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Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

Book cover for Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
Book cover for Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

Foreword by Rob Christopher

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings by Barry Gifford tells the story of Roy, a lover of adventure movies, a budding writer, and a young man slowly coming of age without the benefit of a father. Surrounding him is the adult's world of postwar Chicago, a city haunted by violence, poverty, and the redeeming power of the imagination.

Book cover for Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
Book cover for Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

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“Gifford's work falls into two camps: the edgy, wildly eccentric stories, full of weirdness and perversity but portraying characters who exude a bedrock humanity … and the more realistic, coming-of-age tales that find young innocents thrust with open eyes into a world of pain. His latest collection of stories falls squarely into the second category … Like Gifford, [Roy] always finds the warm hearts beating beneath the sadness.”

“Deliciously Giffordesque, full of sudden and swift-passing flares of insight, as if lit from within by match flame.”

“Gifford's great talent captures defining moments with the casual grace of anecdote. [He] makes the anecdotal monumental.”

“Barry Gifford's Sad Stories of the Death of Kings gleams like a stolen silver dollar; one boy's search for wisdom among the hustlers, criminals, and wise guys that reads as evocatively as anything out of Nelson Algren. These stories, sometimes only a page or two, riddled with sharp, subtle dialogue, all glow with the devastating, sometimes gruesome wisdom of Sherwood Anderson and Flannery O'Connor.”

blog — March 28

Joy Fun: An Excerpt From Barry Gifford’s New Book, “The Boy Who Ran Away to Sea”

To celebrate the publication of The Boy Who Ran Away to Sea: Stories by Barry Gifford, the latest installment of his beloved Roy tales, we're proud to share a story from the book, in which a young man named Bobby Dorp teaches 13 year-old Roy Colby how to steal a car. 

Joy Fun

“When it’s cold like this guys leave their cars runnin’ while they go inside to pick up their order. They leave the heater and headlights on and the key in the ignition, so you just jump in as soon as the guy’s out of sight and drive it away. Make sure there ain’t nobody sittin’ in the car, of course, or a kid in the backseat or maybe on the floor playin’ with a toy. If there is, back off and wait for another customer.”

Bobby Dorp was explaining to Roy how to boost cars from the parking lot alongside Joy Fun Chinese Restaurant. It was a snowy night, and icy wind was blowing in off the lake, and there was fog, too. The two boys waited in a dark corner of the lot. Dorp was seventeen; according to him he had been stealing cars since he was fifteen.

“How old are you, Roy?”

“Thirteen and a half.”
“You know how to drive?”
“I’ve watched plenty of people drive.”

Bobby Dorp laughed, then said, “We’ll find out now. Look, this guy even left the door to his Pontiac open. Can you drive a stick?”

“I don’t think so.”

“It’s new, probably an automatic, go and see. If it is, you’re good to go.”

Roy had driven a short distance in a pickup truck on a construction site in Tampa, Florida, where his Uncle Buck was building houses. Roy worked mostly shoveling lime rock off curbs after bulldozers and steam rollers had flattened and smoothed down new streets where the houses were being built. At one point Cleanhead Sam, the foreman, had ordered Roy to drive his white pickup to a location a quarter of a mile away. When Roy, who was not yet thirteen, told Sam he didn’t know how to drive a stick shift, the foreman shoved it into second gear and told Roy to keep his foot on the gas pedal and drive the truck in second, then turn off the ignition when he got to where he was going, leave it there with the keys on the floor and walk back.

The Pontiac was an automatic so Roy put it into drive and slowly headed toward the driveway leading to the street. He stopped the car at the end of the driveway so Bobby Dorp could climb in.

“Okay, kid, turn right and then hang a left on Minnetonka. Go slow. Tap the brakes when you need to stop so we don’t skid.”

“Where are we going?”

“Don’t matter. Maybe pick up some chicks.”

“You really think there’ll be girls out walking in this weather?”

“People in Chicago are used to it, a little snow don’t stop ’em.”

Roy kept the Pontiac between fifteen and twenty miles per hour. Cars around them were spinning out on icy patches and snow began falling harder.

“You can go a little faster, Roy. Be careful when you turn not to spin the steering wheel too far ’cause of the power steering. You don’t want to end up in traffic going the other way.”

