, standing beside me hugging my leg and the flash explodes. Only a few months earlier, this street saw the local teachers’ strike lead to violent protests, riots, cars set aflame, rocks hurled, barking guns, military intervention. I wonder where she played then. Now, only the firing of my camera, her little sister hanging on my forearm, reaching to see the photo, her feet off the ground. I’m glad it’s blurry.

On the outskirts of town the streets turn to dirt, three-wheeler moto-taxis, stray dogs and squatter camps in the valley before the mountains. The buildings here spew their exposed steel cables like industrial squid, the cisterns slanted on the roofs, holding, for now, their collected water. I begin to wonder when dark becomes too dark; what the accordion player’s name is. Because I’ll never know, I give her the name I’ve always wanted to give a daughter. This is the word I will wake my wife with.

Returning to town, the bustle has become a chug. The push-carts of ice cream and mezcal and flan in plastic cups return home, their bells feebly ringing. At the cathedral-tops, bells more obese announce the crooked arrival of something holy: music or midnight.

She is gone, but something of her endures—something beyond music and the instrument that acts as intermediary, beyond buttons and bellows and small fingers that can only press. In this accordion is translation. A language that can stave off, just as it ignites. In it is all music—the stuff my wife snores, the shitty Laura Branigan cassettes my mom kept in her car when she was well enough to drive, when Branigan was alive and sexy and rife with the lovely strength required to belt-out crappy songs.

I head for Hotel Las Golondrinas, something of clove and orange peel in the air. Tomorrow, we are going to Santa Maria del Tule, to the church grounds there to see the Montezuma Cypress whose trunk has the greatest circumference of any tree in the world.

My wife is sleeping, so I am quiet when I enter the room. I take a long pull from the ass-pocket of mezcal on my nightstand; the ass-pocket we bought at a market on the grounds of a different church. I need a sink, and its cold water. In the bathroom, I wash the beet from my hands, wonder what the accordion girl will have for breakfast tomorrow. I’m pulling for bananas and cream. I have no idea where she sleeps tonight, or where—if—she wakes up. Because I know there will be a fence around the trunk of that giant tree, because I’ll never know, I knife her name into the bathroom door.

I don’t remember if I caught wind of it through Facebook or Twitter, in an email or if I just stumbled across a headline on the web, but when I heard that author Stephen Elliott was sending around a limited amount of advance copies of his new book, The Adderall Diaries, for free, I kept the information to myself and emailed him immediately.

He calls it the Lending Library.

Asks that people read his book in a week and then send it along. Just pay for the first-class postage and don’t mistreat the book for the next person.

I got my free copy on a Saturday, finished it the following Saturday, and am sending it on its way to the next cheapskate, er, reader on Monday.


The Adderall Diaries is the story of how Elliott battles writer’s block and an Adderall addiction in San Francisco until hearing that an old acquaintance from his S&M community has confessed to killing eight or nine people and won’t say who they are. The acquaintance is also the best friend of a man who is about to stand trial in a high-profile case, a guy accused of killing the mother of his two children, a Russian woman he met through a bride service. It’s framed by the complicated relationship between Elliott and his father who killed a man right before Elliott was born, or didn’t. But probably.

It’s a fast and brilliant read; it’s New Journalism-y where the writer sets out to report on an event but writes just as much, or more, on himself and his role in the event. It’s a true-crime memoir. It’s written on drugs, like On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The speed that Elliott is swallowing and snorting gives the book a jumpy feel, but the chronology doesn’t suffer. Unlike the author at times.

The book is brutally honest.

The book is immediately current, it’s eye-opening into the world of sado-masochism sex play (unless you’ve already read some of Elliott’s best work), and it invites you to investigate the lives of your parents before they were your parents.

And the book is, if you sign up before it’s too late, totally free (save for the postage).


Stephen and I emailed back and forth:

The Nervous Breakdown: The idea behind the Lending Library reminds me of a site I used to participate in, PaperBackSwap.com, where you list some used books on your shelf that you were totally done with, and if someone wanted it, the owner paid the shipping. Which was cool because I had too many copies of The Great Gatsby and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I wanted to collect all the books in the Fletch series. But here you are sending out your book that hasn’t been on anyone’s shelf yet. For free. Could you tell me how this came about, if this was your idea or something Graywolf Press was looking to do with the right writer? And how did the second party react to the first party’s proposal?

