November 19, 2010
From Nathaniel Rich’s fantastic review of Sailor & Lula in the New York Review of Books:
Barry Gifford is now more than forty years and forty books into his career, yet still no one seems to know what to do with him. Andrei Codrescu calls him “a great comic realist,” while Pedro Almodóvar likens him to the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Jonathan Lethem describes his style as “William Faulkner by way of B-movie film noir, porn paperbacks, and Sun Records rockabilly,” and also reaches for the Abstract Expressionist artist Philip Guston’s late period. David Lynch, who directed two of Gifford’s screenplays, Lost Highway and Wild at Heart, says that reading him is “like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad,” which is an odd statement, given that things in Gifford’s novels tend to go very, very bad, and quickly too. “Death and destruction,” as one character says, “ain’t never more than a kiss away.”
Gifford’s admirers can’t be faulted for imprecision. He’s a moving target, as omnivorous as he is prolific, having published poetry, novels, story collections, memoirs, biographies of William Saroyan and Jack Kerouac, art criticism, plays, screenplays, a libretto, and nonfiction monographs about horse racing and the Chicago Cubs. Even this kind of classification is inaccurate: his history of the Cubs is really a memoir, his poems read like prose, his prose like poetry.
His most remarkable achievement to date, the Sailor and Lula saga, is equally hard to pin down. . . . “Like Romeo and Juliet only nobody dies,” Gifford writes at one point, though this is, again, somewhat misleading, since by the end of the saga very few characters have been spared a gruesome and abrupt death. Most of the volumes hover around seventy pages, so it might be more accurate to describe them as novellas, or to classify the entire series as a single novel. But what a peculiar novel it is.
. . . The experience of reading Gifford is like starting a car and realizing, too late, that someone has cut its brake lines. A spectacular wreck is imminent, so you might as well enjoy the adrenaline rush. . . . The thrill of the Sailor and Lula books is in seeing how horribly a human life—or an entire society—can spiral out of control. But the gruesome dismemberments, car wrecks, and point-blank gunshots only entertain for so long. The image that lingers in the reader’s imagination, long after the series ends, is far more sedate and ordinary: Sailor and Lula, embracing in a cheap motel bed, telling each other stories to ward off the nightmares that they know will come.