La Vida Loca: Michael Larrain has carved out a writer’s life.
Michael Larrain hawks beautiful bouquets of colorful worlds
By Jordan Rosenfeld
Many Sonoma County locals are familiar with a gaily painted sign on East Cotati Avenue, quoting “Flowers Not to Reason Why”–and are just as familiar with the man standing next to it, in a straw Stetson and Hawaiian shirt surrounded by buckets of flowers. The flower-hawker guise of Cotati poet Michael Larrain has served the quixotic writer–and, shall we say, Casanova–so well for the past 29 years that he has become “nearly an institution in Cotati” by his own reckoning.
It is the flower stand that squired his longtime love into his life. “I offered a final, unsold, and fated bouquet to the first beautiful woman I saw. And she has been my heart’s companion for 18 years.” It is also the flower stand that has allowed him the most precious commodity in a writer’s life: time to write.
Larrain is of the tradition of writers where the act itself is as important as the product. And in a decade where books sell as much for their glossy clever covers and cute marketing niches as they do for content, Larrain is an anachronism. Larrain, who has been writing since he could string the alphabet into sentences, says “I can only write what shows up,” which if you read his detective-cum-adventure novel Movies on the Sails, you will see is a world populated by sharp-cracking beauties who use their wiles well and poetry-quoting detectives with a penchant for adventure and baseball.
Picture noir detective Sam Spade played by a poetry-spouting Robert Redford from The Natural set in the midst of the sexual revolution, and you might just get an idea of the world inside Michael Larrain’s brain, where, mystery, philosophy, and poetry vie as top muses.
The book Movies on the Sails is a “loose weave of fact and fiction,” including a handful of “agency operatives” with intriguing names like Ace High (Larrain’s alter ego) as protagonist, Creole, Bear Witness, and Ace Thigh, aka Bonny Jean Rousseau, a near-identical match to Larrain’s own longtime love Bonny Jean Russell (recipient of that fated bouquet of roses). It is, in essence, a detective adventure story with all the elements: murder, a Hawaiian gangster named Chance Kahana, a ravishing Hawaiian temptress whose father goes missing, and her brother’s monomaniacal vision to bring a utopian simple life back to the Islands by harnessing volcano power. Plus, there’s baseball.
Larrain is a native Californian who grew up in Los Angeles and had “a few good years in Hollywood” as an actor on television and in movies.
“All my life I’ve been a poet with no academic or university affiliation–a wild card,” he says.
The detective agency that appears in the book–the Way-Up Firm and High-Tail It Bright Out of Town Detective Agency (or WUFAHTIBOOTDA)–is his affiliation. It was born in Larrain’s mercurial mind and morphed from the terrain of poetic idea into a group of real-life, longtime poet friends scattered about the United States, whom Larrain refers to as “a loosely aligned confederation of shady characters.”
While the real-life contingent may not actually solve whodunits, they do work diligently to solve the mysteries of the human heart and psyche–and certainly attempt to unravel the bigger existential mysteries. Most of WUFAHTIBOOTDA’s operatives are as gilded of tongue as Larrain; they hold the arts and “good fun” in high esteem. And here is where the blur occurs: the agency as featured in the book and the agency as it exists in real life are hazy mirror images.
Here, Ace High describes his “crew” in Movies: “Gamblers on the future with a stake in the past. Geniuses and riffraff, scholars and dopers, visionaries and con men, explorers of every stripe, from Nobel laureates to ne’er-do-wells. . . . What more noble form of sleuthing, we reasoned, than a balls-out inquiry into the most mysterious moment in human history, whose reverberations remain our greatest magic.”
“The agency has functioned to keep these people unified over the years,” says Larrain. “Relationships in the agency run incredibly deep, and the long, intertwined histories are fascinating. People have been married and divorced, sired children, and kept up friendships.”
Reading Larrain (and talking with him) is almost escapist–it feels like playing hooky. And yet, just when you are prepared to feel guilty for how much fun Larrain’s adventures are, he writes a line like this, from Movies: “Does it matter, I wonder, whether theology is a swindle, if the belief it engenders is beautiful and enduring?”
It seems that it is some beautiful and enduring set of beliefs that draws Larrain toward mystery as a central thread in his writing and in his life.
“Detective stories are echoes of the great mysteries of life that are never answered. They present baffling questions which are answered, giving us some metaphysical relief,” he says.