Stephen Elliott: The idea was mine. I was having a “marketing” conversation with Graywolf and they were talking about getting galleys into the hands of bloggers. They had sent me a bunch of galleys to give to reviewers and people in the literary world. And that’s when I had this idea of just sending the book to anyone who requests it, but requiring they forward the book within a week.

The impression I got was that Graywolf had mixed feelings about the idea, but they didn’t say no, and they had already sent me the galleys. And I think they’re glad I’ve been doing it. I mean, I’ve always believed that you don’t make money selling books to your friends, you make money selling books to your friends’ friends. (not that I’ve ever made any money) This is an extension of that idea.

But also, you know, I just want people to read my book. I don’t frankly care if they buy it.

TNB: I can definitely see how this could pay off, especially if you already had all the galley copies: People read The Adderall Diaries for free, dig it, and spread the good news via word-of-mouth or through social media sites (if they’re able to take a break from updating everyone about their latest pedicure or what they just ate). Do you find that you’re getting more press this time around because of the Lending Library idea, more than when Happy Baby (Picador, 2004) was about to be released?




SE: I’m getting tons more press than when Happy Baby was released. I think that’s partly because of the Lending Library. But you have to understand, Happy Baby didn’t get any press. It was edited and designed by McSweeney’s and published/distributed by MacAdam/Cage, and in the middle there was this disconnect. Because McSweeney’s had designed and edited the book, there was no-one at MacAdam/Cage who had any ownership of the book, and so it fell between the cracks. Initially there were only maybe four reviews of the book. You couldn’t even order it at Borders. Happy Baby ended up doing really well and made a lot of best of the year lists, which gave me a lot of faith in the system, that if you wrote a really good book it would find its audience. But there was no attention paid to that book when it came out.

By that way, I’m not blaming anyone. I’m perfectly happy with what happened with Happy Baby. If Dave Eggers hadn’t of edited that book it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.

This time everything’s different. This is really my first major book in five years. My Girlfriend Comes To The City and Beats Me Up was just a collection of short, erotic vignettes, a minor book, I think. So now I have this book coming out, and since Happy Baby I’ve done all this political organizing around literary events, along with politically inspired anthologies. The truth is, I know tons of people in the literary world now, and in 2004 I didn’t. Plus, I’ve maybe built up a little fan base from my previous work.

But you know, in the end, you live and die by the work. If a literary book isn’t really good, (and this is still a literary book, even if it’s non-fiction) then nothing you can do is going to make the book succeed. You might sell a bunch of copies initially, but if a book is going to stick around it’s going to be because of the writing. I think people think too much about marketing, and not enough about writing good books.

TNB: Speaking of marketing, it’s funny that one of the things I got the most fired up about in your book was learning that your father would actively try to sabotage your writing career, calling reporters who interviewed you to say you were lying about your hard childhood, writing harsh Amazon reviews for your books. How did you first react to these things, particularly when he wrote those anonymous shitty reviews? Did you contact him? And did you begin to wonder if your memories were correct, although it’s obvious that they were pretty sharp in your mind?

SE: Well yeah. That’s what a lot of the book is about. I definitely questioned my memories, which is a pretty healthy thing to do. We all remember things differently. It’s possible for my memories and interpretations, and my father’s, to co-exist, even though they contradict each other.

The bad reviews my father left of my books (which he’s still doing) are never anonymous. I mean, he always says something so that I know it’s him. I’ve contacted him about it in the past, but I don’t contact him about it anymore. He should say whatever he wants, whatever makes him feel better.

TNB: Your father was a writer and author of a couple books. Have you ever critiqued his work? Is there anything of his you would suggest reading?

SE: I don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to critique my father’s work, but my favorite book by him is My Years With Capone.

TNB: You’ve been published in Esquire, the New York Times, GQ, Salon.com, The Believer (which is where I first read your work), and in some great collections including Best American Non-Required Reading and Best Sex Writing. You also started your own culture site, The Rumpus. What drove your to start your own publication and was it easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?

SE: I don’t remember what I thought The Rumpus was going to be. I look at creating The Rumpus like writing a novel. You just start, you don’t know what it’s going to become. The trick is focusing on creating something good. Don’t worry about what other people want to read, write the book that you want to read. Same with an online publication. I created the website I wanted to spend time on.

