He appears both restless and sly when we sit him down for an interview at his publisher's office, and his eyes wander around the room and never stop tracking the people outside and the people at work. He never loses his train of thought, however, and his initial bristly attitude relaxes into candor as he talks about his life, work, and the genesis of his three most important books: his first novel "Landscape with Traveler," the book "Wild at Heart" (made into a film by David Lynch before it even saw print), and his oral biography of Jack Kerouac, a nonfiction history called "Jack's Book."
"I like your books better than Kerouac's," I admit after the interview.
"I appreciate your saying so," he says back, taking my measure, not believing me.
When Gifford talks about Kerouac, you can tell he's talking about himself. When he defends Kerouac against the New York literary establishment, you can tell he hopes that people will defend him the same way.
Son of a small-time Chicago racketeer, Barry Gifford saw more shit before he was fifteen than most people ever see in their lives. He's been a baseball player, a gambler, a rock musician, a screenwriter, and a Beat historian, and he has been making his money through writing books almost his entire adult life. He has published over 25 fiction and non-fiction works, most notably the seven novels that make up the Sailor and Lula series.
This series follows the lives and lusts of passionate Southern dreamers Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace Fortune as they find new ways to lose each other and find each other again, glorying in true romantic gestures that never lack for spark, wit, insanity, or fever.
The Sailor and Lula books will be a big chunk of Gifford's legacy, and he has finally finished them up for good with this year's novel "The Imagination of the Heart."
Many of the Sailor and Lula books are out of print and therefore impossible to read, but a new omnibus edition that will collect all seven novels next year will let a younger generation of Americans take stock of Gifford's achievement and dip into the sex-soaked, honky-tonk world of two "once-in-a-lifetime" characters that defy easy categories and make you smile and sweat at the same time.
What if Elvis and Marilyn Monroe actually did get together in James Dean's diner? They wouldn't have the energy to get famous: they'd be too busy getting each other off, fighting off rivals, and burning down hotel rooms with their plane-crash orgasms.
When I was eleven years old, my old man took me to Graceland (which happened to be down the street from his home in Memphis) to set me right about being a man. When I decided that I preferred the Beatles to the King, he seemed wounded. He sat me down and made me watch "Wild at Heart," a movie with which I immediately fell in love (probably for other reasons than Elvis):
By the time I realized that "Wild at Heart" was only part of a larger, grander narrative, most of Gifford's books had fallen out of print, and were impossible to find in many bookstores.
However, with all the pieces of the puzzle finally collected in the forthcoming Sailor and Lula omnibus, the works of Barry Gifford will soon get all the critical scrutiny and public adulation they can stand. It's about time, although it seems as though Gifford has found other ways to amuse himself over the years while fame has found other, needier subjects.
He writes for the characters and the language, choosing subjects other writers would caricature, and manages to wring stark, high-contrast humanity from simple themes and subjects. His relative obscurity has been an artistic blessing, allowing him to remain on the periphery but also keeping him honest.
Gifford has been content to do his work like a noir detective that always turns down the big score in favor of the girl. But I have a feeling he won't be able to lurk in the shadows with his collar turned up much longer.
Posted by miracle on Tue, 09 Jun 2009 10:37:38 -0400 -- permanent link