Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book Review: Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

    I don’t know exactly when I became a David Lynch fan.  I think it was Twin Peaks.  You know that feeling you get, when you come home and you feel like you really and truly belong, and all is well?  That’s what I got (and still get) when I first watched Twin Peaks.  I’d never been there, and it never really existed, but if there was ever somewhere where I belonged, that was it.  From there, I got into his movies and began to enjoy the way he saw the world.  But there was one stumbling point, Wild at Heart (Fire Walk With Me hadn’t come out yet).  It was the first Lynch film I didn’t like.  It was the film that cemented my long time dislike of Nicolas Cage.  It was the film that decided me, that Laura Dern chick wasn’t someone I wanted to see naked again (or clothed for that matter).  And it let me know that even my favorite filmmakers didn’t always do what I wanted.  Years later, I got to see my first Lynch film on the big screen, Lost Highway, which became and has remained my favorite of his films.  While reading up on the film, I found out a bit about the co-writer.  I found out he was a novelist.  I found out Wild at Heart was based on one of his novels.  I was intrigued, but also wary.  Wild at Heart?  That Nic Cage movie where he wants to be Elvis, where the Good Witch shows up, where Laura Dern embodies everything I never want in a female companion?  Hmmm. 

    With these thoughts bouncing around, I read my first Barry Gifford book.  It was the first one I could put my hands on.  I went to my favorite used book store, Pro Libris (if you’re ever in Bangor, Maine, it’s THE place to go), and snagged a copy of Baby Cat-Face.  Wow.  What the crap?  That book rocked my world for a lot of reasons.  But as a long time reader of science fiction and to a lesser degree fantasy, and as a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, the book felt like some crazy stripped down murder machine of Literature.  I’d not read Hemmingway yet, nor was I up on modern fiction.  I wasn’t ready for the way he used language, the way he shot dialog at you like bullets.  And the only person who had ever prepared me in any way for his twisting, almost haphazard, storyline was William S. Burroughs (to whom, Gifford bares almost no resemblance, style-wise).  Like when I finished my first viewing of Southland Tales, I wasn’t sure if I’d just seen genius or garbage but I was driven to find out.  Subsequent books, including but not limited to Night People, Sailor’s Holiday, and (yes, the very same) Wild at Heart made me a devoted fan.  And his work inspired my own, helped me, if not sweep away my wordy prose, free myself and maybe become more visceral.  And helped me create a more natural voice in my dialog.  For the writer in me, his work was like opening a window and letting in some much needed air.

    At some point, I became aware of Gifford’s young adult novel, Sad Stories of the Death of Kings.  I was immediately curious, and genuinely didn’t know what to expect.  I knew he had varied interests and a wide ranging talent, but at no point along the way had I thought to myself, this guy is right for a kids book.  Well, this really isn’t one.  It’s for teens…I guess.  But it’s more along the lines of those ‘serious’ books your high school English teacher makes you read, that always remind me of 70s after school specials, where the pretty girl dies, someone tries weed, and a kid with a rockin’ fro gets into trouble at the playground.  This book seems to be one of those autobiographical novels, where big chunks of it are based on either Gifford’s own memories, or fragments of stories he heard as a boy.  This might work more for dramatic purposes, but for me, it meant I never quite connected.  I would have much rather read a memoir about growing up in Chicago during the 50s than about this kid Roy who goes through various adventures, some probably real, some no doubt imagined.  In that sense, it’s kind of like Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, but without the fanciful elements that prompt me to forgive it’s fictional nature or the chronology to give a sense of growth.

    And more than any other book that I’ve read from Gifford so far (I’ll admit, he still has many I haven’t gotten to yet), this book is extremely disjointed.  There isn’t a narrative thread at all, unless I missed something.  It’s a series of vignettes that hop about willy-nilly throughout this Roy kid’s youth, from about age 10 to age 18 or so, with a few hints of a life to come.  This brief glimpse, combined with the fact that it isn’t a straight-up biography, left me somewhat unsatisfied.  It’s a story without a beginning, without an end, and without enough narrative structure to say it has a middle to speak of.  Yet, like the similarly disjointed (but for this reader, FAR less enjoyable) Slaughterhouse Five, it does have moments of poignant beauty that ultimately make me glad I’ve read it.  But it also makes me wish that much more for a less fictional collection of stories about growing up in the same area at the same time.  Gifford is a great storyteller and I have a feeling he has a great story to tell about himself.  Will he?  Did he?  I don’t know.

    If you’ve never read Gifford before, don’t start here.  You should probably go with Night People, or maybe Wild at Heart (which is not at all like David Lynch’s adaptation, by the way, though Lula is still pretty awful).  But if you’re a fan, it has some very good stuff.  And to those high school English teachers, there are some chapters which might make for good class reading.  But give your students some context.  Context makes all the difference.  One would think English teachers, of all people, would get that.

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
Author: Barry Gifford
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 978-1-58322-948-4


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