I was driven to do it after I finished The Adderall Diaries. It’s my seventh book, and I wasn’t ready to start another book right away. So this was a creative project I could get under while I figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

TNB: Well, hopefully when you start your next book you continue on with The Rumpus. I just discovered it a few months ago. You going to continue to head the site up from San Francisco or will you ever make your way back to Chicago?

SE: I don’t think I’ll make my way back to Chicago. I love Chicago, but San Francisco is my home now. It was an accident. I was driving around with no plan in mind. I was a ski bum, then I coasted into Moab. I ran out of money and gas in San Francisco eleven years ago. I kept meaning to leave, but I never did.

You can buy The Adderall Diaries in September 2009 from Graywolf Press, or you can borrow it now.

Keep up with Stephen Elliott until then on The Rumpus.

One summer when I was in my mid-twenties, I visited my friend Jeff in New Mexico. We were going to do some hiking, but all the trails were closed due to extreme fire hazard, so we spent my visit on his couch, playing the video game Grand Theft Auto. Two grown men with master’s degrees, we couldn’t tear ourselves away, so addictive was the action, the anarchy. In what other world could you hijack a city bus and drive it the wrong way through a one-way tunnel, or trick a cop into getting out of his car so you could steal it and be the subject of a high-speed chase?

Three days of this had a noticeable effect. When we drove into town to get dinner, we passed a Porsche, and I thought, “Ooh! Let’s take that one!”

It was a brief impulse, but obviously some neural connections had been formed. I don’t know anything about neural science, but I picture nanoscopic tentacles reaching from one part of the brain to other, from want to take, from aggression to joy, from mayhem to happiness, each bridge strengthened by each robbery, each mauled pedestrian, each electrical pulse.

The Tibetan Buddhism scholar Bob Thurman once suggested that all that consumption of violence, even in the form of entertainment, has a profoundly negative effect on our perception of the world. Media critic George Gerbner came to a similar conclusion in the 1980s. He found that people who watched a lot of TV had wildly inflated notions about the frequency of crime in their cities and the likelihood of personally encountering violence. They were also more likely to think women should stay in the kitchen, and black people and white people shouldn’t mix.

In my youth I watched what in retrospect is way, way too much cable TV, most of it violent. I loved the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Beverly Hills Cop, and Die Hard trilogies, the first two Rambos and Terminators, the two 48 Hours movies, Commando, Bloodsport, American Ninja, Delta Force, even the Timothy Dalton Bond movies. I got a Nintendo when it first came out, and I spent months shooting pixilated ducks out of a pixilated sky with my plugged-in gun two inches from the screen. Maybe that was why, when my friend Bobby came over with his brand-new pellet gun, we immediately went outside and shot a pigeon. Actually, he shot the pigeon. I watched, and even though I’d told him to do it, when I saw the puff of feathers and the bird disappear over the wall, I turned on him: “What’d you do?!”

And there was my lily-white, 60% Jewish tennis camp the summer before seventh grade, when I first heard Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It. What Eazy duz exactly, or did, was rap about armed robbery, “bitches galore,” killing “muthafuckas,” and “sippin’ eight balls.” I had no idea what most of it meant, but it blew my mind. When someone else had the Eazy tape, I listened to Eddie Murphy. He said “fuck” every third word, told stories of his mother throwing shoes at him and getting in fistfights, and he described in great detail what it’d be like to be raped by a “faggot” Mr. T.

Despite all of that, I don’t think of myself as a violent person. My life has been ridiculously peaceful by modern American standards, which puts it in the 99th percentile for most peaceful of all human history. And my instincts tell me it was ridiculous for people to blame Columbine on Marilyn Manson and for Dr. Phil to blame Virginia Tech on video games.

But I also can’t forget that fleeting moment in New Mexico when I wanted to car-jack someone. Or that time, at sleep-away camp, when I threw a kid to the ground and did my best Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka impression, which involved jumping as high as I could into the air and then landing on him with both my knees. His offense? He’d squirted me with a water gun, after I’d told him not to.