The night before he stole the car from in front of Joy Fun, Roy had watched a movie on TV called The Wild Man of Borneo, which was about an old, destitute actor who is reduced to playing the part of an uncivilized savage in a carnival side show. The actor wears a bone through his nose, a frizzy fright wig, blackface, a tiger-striped loincloth and carries a spear. He tries to prevent his daughter, with whom he lives in a dilapidated boardinghouse in New York City, from discovering that he has sunk so low and can no longer get roles in legitimate theater. The movie had some good actors in it, including the man who portrayed the Wizard of Oz as the bogus wild man, but the dialogue was pretty bad. Roy liked the movie anyway, even though the play was poorly written and the story overly sentimental. He sympathized with the disgraced, pathetic actor and felt sorry for the man’s disappointed daughter who was aware of the bad shape her father was in both emotionally and physically, especially after she finds out about his shameful wild man act.

Roy thought about this story as he tried to concentrate on controlling the stolen Pontiac over the slippery streets. The humiliated actor had probably considered killing himself. He had no real friends left, hardly any money, realized he was a failure and that his daughter would be better off without him. If Roy crashed the Pontiac or ran down a pedestrian his own life would be over, he would be doomed like the old actor. He tapped the brakes, pulled the car over to the curb and let it glide to a full stop.

“I’m gettin’ out,” Roy said, and opened the driver’s side door.

“You were doin’ fine,” said Dorp. “What’s the matter?”

Roy got out of the car and watched Dorp slide over to the driver’s side and drive away. He began walking through the white streets in the direction of his house. Roy was certain that Bobby Dorp would not trust him again but he didn’t really care.

At the corner of Ojibway and Kankakee a man draped in an oversized dark coat was stumbling along. As Roy and the man approached each other the man suddenly shouted, “Where’s my hat? Who took my hat?”

“You must have left it in the bar,” Roy said.

“Rooster stole it. He’s only one would.”

Roy kept walking. It was easy to fail in life, he thought, like the fake wild man or the drunk whose hat Rooster had taken. Now he had failed to follow through with stealing a car, though that wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. Roy figured if Dorp got caught by the cops he wouldn’t rat on him. His hair was wet from the blowing snow. Roy realized that he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. Not yet, anyway. If he were, he would have worn a hat. 

The author of more than forty works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, which have been translated into over twenty-five languages, BARRY GIFFORD writes distinctly American stories for readers around the globe. From screenplays and librettos to his acclaimed Sailor and Lula novels, Gifford’s writing is as distinctive as it is difficult to classify. Born in the Seneca Hotel on Chicago’s Near North Side, he relocated in his adolescence to New Orleans. The move proved significant: throughout his career, Gifford’s fiction—part-noir, part-picaresque, always entertaining—is born of the clash between what he has referred to as his “Northern Side” and “Southern Side.” Gifford has been recipient of awards from PEN, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Library Association, the Writers Guild of America, and the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. His novel Wild at Heart was adapted into the 1990 Palme d’Or-winning film of the same name. His novels include Black Sun Rising / La Corazonada, Wyoming, The Sinaloa Story, Port Tropique, Memories from a Sinking Ship, Sad Stories of the Death of Kings, Landscape with Traveler, and The Up-Down. His short stories and poetry are collected in American FallsDo the Blind Dream?, The Cuban Club, Imagining Paradise. Gifford lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Barry Gifford

BARRY GIFFORD’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published in thirty languages. His novel Night People was awarded the Premio Brancati, established by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alberto Moravia, in Italy, and he has been the recipient of the Maxwell Perkins Award and Syndicated Fiction Awards from PEN, as well as awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Library Association, the Writers Guild of America, and the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. He has also been awarded the Ingmar Bergman Chair on Cinema and Theater from the National University of Mexico. His books Sailor’s Holiday and The Phantom Father were each named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times, and his book Wyoming was named a Novel of the Year by the Los Angeles Times. He has written librettos for operas by the composers Toru Takemitsu, Ichiro Nodaira, and Olga Neuwirth. Gifford’s work has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Punch, Esquire, La Nouvelle Revue Française, El País, La Repubblica, Rolling Stone, Brick, Film Comment, El Universal, Projections, Cosmopolitan, and the New York Times. His film credits include Wild at Heart, winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Perdita Durango, Lost Highway, City of Ghosts, Ball Lightning, American Falls, and The Phantom Father. Barry Gifford’s most recent books are Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels, The Up-Down, Imagining Paradise: New and Selected Poems, ;Writers, Southern Nights, Black Sun Rising / La Corazonada,and Roy’s World: Stories 1973–2020. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information visit

Other books by Barry Gifford