Metaphysical relief is a lovely concept, but relief from the basic and ever increasing cost of living has been more troublesome to cobble together for this actor-poet turned detective novelist. “As is widely known,” he says, “the problems that plague poets are often alcoholism and suicide from their attempts at just making the most basic of livings.”
North Point Press nearly published his first novel, South of the North Star, to which poet Gary Snyder gave his blessing and which Larrain describes as “the underground classic pornographic-hippie-poet-
Western-autobigraphical-wino novel with baseball overtones.” Movies on the Sails, written after 16 years of sulking (during which time he published three collections of poetry) “has passed through the hands of two agents, one in Hawaii and one in California, who assaulted the New York publishing bastions with it,” he says.
An independently published version can be found online at the websites for Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Xlibris. Movies still gets its fair share of play through book parties and at the flower stand, but that doesn’t stop Larrain from hoping this might be the creation to make him famous.
“Why put yourself through the paces of writing a book if you didn’t think it would make your fortune?” Larrain says. And though he believes that “writing is very analogous to the acting process,” the world of publishing brings barely a fraction of the income that he made when he was a young actor. He says he will always write, but like many talented writers, his words haven’t bought him the key to the mansion yet.
There is one other alternative to fortune that Larrain would settle for.
“I keep rather hoping that some local Polynesian revolutionaries will adopt the ideas I’ve set down in this book, put them into effect, and that I’ll become known as a sort of demigod in Hawaii and the islands.”
It’s easy to imagine, if not demigod status, at least a certain cult following for Larrain’s work, if it can only traverse the rigorous gates of mainstream publishing.
“There is not only a danger in the fact that poetry has no relationship to money, but also a great charm. In poetry, other more enduring values can be found and refreshed; pure mysteries are our obsessions, rather than rent, credit cards, tuition, and paying auto mechanics. Poetry allows freedom from those constraints when it’s forming in your mind. This is a thrilling feeling, like an intellectual orgasm,” he says.
Even Larrain’s works of fiction are unavoidably poetic. “I can’t walk away from a sentence I’m not happy with,” he says. “Musicality of the language is key.”
Clearly, Larrain writes to entertain both the reader and himself. It’s almost blasphemous to the idea of the disciplined, penitent writer slaving joylessly away, or the starving artist who shoves his magnum opus into a drawer and falls away into obscurity. Michael Larrain enjoys his work, and giving up on his book would be giving up on fun.
It’s hard not to ask the question, what with publishers always seeking the next hot ticket, why haven’t they snatched him up yet?
On the road with Eddy Joe Cotton
By R. V. Scheide
The Hall and Christ World of Wonders traveling sideshow ain’t what it used to be. Poo-bah the fire-eating midget is 73 and going into retirement. Harold Huge, the fat man, is getting old and can’t move around that well. Eddy Joe Cotton, one of the show’s pitchmen, is trying to explain all this to me via phone from Bloomsburg, Pa., but he’s having difficulty keeping his stories straight. The rap he delivers on the Mermaid of Atlantis 20 times a day is stuck in his head like a tape loop, playing over and over again, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction.
“Hall and Christ is the last remaining 10-in-one,” Cotton explains. The show features 10 acts under one big top, and the crew is packing up for the next date in Jacksonville, N.C. “There’s four weeks left in this season, and after that, they’re retiring the show permanently.”
Capturing such vanishing acts has unintentionally become Cotton’s calling. At 17, his father fired him from a bricklaying job, and Eddy hit the rails. The tramps and hobos he met crossing America all seemed to have something interesting to say, so Cotton started writing it down, in notebooks, on old paper sacks, on cocktail napkins. After hopping trains for most of the 1990s, a chance meeting with a journalist who realized the value of Cotton’s notes led to the publication of Hobo, Cotton’s first novel, in 2002.
Highly autobiographical, Hobo is the story of a young man who realizes that only he can take responsibility for his own freedom. Cotton brings a unique calculus to the equation, writing near the book’s conclusion: “The first step is knowing what responsibility is–is it being a Christopher Columbus, discovering new lands and ripping off Indians with pretty beads? Or is it driving an 18-wheeler and sleeping in the cab with a small television set and a VCR? It has to be one or the other.”