There was also the time in eighth-grade P.E. when we were on the field playing Bloodball, a combination of soccer, football and team handball. The coach allowed us to play “aggressive tag,” but not tackle. This kid Andy needlessly knocked my best friend Dougie to the ground. Dougie was very small, and I vowed revenge. While the ball was on the other side and Andy was trotting down the field minding his own business, I came up behind him, got next to him, stuck my leg out and gave him a shove. He slammed facedown, harder than I’d wanted him to, on a rock-hard patch of dirt, and I felt the same mixture of nausea and regret I felt after landing on the kid at camp. Andy looked up at me with shocked eyes, his freckled cheeks burning, and I said, “Maybe now you’ll pick on someone your own size!” like I was some divinely certified karmic repairman. Of course, as the words came out of my mouth, it occurred to me that I was much bigger than him.

Who did I think I was? The Lone Ranger? Zorro? The Fonz? Where did these impulses come from? I don’t know, but the rest of my teenage years were without incident. That might have had something to do with the fact that the other kids were catching up to me in size, and many of them lifted weights and studied martial arts. Also, I played football, and maybe the organized violence satisfied any desire I had to hurt people.

In college I didn’t play any sports, but the significant increase in my drug and alcohol intake left me docile as a lamb. Also, instead of watching movies full of explosions and blood spatter, I read Erasmus, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Whitman. Eazy-E had long ago been replaced by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and John Prine.

But sometimes the violence finds you. One night in my senior year I happened to arrive at the front door of my house just as some hooligans from the “hockey house” were hassling my friend Robert, a smallish guy who wore loafers and rolled his own smokes. One of the hockey guys pushed him into some bushes, and the next thing I knew, I’d stepped in front of Robert, and the guy grabbed me, and then he and I were tumbling over some bicycles and thrashing around on the grass. Due to a broken thumb (intramural flag football injury), my right hand was in a cast that stopped just before my elbow. Due to the fact that it was dark outside, I was drunk. When I got to my feet, I just saw shapes. I aimed for the closest one and flung myself at it. He ended up being one of the guy’s friends, and he went down easily enough, but then the guy, or a third guy, was punching me in the back of the head. Then people were pulling us all away from each other, when, just to put an exclamation point on it, I wriggled out of someone’s grip and threw a lumbering right hook with the club that was my cast. It connected with a dull smacking sound against the cheek of — no, not of the guy who’d started it all — but one of the guys who were holding him back. Now this guy wanted to fight. I apologized, and he made gorilla-like noises while he let his friends talk him out of it.

That was the only time I ever hit someone in the face, and it put to rest any notions I harbored about being able to handle myself in a fight. It seems fitting that I fought idiotically, starting a second fight while losing the one already in progress, then using what in court could be considered a deadly weapon, and missing with that weapon the person I was aiming for.

Since then, it’s been smooth sailing, with nothing more confrontational than a “Get the fuck away from me!” to a Manhattan con artist or Amsterdam junkie. Despite that Grand Theft Auto moment, and the occasional, brief revisit of my fantasy of leading a band of guerrilla fighters in a heroic and hopeless revolt against invading Russians (thank you, Red Dawn), I don’t try to solve my problems with violence. Maybe I’ve grown up. Maybe it’s the yoga and vegetarianism. Or not owning a TV and not playing video games.

Even now though, I wonder if the negative energy that streamed into my eyes and ears for so many years is still affecting me. I have no desire to hurt anyone or anything, but maybe in a much subtler way I’m giving it all back. “There is no free lunch,” as my high school physics teacher always said. Actions yield reactions. I release the violence I’ve absorbed, not in a killing spree, but over a lifetime, in bits and pieces, arguing with lovers or relatives or customer service representatives, acting cruelly toward smaller or weaker people, cutting people off on the highway, cursing the people who cut me off….

The mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that human beings need to move beyond the notion of tribe — local, racial, religious, socio-economic — and think in terms of the tribe of humanity. Technology has shrunk the planet, provided us with the means to confront the truth that people in the next town, or the next country, or an ocean away, are just as human as we are. We’re making progress on some fronts. I suppose we should be proud of our civilization because we’re playing violent video games instead of going down to the coliseum to see the virgins take on the lions. (Lions: 11,202; Virgins: 0.) Maybe we’ll get our act together in time to avoid burning out in the great climate change, nuclear holocaust, or water and food shortages that await us.

