Sailor and Lula: A Review
One day my high-school English teacher trailed off while in the middle of a lecture and stared into space with her mouth hanging open. We all leaned forward in our seats, wondering what crazy-ass thing she would say next.

"Famous love stories are usually only about the beginning of love," she said. "Sometimes they are about the end. But nobody ever wants to write stories about the middle. Without stories about the middle, how will people know what to do when they get there? That's why we have so much divorce in this country."

Barry Gifford has pulled off an amazing magic trick: he has published an epic 700-page novel called "Sailor and Lula" about the middle of love in the American South. His brick -- a book broken into seven parts, each of which was originally conceived and published as a separate pulp novel -- will teach you you everything you need to know about overcoming all the threats to long-term romance.

You know, threats like kidnappers, organ harvesters, armed convicts, wizards, and mass murderers.

Each novel in the series approximately stands for a decade in the lives of Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace Fortune, two crazed North Carolingians who are also crazy about each other. The first novel, "Wild at Heart," was written in 1989. The last novel "The Imagination of the Heart" was completed just last year.

Only one of of the novels in the series isn't about Sailor and Lula directly. "Perdita Durango," takes place while Sailor Ripley is in prison in Texas for ten years, serving time for armed robbery. Perdita is a side character in the first book, but her own volume is set on the Texas / Mexico border, where Perdita and her boyfriend Romeo are using a Santeria cult as a cover to smuggle human placentas to California for the cosmetics industry.

The other books are about Lula and Sailor deep in the middle of love -- conjoined and therefore strong in a world gone rabid. They like to drive fast. They like to smoke cigarettes. They like to eat food and fuck.


With the release of this new compendium, people can read Gifford's "Sailor and Lula" novels all together for the first time. It's worth it: this is how they were meant to be read, as one complete story.

The complete "Sailor and Lula" is grand and stupid -- half minstrel show and half opera. It is sentimental, violent, loud, busy, unstable, proud, and unashamed. The book itself feels like some kind of crime.

These books are pulp novels to the core, as unrestrained as they are pulsing with life. They are chock full of bad ideas. Reading them is like doing meth in a truck stop with the man or woman of your dreams and then eating a pack of Captain's Wafers with one hand and a sweet potato pie with the other, washing them down with tequila.

How did Gifford manage to sneak this book through America's cowardly and conservative publishing apparatus? How could he write exactly what he wanted and tell an epic story about real love persisting through every manifestation of America's slow apocalypse, writing a real masterpiece of salt and sage that sweats off the page like an auto mechanic dripping hair grease into your soup?

How did he sneak this awesome Southern punk epic out of stone-cold New York City?

He did it one piece at a time.


Consider the following three cases:

-- In order to publish the novel "The Snail on the Slope" abroad (the book that James Cameron ripped off to make "Avatar"), Russian science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky published alternating parts in different journals without telling the Russian censors that the parts were related. Their fans in the West then collected these pieces on the Outside and reconstructed them in order to put together the whole dangerous, dissident novel.

-- Roberto Bolano's original plan for his National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel "2666" was to break it into five different books and publish one a year after he was dead, slowly building an audience and momentum in order to addict readers, making each book into its own thing, and making critics think about five separate tiny books instead of one big one. His publishers decided this was a bad idea and published the whole thing together as one volume, post-mortem.

-- Peter Matthiessen's National Book Award-winning novel "Shadow Country" was originally published as three different longer novels that Matthiessen then edited down into one larger work and republished. His edit took as long as writing a whole different book, making the resulting product stronger, sharper, more brutal, and more vital.


Sometimes the big story makes all the little stories better.


I am in love with Lula Fortune:

Lula lit a cigarette and got up from the bed and walked over to the window. She stuck her head outside and craned her neck around but she couldn't quite see the river. Lula sat naked on the end of the table under the open window, staring out and smoking.

"Enjoying the view?" Sailor said.

"I was just thinkin' about how people ought to fuck more in the daytime. I don't think there'd be so much trouble about it if they did."

"What kinda trouble?"

"Oh, I don't know. Just seems like people make more of a big deal out of it at night? Get all sorts of exotic expectations, I guess, and things go strange in 'em. It checks out simpler in daylight's what I think."

"You're probably right, sweetie," said Sailor. He yawned, then threw off the sheet that had been covering him and stood up. "Let's go down and get something to eat, okay? Otherwise, I won't make it past dark."

Sailor and Lula sat at the counter in Ronnie's Nothin' Fancy Cafe on Esplanade, drinking double-size cups of Community coffee. Lula picked apart a giant jelly donut, licking the powdered sugar off her fingers.


"Sailor and Lula" is the Southern "On the Road," except Gifford is a more gifted storyteller than Jack Kerouac. Like "On the Road," the book never rests, and characters are always on their way somewhere else. Unlike "On the Road," however, Gifford's novel doesn't merely shuffle back and forth between the coasts while ignoring the land in between.

Gifford's world is bounded on the East by the Carolinas and the values represented by Lula's mother, Marietta. It is bounded on the West by Texas, where nothing good ever happens.

The chapters in "Sailor and Lula" are all very short. Each one is all only three or four pages long and usually contains a bit of insane wisdom, a murder, a kidnapping, a car bomb, a terrifying news story, or some exciting sexual perversity, like somebody masturbating with a handgun.

All these books are so fucking fun that I can't hardly stand it. I wish Gifford's America was real. I would buy a big car and just travel around starting fights and seducing ladies, trying to get a cool nickname.

"Sailor and Lula" is a constantly-shocking fictional odyssey through America's asshole. So much happens that eventually you go numb and start smiling at the riff-raff, as hardened and acquiescent to tragedy as the characters themselves.

In Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," The Misfit remarks that the old woman would have been real nice if there had been someone around to kill her every day of her life. In Gifford's South, this is never a problem. Love needs crisis. It needs to be tested in order to thrive.

Sailor and Lula are the kind of lovers America needs right now if we are going to get through our shit.

They don't believe in compromise or despair. They may be caricatures, but they thrill each other. And they don't need anyone else, although they are always glad for the company.

Posted by miracle on Fri, 21 May 2010 02:50:55 -0500 -- permanent link

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