No doubt, Cotton would take the 18-wheeler. Now 31, he calls Santa Rosa home, because for the last couple of years, whenever he feels like settling down for a bit, he stays there with his mother, sleeping in an old horse stable. He’s never lived anywhere longer than five months, and the modest financial success of Hobo doesn’t seem to have changed him much. He can afford transportation now and hasn’t jumped a train for several years, but he’s still rambling.
“The one moment when my agent called and told me about the book deal, I was ecstatic. It definitely blew my mind,” he says. But success turned out to be a gradual process. “I didn’t know what I was getting into with those cats from New York.”
His editor at Random House explained how books are targeted at demographics and recommended substantial changes to the original manuscript. For Cotton, an entirely self-taught writer, it was new territory. “I wasn’t trying to hit a vein. I was trying to write about America using the language the people I know in America use.”
He remembers walking out of the meeting after it was over and wandering through Manhattan. He was in New York City, he was going to be a published author, but he had no place to stay. So he drank coffee at a cafe until it closed at 3 in the morning and they kicked him out. He wound up on a bench in Washington Square Park, sitting under a tree. A golden plaque nailed to it proclaimed it to be the hanging tree. It all seemed to fit.
“New York City turned me into hamburger,” he says. “I was just playing the game, but I did good.”
The carnival is still packing up, trying to avoid an oncoming storm front, so Cotton has to go. He’s working on his second book, which will be based on the time he has spent in Las Vegas over the years. Can a novel documenting the last days of the Hall and Christ World of Wonders traveling sideshow be somewhere down the line? Perhaps. Says Cotton, “I live my life first, then write about it later.”
Eddy Joe Cotton will share his stories at Copperfield’s Annex in downtown Santa Rosa, Wednesday, Oct. 29, at 7pm. 650 Fourth St. 707.545.5326.
Booked for Life
Book Depot’s Mary Turnbull
By Gretchen Giles
It’s a warm, breezy night in downtown Mill Valley, and the indoor cafe area and outdoor tables of the Book Depot are buzzing with art-hoppers gathered to celebrate the work of painter Alice Thibeau. Amid the hubbub of the reception and the bookstore customers, a petite woman with gold streaks in her brown hair stands mildly by the wine.
Friends greet over her head and grandchildren grab for crackers around her, yet Mary Turnbull remains unperturbed. Having owned the Book Depot for 16 years has made this petite woman with gold streaks in her brown hair perhaps imperturbable. As the unofficial town hall of Mill Valley, the ad hoc meeting center for the literature-starved and the just plain hungry, the Book Depot is regularly the scene of friends greeting and grandchildren grabbing. Whether Turnbull is usually so still is another question.
A poet, or a journalist with an overheated imagination, might suppose Turnbull to be lost in thought about her late husband, publisher William D. Turnbull, the man she describes as “the love of my life.” The couple didn’t feel the need to marry until two months before Bill’s death in 1991. “He wanted to leave me his name and help me out after he died,” Turnbull explains quietly by phone from her Stinson Beach home well after the lively reception is over.
Co-founder with editor Jack Shoemaker of the literary North Point Press, Bill Turnbull was the stuff of legend in Bay Area book circles. His press rescued Beryl Markham’s autobiographical African adventure West with the Night from obscurity and reissued it with a modest 5,000 copy run in 1983. Five years later, Markham’s memoir had spent 79 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and had sold more than half a million copies, saving that writer from the dust of remainder bins for good. Evan S. Connell, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and Ernest Gaines were also among North Point’s stable.
It’s only natural that Bill Turnbull’s wife would support and grow the family’s love affair with books. Daughter Nicole Reed runs the cafe and a professional manager now oversees the bookstore. Turnbull, who assures with a laugh that she’s lived in Marin County “for a thousand years,” stokes the spirit. “I go in at least three times a week just to kind of see if they need a check signed,” she says, “or crumbs picked up off the floor.”
Turnbull ran the Tides bookstore in Sausalito in the 1960s and 1970s with her first husband. When they divorced, she laughs shortly, “he got the store and I got the three kids,” but her passion for supporting literature didn’t abate. No longer an owner, she clerked among other people’s shelves. “I always thought that I’d get as much learning as I could through books,” she says.
When the lease came up on the Depot in 1987, she and Bill took the plunge. “Mill Valley is a very special little town and we’re just closed off enough from other little towns so that people are very loyal to us, so we’ve been able to hold on,” she explains when asked about the dominance of such online booksellers as Amazon that have usurped many local stores.