But I doubt it. Our violent instincts are stubborn. They’ve even been naturally selected for, in that if you whacked the other caveman first with your club, he couldn’t whack you. We probably won’t learn to work together, and we’ll continue to bicker with each other even as we destroy our planet.

And every now and then someone will come along, like Jesus, like Martin Luther King, Jr., like John Lennon, and he’ll say, “Hey, we should all be nice to each other.”

And we’ll know what to do with him.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience, recorded 19 July 2009 in Hollywood, California. Featuring Stefan Kiesbye, Reno J. Romero, Lenore Zion, and Rich Ferguson. Produced by Aaron M. Snyder and Megan DiLullo.

“It all began with a fuck,” goes the brash opening line of D.R. Haney’s first novel Banned for Life, and the strange seduction begins.

For those who haven’t read Haney’s sprawling debut, it follows Jason Maddox’s serio-comic adventures in the underground punk scene, stretching beyond mosh pit mayhem and barroom brawls to explore death and obsession and purpose. The author zigzags confidently between a resonant coming-of-age tale in North Carolina, la vie boheme in hardscrabble New York, and a tempestuous L.A. love affair which leads our narrator to Belgrade for climax and denouement.

Even readers ambivalent to punk will be drawn in by the peculiarly irresistible voice of Jason, who is at turns heartthrob, heartbroken and healed.

D.R. Haney tells TNB how he went from breaking guitars to becoming a serious novelist.

You’ve said it took 9 years to write the 400 page manuscript. What prevented you from going permanently insane during that time?

I’m not sure I didn’t. It was quite a ride. I mean, if there’s no blood on the keyboard, there should be. Broken bone and gray matter, too.

I was lucky to have good friends. That was my saving grace – that and music. It’s perhaps an embarrassing thing to say, but rock & roll has been a redemptive factor throughout my life. If I’m feeling bad, I only have to pick up a guitar or play a certain record, like “Arboretum” by Unwound or “The Rat” by the Walkmen, and my mood improves. My spiritual sense is absolutely tied to music, specifically to rock & roll.

Jason, the protagonist and narrator, confesses late in the book that his story is memoir “written as a novel for legal reasons”. Can you talk about this?

Well, the book certainly isn’t a memoir in the strict sense, but if it were, Jason would no doubt be worried about the potential for legal fallout, and just plain fallout, period.

I’ll say this much: there are characters in Banned that are very much based on real-life people, and I was (and continue to be) concerned with their reactions. I didn’t even bother to change the names in a few cases. Others are composites or purely the product of my imagination. But I think all narrative writing is finally fiction; it’s only a matter of degree.

Morally, Banned seems concerned with the search for personal meaning, which is achieved, mainly, through defeating a particularly American brand of boredom. Would you agree with this assessment?

To a certain extent, yes, though I think the American brand is something we’ve successfully exported to the rest of the world though movies and TV shows.

American entertainment is hugely popular, even among those who claim to hate us, and its appeal is its very mindlessness, in never allowing the viewer to become bored, when in fact boredom is the very thing is produces, no matter the initial giddiness.

For me, it’s worse than mere boredom; it amounts to the starvation of the soul, in dimmed sense, in unwitting complacency and conformity and alienation. It’s a culture of death. Ironically, death in America is a subject largely avoided, which to me is classically Freudian: you don’t want mentioned what you suspect yourself, perhaps rightly, to be.

I’m not proposing this as an original view. It’s been argued again and again, and there are counterarguments, but when the subject comes up in private conversation, I’ve almost never had anyone disagree with me. Most of us seem to recognize the effects of what I’m calling the culture of death, if not in ourselves then others. But there also seems to be a general feeling of, well, what’s to be done about it? That’s the world we live in. And it is. But the question for me at that point is: How to stay alive?

There’s obviously no single answer, but I do think, as you say, Jason in Banned is searching for a way that will work for him. And a classic starting point for anyone similarly alienated of Jason’s generation was punk rock, because it was forthrightly expressing rage in a way that was forbidden, and continues to be, by mainstream corporate media. These were kids who, whatever their flaws, refused to go along with the program, and that’s something I don’t really see anymore. I don’t think there will be another movement like punk in my lifetime, because we’re all too atomized and prematurely (in the case of the young) jaded, but I want to leave a record of it, and I think and hope Banned can be appreciated by people who dislike punk but still have a streak of resistance in them, or they’re looking to discover or recover it.

