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Thursday, February 2

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Author Sun Oct 06 2013

Barry Gifford Dishes on Working with David Lynch, Then Shares His Own Stories

Thumbnail image for RoyStories_TEMP_large.jpegIf you convened a Barry Gifford fan club, the members might not have much to say to each other. Throughout his long career, the Chicago-born writer has worked in many different--sometimes startlingly different--modes. He's probably best known for the surreal American violence of the seven-book Sailor and Lula saga, the first of which, Wild at Heart, caught the eye of David Lynch and sparked a collaborative friendship that went on to produce the screenplay for Lost Highway.

It's this side of Gifford audiences will see on Wednesday, October 9, at 8:15pm when he stops by the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State) for a screening of the two episodes of Lynch's miniseries Hotel Room he wrote. Mysterious deaths, dark secrets, and mistaken (or are they?) identities will abound. After the screening, he'll stick around for a Q&A with Huffington Post arts writer Elysabeth Alfano, then sign books, including the recently collected Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels.

But Gifford is also a master of a far more relaxed and relatable mode of storytelling, which he'll demonstrate the next day, Thursday, October 10, at 7pm at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln. He'll be discussing two other recent rereleases: his first novel, Landscape with Traveler: The Pillow Book of Francis Reeves, and a volume of short fiction from the past four decades, The Roy Stories.

The former book is a slim novel starring a middle-aged gay man and the latter a fat volume of stories about a young boy tumbling through a chaotic (and loosely autobiographical) upbringing. But in form and spirit, they make a natural pair. The chapters are often as short as a page, and each contains in general a single anecdote from its protagonist's life, structured more or less as one tends to give structure to memories.

It all comes off with remarkable ease; Gifford never indulges the novelistic impulse to bring into too-sharp focus the kind of details that normally fade with time. The prose is excellent in the transparent mode. For long stretches of The Roy Stories, it tricks you into supposing that you're accessing pure story unmediated by storytelling. What snags there are in this smooth fabric tend to arise from the long period over which the stories were written: chapters switch back and forth from first person to third, and for some reason Gifford occasionally (but not always) renames the streets of the West Ridge neighborhood where Roy does much of his growing up.

Landscape with Traveler has a much more unified narrative voice--not simply because it is a novel in the first person, but because the voice was apparently lifted as directly as possible from an older friend of Gifford's, Marshall Reeves Clements. The character based on him, Francis, is somewhat off-putting at first encounter: just back from Fire Island, he complains about the "theatrically effeminate mannerisms" of the passengers who shared his bus, and relates his amusement at being pursued by a widely desired younger man who, however, does not interest him.

But this aloof impression doesn't last. After a youth of sometimes frantic sexual pursuit, what Francis is after now is friendship. He imagines a state of accord with straight friend and Gifford stand-in Jim "in which I could, for instance, with no hesitation, beg him for a letter, and he could, without guilt feelings of any kind, not write one for a year even, if he didn't feel like it, and I would understand and love him even more for it . . . I wonder sometimes whether loving someone isn't simply paying attention to him."

It is a pleasure to pay attention to the thoughts and history of Francis Reeves. The book generates the fizzy thrill of being in the presence of someone who is, without the least strain, utterly confident in himself. This confidence is not egotism or narcissism; instead, it enables its bearer to easily turn his attention from the mirror out into the world, and find it, on the whole, a pleasant and an interesting place to be.

A similarly sanguine temperament powers The Roy Stories, although the slices of life within are frequently more jagged. Roy is the child of a Jewish gangster and an Irish Catholic, five-times-married mother who's a bombshell in terms of both looks and volatility. Their genuine love for their son doesn't preclude a kind of casual neglect as they carom, together and then separately, around the country following various rackets and paramours. The book is full of the ache of missed bowling meets and baseball games, and Roy's sense of an unreliable world is reflected in the many reports of senseless, gruesome violence the characters read in the paper or hear on the car radio.

Although Roy is a serious kid, he never turns sour or obsessed under the weight of misfortune, be it the world's or his own. Late in the book an aging burlesque dancer warns a teenage Roy against becoming one of those old guys who "don't do nothin' but tell each other sad stories of the death of kings," and he seems fairly well inoculated against King Richard's fate.

For one thing, he's surrounded by fascinating characters to supply him livelier stories, especially in Chicago where his grandfather and great uncles run a fur business and the guys around the neighborhood range from old bluesmen to former Cubs pitchers. Most are benevolent, broadminded even; when a friend's father, for instance, is asked whether a black man can be a Jew, he replies, "This is America. A person can be anything he wants to be." As children do, Roy builds a map of the world by listening intently to what his elders have to say about it, then trying out their lines on his friends and family to their wonder or amusement.

The Roy Stories, says Gifford in a preface, is "a record, as best I could render it, of the language of that period." Both books are the work of a man who has retained a child's talent for listening, for hanging on the words of the world as if they might later turn up on its citizenship test. It is, despite its violence, a place worth belonging to.

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