“We’re never going to be rich. We just pass money around–shuffle money around is what we actually do–but it’s a fun business, and it’s fun knowing the writers and the poets, they’re such lovely people.”
Aye, perhaps. But it’s suggested that while talkative, they are generally the ugliest group of people you’re going to ring around a dinner table. Turnbull laughs and gracefully asserts that “Norman Mailer is quite dynamic.” But among the loveliest in Turnbull’s estimation is Marin author Anne Lamott, who makes a point of launching each book tour at the Depot.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Turnbull has turned her talents to publishing her own small imprint, releasing two books of poetry a year. “I’m helping some poets stay in print who should be, so it’s a kind of a public service,” she explains.
The Depot itself could be described that way. “People think that it’s their place in town and that it’s their living room and that we are the caretakers for them. It’s crazy,” she shrugs, “but I guess we are.”
‘How to Breathe Underwater’
Julie Orringer’s stories have been making the rounds, showing up in Zoetrope and Ploughshares. Her first published collection shows the richness and depth of her writing, though on a small scale. Each of the nine stories in How to Breathe Underwater (Alfred A. Knopf; $21) is a near-perfect vignette. Her characters, almost all adolescents or children, are faced with real-world problems head-on, fumbling and fooling around and succeeding and failing and soldiering on, as kids do. Orringer’s images are full and colorful; her characters, in their short time on the page, are resonant.
The collection bursts into existence with “Pilgrims,” a bizarre account of a vegan Thanksgiving party peopled by guests in various stages of cancer treatment. Ella and Benjamin, whose mother is ill, are dragged by their parents to this strange house, where the world of pain killers and macrobiotic food and motherless children takes precedence over the holiday world of turkey and pumpkins.
Maddy, in “The Isabel Fish,” is struggling with the guilt she feels at surviving a car accident–her older brother’s girlfriend was not so lucky, and Maddy feels his resentment. Orringer’s control of the worlds her characters inhabit belies the bewilderment each of them exist within, like small portraits of chaos.
‘And Now You Can Go’
Much has been made of And Now You Can Go (Alfred A. Knopf; $19.95), Vendela Vida’s first novel (her nonfiction book, Girls on the Verge, was about the coming-of-age rituals of adolescent girls). Vida’s celebrity status may have played a role. She’s queen in Dave Eggers’ literary kingdom and co-edits the most recent entrant in the McSweeney’s burgeoning publishing empire, a literary magazine called The Believer, which has made much of snarky book reviewers who do things like attribute literary celebrity to hipster cred.
Hipster cred aside, Vida is a marvelous writer, lucid and lyrical, and has crafted an impressive character study. And Now You Can Go‘s Ellis is 21 and has been held up at gunpoint; the trauma is recounted from the first sentence of the book (“It was 2:15 in the afternoon of December 2 when a man holding a gun approached me in Riverside Park.”). Though physically unhurt in the encounter–not even robbed–Ellis’ head is set spinning.
The to-the-point beginning of the book sets us up for Ellis’ emotional flailing, as she pushes people away and draws them close, reconnecting with her mother on a sudden trip to the Philippines to help a team of doctors treat, of all things, cataracts. By the end, Vida doesn’t exactly clear up Ellis’ vision of the world through the crisis and its potential resolution, but she does prove herself to be an engaging, capable writer with potential to go a lot deeper.
Chuck Palahniuk, author of dark bestsellers like Fight Club and Lullaby, has concocted his most complex novel yet. Diary (Doubleday; $24.95), a distressing horror tale of the artist as eternal prisoner, explores much more traditional themes than his previous novels: the sources of creative inspiration, the artist’s quest for immortality, and the crass commercialization of just about everything.
As its title suggests, Diary takes the form of a daily diary, but this is not your typical chronicle of haves and have-nots. It’s a “coma diary,” written by failed artist Misty Wilmont to her husband, Peter, who lies in a coma following a suicide attempt. She complains to Peter, crying over how he persuaded her to quit art school, marry him, and move to Waytansea Island, his childhood home. As a result, she leads an island life of misery–not as a famous painter like she had dreamed.
Waytansea Island, a place once quaint and respected, is a locale now overrun with summer tourists, garbage, and consumerism, and the novel gradually unfolds in many layers. Misty’s mother-in-law, Grace, and an old doctor named Nieman are both bent on getting rid of the tourists and restoring the island to its old charm. Misty begins painting again at a sudden and prolific rate–but in very uncomfortable circumstances, deliberately contrived by Grace and Dr. Nieman.