That’s what happened to Jason: he both discovered and had to recover it, because he’d once again succumbed to the culture of death.

I couldn’t get past hating the character of Irina. She’s insecure, a compulsive liar, intellectually unimpressive and yet Jason fetishizes her physical beauty. Did you intend for her to be so unlikable?

It’s interesting: I’ve had a number of women readers react as you did, but almost never any male readers.

I don’t know if that’s because men are more superficial than women, if they’re more easily bamboozled by physical beauty or what, but even male musicians I know – guys with deep roots in the punk scene – will read the book and comment mostly on Irina, and rarely in unfavorable terms. And, you know, in the book, Irina says that women don’t like her, so it seems as though that trend carries over with readers.

But to answer your question: I certainly wanted the reader to be exasperated by Irina; to feel about her as Jason feels as she leads him on this agonizing ride of l’amour fou. I mean, the reader is sort of Jason’s confidante, and if a friend comes to you and says, “And then she did this,” you’re almost certainly going to take his side. I personally believe Irina when she says she’s forced to lie because Jason is too possessive to listen when she tries to tell him the truth.

As for her physical beauty, that’s another funny thing, because I didn’t set out to make her so beautiful but she refused to be written any other way, which I’m sure owes to the woman who inspired her. However, I failed in making Irina as smart or as interesting as the woman who inspired her, and that woman was, shall we say, a tad upset when she read the manuscript.

Without giving anything away, could you tell us if in fact there is an Alexi? And if so, where is he?

I wish I could say he’s in Belgrade, but Alexi was kind of a last-minute idea that came to me as a way of trying to close a particular thematic circle. I considered him the riskiest thing I did in the whole book, even though he only appears for a second.

But I included him in part because of the risk. It seemed cowardly to back away from something that, thematically, made sense, at least to me.

Peewee is vivid and memorable. What is it about him, do you think, that makes him so compelling?

I personally think it’s his courage. I mean, here’s this tiny guy, but he’s got the balls to go against everyone and everything. He’s not even afraid to physically take on guys he knows are going to beat the crap out of him. Plus, he’s intellectually courageous, even though some of that arises from his considerable contrarian streak.

It’s also possible that he stands out partly because you know from the beginning of the book he’s going to die. So maybe, at least unconsciously, you think as you’re reading, “Oh God, please don’t let this happen.” I was literally sick with grief when I wrote about the accident. I loved, and love, him so much.

There’s a scene in the book where he has a showdown with his father and sinks to the floor in a flood of tears, and you really see, for the first time, the full extent of his damage. I think he suffered terribly. But what does he do? He cries it all out and walks back to Jason and says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” That says everything to me about Peewee. He’s a tragic but ballsy little guy.

What is your writing background?

I’m an autodidact. I learned by reading. I was never in a creative writing program or anything like that. And I also learned by doing, by writing a lot and poring over what I wrote and learning from my mistakes.

In terms of professional experience, I’ve had pieces published in zines and small magazines, that kind of thing. And I’ve done some screenwriting and I worked for a number of years on a novel that I ultimately had to scrap. That was a horrible experience, but again, I learned from it and the lesson was: Never, ever write another book told from multiple points of view.

Your sex scenes are…exuberant. How did you approach writing this type of material?

Well, there’s one scene that’s proven popular with early readers and I have to confess that in writing it I thought, “I never read sex scenes that do anything for me, and this one is going to.” It was the only moment in the book when I fully surrendered to my inner pornographer.

It must have worked, because I’ve had male friends, alas, report trips to the bathroom with Banned in hand. And my friend Jane told me she thought the Jason/Irina relationship was “hot”, and that was especially gratifying, not only beacuse it was coming from a woman but because I felt I was holding myself back with those bits.

I don’t know. The sex stuff was the same as the music stuff, the same as the Hollywood stuff: I just tried to put myself in that particular place and describe what I felt and saw.

Jason has a strained relationship with his parents. How has your own family reacted to Banned?

