A review of Barry Gifford’s work from

A review of Barry Gifford’s work from

February 9, 2011

From Allen Barra at

“It has taken Barry Gifford more than twenty years and nearly as many books to achieve a big reputation, and now that he finally has one, it’s mostly wrong.” So I wrote in Entertainment Weekly in 1990 when Gifford’s novel “Wild at Heart” was made into a film by David Lynch, and Gifford was hailed by many critics as a master of new-wave crime fiction.

The image was reinforced by his work as the founder of Black Lizard Press in Berkeley, Calif., where he reprinted dozens of crime novels by 1950s drugstore book-rack legends such as Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Charles Willeford. More than two decades later, Gifford has succeeded in shedding the reputation of crime writer — something he never aspired to in the first place — without acquiring a new one.

Over the last 20 years, Gifford’s output has doubled — that is, if you count all seven of his “Sailor and Lula” novels as one volume (as they are in the recent edition from Seven Stories Press); his three plays, “The Hotel Room Trilogy,” as one; and each of his 13 volumes of poetry separately. Gifford’s vast and diverse body of work has frustrated critics by defying easy categorization. Among my fictional favorites in his oeuvre are “Port Tropique” (1980, reprinted in 2009), a stylish thriller that reveals Gifford’s crime novel roots; “Landscape With Traveler” (1980, regrettably out of print), about a gay Naval officer, written in short, lyrical chapters that owe much to the influence of classical Japanese writers Sei Shonagon and Lady Murasaki; and “Wyoming” (2000, a Los Angeles Times novel of the year), a novel about a woman and her young son on a car trip through the South and West told entirely in dialogue.

What stands out most about these and other of Gifford’s fictions is how original they are without in the least smacking of the experimental; mastering a subject and then moving on has been the story of Gifford’s life. His enormous body of work reflects a lifetime of experience and influences. With Lawrence Lee, he is the co-writer of two biographies, “Saroyan: A Biography” (of William Saroyan, 1984) and “Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac” (1978). He is the author of “A Day at the Races: The Education of a Racetracker” (1988), a book about the delights of horse racing that would have brought a smile to the face of A.J. Liebling; “The Neighborhood of Baseball: A Personal History of the Chicago Cubs” (1981, about the joys and many woes of growing up near Wrigley Field); and “Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir” (2001, and currently available from the University Press of Mississippi).

The latter is Gifford’s homage to his favorite heroes and heroines from the world of dark cinema. The book has earned him a large cult following from readers only vaguely aware of Gifford’s fiction and biography. Sample from the entry on “Devil Thumbs a Ride,” a grimy 1947 crime film starring Lawrence Tierney: “I got up at 3:30 in the morning to watch this movie on TV — the perfect time for it.” On Tierney: “There is no daylight in that face.” On “The Asphalt Jungle”: “Jungle reflects two shades, dark and darker.”

Perhaps the best book for checking into Gifford’s neo-noir lit sensibility is “The Cavalry Charges: Writings on Books, Film and Music” (2007), a collection of essays dedicated to his friend Matt Dillon, for whom he wrote the screenplay for “City of Ghosts,” the 2003 film that Dillon directed. Gifford indulges in reveries on favorite TV shows, including “City Confidential,” the A&E true crime series that ran from 1998-2005; musicians such as Artie Shaw; and writers whose work made an impression on his own sensibility, ranging from B. Traven, the mysterious author of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and, most unlikely of all, Clair Bee, author of the Chip Hilton novels for boys written between 1948 and 1965 in which the hero, Chip, leads his teammates to success by conveying the virtues of self sacrifice, discipline and honesty.

“I imagine,” writes Gifford, “that I must have learned something from reading these books, and that I’m probably still operating according to some of the same principles and under those same delusions.” No easy task for the son of a small-time Chicago racketeer. He recalled his childhood in 1992 in “A Good Man to Know,” subtitled “A Semi-Documentary Fictional Memoir.” (The book is out of print, but Gifford incorporated much of the material into the 2009 novel “Memories From a Sinking Ship.”) The point of view of his long-suffering mother was covered in a 1984 novel, “An Unforgettable Woman.”

Gifford spent his early years working at a variety of jobs, from merchant seaman to rock musician. He attended the University of Missouri on a baseball scholarship but found the environment a little stuffy. “I didn’t have any friends,” he told me, “except for the six beatniks on campus, and two of them were from New York.” After a year at Missouri he hit the road for Manhattan and kept going all the way to London, where he enrolled at Cambridge on a non-degree basis. The few months he spent there were enjoyable but proved to him once and for all that “I’d never be a scholar.”

Once, when I asked Gifford about whether an incident he wrote about was part of his personal experience or invented, he shrugged and answered, “You spend a lot of time observing life, then you make things up.”

Read the rest of the review here.

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