We find out that Misty’s life, as told in her diary, exactly recalls the lives of two previous artists who died on the island. From there, the plot culminates, with Misty slowly realizing that she is the centerpiece of some twisted sinister scheme. While Diary is Palahniuk’s most accessible book to date, it still contains the raw, gloomy nihilism his fans love so much.
‘Dude, Where’s My Country?’
Lying politicians, fat cats, and gun nuts beware. Capped comic crusader Michael Moore is coming to town to tell the awful truth about what is going on in this country.
Flint, Michigan’s most famous activist appears at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Oct. 18, thanks to Associated Student Productions at Sonoma State University. The show sold out within a week, in keeping with the immense popularity and acclaim Moore has garnered during the past year with his film Bowling for Columbine, his book Stupid White Men, and his unforgettable Oscar acceptance speech blasting Bush’s “fictitious” presidency and war in Iraq.
Much to the chagrin of stupid white men everywhere, Moore shows no signs of stopping in his mission to save the country from the reign of Bush. His next movie, Fahrenheit 9-11, is set for release a couple of months before the November 2004 election. The film explores why the United States has become a target for hatred and terrorism; the connection between two oil families, the Bushes and the bin Ladens; and the tragic events in New York in 2001.
Moore also has a new book out, Dude, Where’s My Country? (Warner Books; $24.95), that is chock-full of more witty accounts about what’s wrong with corporate America, the “commander-in-thief,” and how “the left” can be fixed.
At Book Passage, readers can look forward to a number of prominent authors, as usual. If you’re reading this just as it hits the stands, you may still be able to catch political commentator Molly Ivins, in town Oct. 16 at 7pm. On Oct. 27, Sonoma County’s newest poet laureate, Terry Ehret, leads a workshop called “Ladders to the Dark: A Poetry Writing Workshop Using Dream Material.” Jan Morris, coming on Oct. 30, has miles of material to talk about. Her book The World: Travels 1950-2000 is an account of her travels across countries and through history.
Readers’ Books in Sonoma has Sylvia Boorstein coming Oct. 22, sharing her path to mindfulness with Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake. Gerald Nachman reads from Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s on Nov. 5. Nachman profiles 26 comedians, including luminaries like Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, and Woody Allen. Finally, on Dec. 9, Julie Orringer (see review above) reads from How to Breathe Underwater.
Copperfield’s Books also has a toothsome schedule. Again perhaps too late to catch is Bruce Moody, reading Oct. 16 at the Sebastopol store. Will Work for Food or $: A Memoir from the Roadside is Bruce Moody’s account of his time unemployed and homeless. At 60 years old, Moody lost the job he had held for nine years; the only way he could make money was by standing at the roadside with a sign. His account of the humbling time is surprisingly positive.
On Oct. 22, Rabbi Michael Lerner shares his wisdom at the Montgomery Village store. Lerner has been attacked from both sides of the Middle East conflict, and his approach–pro-Israel and pro-Palestine–gives a clue as to why. In Healing Israel/ Palestine, Lerner takes the middle road once again, showing respect for each side while taking them to task for the horrors each has wrought.
It will also be hard to miss Berkeley Breathed, at the Petaluma store Oct. 27. Breathed is best known for the “Bloom County” comic strip, and has since penned some delightful children’s books. A portion of the proceeds of sales of Flawed Dogs, his catalog of “the country’s most unadoptable dogs,” will go to the Petaluma Animal Shelter. As mentioned earlier (see above), train-hopper Eddy Joe Cotton reads at the downtown Santa Rosa store on Oct. 29.
In November Maxine Hong Kingston and Deepak Chopra come to town to celebrate their new books. Finally, not to be missed on Nov. 20: the Merry Pranksters (minus Ken Kesey, of course). Two beautiful new books are out celebrating Kesey’s legacy. Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Kesey is the long-delayed final issue of Kesey’s literary magazine, lovingly pieced together by Ed McClanahan. And Kesey’s Jail Journal is a beautiful hardcover reproducing Kesey’s notebooks while he was in jail.
The event, co-sponsored by the Town Hall Coalition, will feature Zane Kesey and Ed McClanahan, rolling into the Sebastopol Community Center in their bus “Further.” For information on tickets to the event, see www.copperfields.net or call 707.823.2618.
From the October 16-22, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.