They haven’t read it. My mom wanted a copy, and I said, “Well, you know, Mom, this book is pretty shocking. Even the first sentence is shocking.” And I told her what it was, and she immediately decided this was not a book she preferred to read. I did consider sending a copy to my dad, who I thought would be more open, but my mom said, “Oh, no, your father wouldn’t understand that kind of thing at all.” Which is a pity, because he loves to brag about his kids’ accomplishments. I mean, I showed him the manuscript, which he never read, and he would display it to anyone who stopped by: “Here, look what my boy did.” But, again, he did that with no idea what was in it.

How did you celebrate the news Banned had been picked up by a publisher?

I didn’t, really, because I celebrated the completion of what I thought was the final draft in 2005 and within days I was rewriting it.

Also, I’d gotten an offer from [fellow TNB contributor] Brin Friesen to publish the book with his imprint, And/Or Press, following a reading we did together in 2006. It was only later, after I’d talked to other publishers, that I decided And/Or was the way to go.

The other publishers either wanted to alter the book where I thought it was unnecessary or they’d shake hands on deals only to renege; and I trusted Brin, who’s a friend and a novelist in his own right. Fortunately, he was still open to publishing Banned.

So the celebration may yet occur, when Brin is in L.A. or I’m in Vancouver. We’ve talked about doing a two-man reading tour. It’s only a matter of funds.

In the acknowledgements, Banned lists some recognizable names. Has there been any talk amongst your Hollywood connections of turning the novel into a film?

Some talk, yes. It’s just kind of a low murmur at this point – very low. But I do get the feeling the talk will grow and get louder.

How did you arrive at the title?

Originally the book had a title that now makes me wince. And then that title was used by somebody else and I was in a great state about it, and one day I was reading something in, I think, Spin magazine about a band getting banned for life from Holiday Inn – the whole chain – and I thought, “You know, ‘banned for life’ would be a terrific title for the book.”

As I’ve said, there’s a life/death motif that runs throughout the book along with a big/small motif, among others. So I called a few friends and said, “What do you think?” and everybody seemed to like it as a title so Banned for Life it was.

What’s next for you?

I’ve always been interested in the old physiology-as-destiny idea, in how appearance shapes the way we’re regarded and leads to success or the lack of it, and studies have shown that, contrary to widespread belief, men are judged just as much on appearance as women. Also, I tend to write a lot about brothers, which undoubtedly has to do with my having three of them, so I’m working on a new book concerned with all of the above.

At the moment I’m calling the book Handsome, in tribute to a nineties band of the same name. But I find myself embarrassed whenever I mention it, so it will probably end up getting changed.

Thanks for “talking” to us!

No, thank you. It’s my honor to be asked.

PORTLAND, OR-

There have been names thrown out over the years: Arrogant. Enigmatic. Freak. Media Whore. Self-indulgent. Vain. Narcissistic.

All names that suggest I’ve been spotted, seen and made note of. Words that the people closest to me find laughable and would say are totally off base. There is no owners manual for living with these words. I suppose it’s presumed that when these words come into play that you are immune to the effects of them. No self help books to give you perspective, no wisdom or advice for you.

BOULDER, CO-

It’s common among the literati to carry around a bunch of grammar gurus, like¹ Erykah Badu’s Bag Lady. Usually you’ll find some mix of H. G. Fowler, E. B. White and Quiller-Couch, and perhaps some volume-by-committee such as The Chicago Manual of Style or Hart’s Rules.  I personally used to follow Fowler.  I would read from his The King’s English almost every day.  I enjoyed it only moderately, but I assumed it was a mandatory part of the writer’s daily diet and exercise.  I boxed like a fiend with Fowler in my corner.  I’d beat you down for any latent coordination of relative clauses, or any fused participle.

A funny thing happened early this decade. I realized I was in a quagmire and became disillusioned.  I’ve learned to make linguistic love, not war.  My attitude towards prescriptive grammarians has become “kiss my that-which-abusing, colon-and-semicolon-using, passive-voice-embracing arse, bitches!”

My stepfather–who we’ll just call G.–sat across the dinner table from me. My mother sat to my left, silently pushing her food around the plate. I assumed this was because she’d discovered G.’s latest affair and was dealing with it in her usual silent denial. G. discussed what he’d be doing if it were his sophomore year in college instead of mine, Things I Would Have Done with Your Opportunities being a favorite topic of his. I’d only come to town to retrieve a few things I had left behind when I moved into my apartment, and I was eager to get back on the road as soon as possible.

