Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Why Kai (smash SMASH SUH-MASH) the hatchet-swinging surfer dude reminds me of one of my favorite novels


Part of the writing life (and not a small part) is the observation and collection of people, but I try to curb my story vampire tendencies (okay, I try to try) and be led by my mothering tendencies instead. So I'm worried for this guy - not because he's homeless but because he's about to be Susan Boyled. Somewhere right now a literary agent is trying to find him. A sit com is in development. A hashtag is gaining traction.

It's astonishing how quickly we're able to romanticize the same people we usually marginalize, but to see this damaged man on a mission is to love him. It made me think about the novel The Long Drunk by Eric Coyote, the most affecting thing I've read about homeless people since Ironweed.

From the review I posted about a year ago:
I hardly know where to begin. The most off-putting first chapter you'll ever be hooked by? The most offensive protagonist you'll ever love? The most revolting cast of wretches you'll ever stand up and cheer for? ...Coyote very wisely opens with a poetically vivid glimpse of Venice's underbelly before plunging us into the unfiltered conversations and filthy hand to mouth existence of Murphy, the damaged anti-hero, and his fallen crew. If I hadn't had that preface - that initial assurance that, yes, this is an incredibly talented writer - I wouldn't have made it through the first chapter. Not a punch is pulled, not a frack is given, not a politically correct construct is spared. Murphy is on a noble quest, but what makes this character impossible to quit on is the heartbreaking honesty with which he recognizes his own impossibly effed up limitations. ...The storytelling is sure and audacious, and ultimately, as difficult as it is to read at times, the physicality and pathos are exactly what's needed to expose the true soul of this novel: a grittily horrid heroic journey that made me laugh out loud, fight tears, hug my dog and take a long, hot shower.
I've recommended the book many times since then, and people either love it or hate it. After a number of polarized conversations (sure sign of a great book), I came to understand that the way people feel about this book largely reflects the way the reader her/himself feels about homeless people in real life. Such bald human need mixed with unmitigated squalor evokes a firestorm of visceral reaction: compassion, revulsion, frustration, fear, guilt and a compulsion to hastily define the differences that separate us from the unwashed underbelly of society.

What is remarkable about Coyote's book is its ability to roll its eyes at all that. The spirit of the prose is exactly the spirit of Kai the Hatchet-Wielding Surfer Dude's voice in this interview: earnest, coloquial, madly poetic at moments, and - when you stop and think about it - poignant.

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