It was early October, 1998. I was 19 years old.

G. was a Machiavellian bully of a parent, though one who preferred to intimidate psychologically rather than physically. My mother moved him in when I was six, and the ink was barely dry on her divorce decree before she married him. As the only boy in the house, I received the brunt of his attention. Everything was subject to scrutiny: my clothes, my taste in music, my prowess with girls, my lack of interest in team sports—all measured by some unspoken standard of masculinity I perpetually failed to live up to. That I earned a black belt in karate at sixteen made no substantial impression. I grew up in a state of quiet but pervasive fear, only finally escaping when I went off to college. I deliberately chose a university elsewhere in the state and came home infrequently.

Though not typically violent, G. hit me three times before I reached the age of 10. Once hard enough to make my gums bleed.

He largely ignored my little sister. This is the only reason she survived this period of our lives.

I finished my meal, but when I went to clear my plate my mother took it instead. “I’ll get this,” she said. “You just relax.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. Each family member was responsible for his/her dirty dishes, an inviolate rule for as long as I could remember.

She cleared not just my plate but the entire table, portioning the leftovers into Tupperware containers with astonishing economy of speed. G. sipped at his beer and made a show of appearing nonchalant. Some weird, nervous energy encoded his body language, and I found it vaguely threatening. Every lizard-brain instinct told me to flee, but before I could conjure an excuse my mother returned to her seat.

“There’s something we need to tell you,” G. said. “It’s about your father.”

My father? My father had become persona non grata years ago. During the divorce he battled viciously in court to avoid owing child support, a prolonged conflict which left my sister and I with smoking blast craters marring the landscape of our youth. When the courts decided against him, he abandoned his children in favor of his new wife.

“We’ve never been completely honest with you,” my stepfather continued. He stared me straight in the eyes, his poker face rapidly abandoning him. “But we think it’s time you know the truth. You’re not really his son. You’re mine.”

Mine.

The world fell away from me like a free-fall ride at an amusement park.

G. grinned as though he’d won a fucking prize.

My mother said nothing.

When I didn’t respond, G. kept talking: about his affair with my mother; about the anecdotal evidence that “proved” I was his biological son; how my various aunts and uncles had been aware for years. Something about how this would “free” me from the pain of the divorce.

I wasn’t really listening. I felt like a  freshly branded cow, a smoking MINE seared into my flesh. My heart beat against the ragged edges of broken feelings: betrayal, violation, confusion.

And so much anger. I wanted to glove my fists in the grinning bastard’s blood.

“I have to go,” I said, grabbing my leather jacket off the chair. No one tried to stop me.

Here’s where I lose the plot a bit. Everything was scattered, my head as big a jumble as a bag of Scrabble letters. I drove aimlessly, circling around the freeways, taking whatever off-ramp or side street presented itself. The city seemed both starkly real and yet grotesquely unreal, as though I’d stumbled into some Twilight Zone simulacrum of my life.

I stopped at payphones, attempting to get in touch with my friends, but it was Saturday and they were all out. I left them rambling, nonsensical messages.

Eventually, running low on gas and inertia, I found myself at the beach. The early autumn days were still running late, and the evening sun was just setting. I sat down on the sand to watch it, jacket pulled around me like a turtle shell. It was just another sunset, the exact same image I’d seen countless times, and yet so stunningly beautiful that for a moment I was able to forget about everything. One last explosion of color before the world finished turning to gray.

My crappy little 35MM Kodak was in my jacket pocket, and I snapped a few pictures.


Later I would pick myself up off the beach, drive back to school, and with the help of my friends, begin the process of reassembling myself, fearing for years afterward that crucial pieces were irretrievably lost.

I would not speak to any member of my family, save my sister, for months.

I would learn that G. had been threatening to leave my mother for his current mistress; she had hoped that allowing him to openly claim me as his offspring would prevent him from leaving her. But G. would move out before Christmas, and they would be divorced by springtime.

And before graduation, I would publicly–and cathartically–disown him.

But those events were in the future, still waiting to happen. For now I just sat there, alone on an empty shelf of beach, watching the sun slowly dive into the Pacific as bit by bit the earth carried me away from it.