If you are a writer with any presence on the Internet, even a very obscure one, you often get e-mails from strangers. Sometimes these strangers are quite eccentric, like the guy who once sent me a short story about men who were enslaved for breeding purposes and fed dog food. So I didn’t give much thought to a cryptic e-mail I got in the summer of 2009 from a person named Innocente Fontana.
The e-mail contained a few terse words of praise for my first novel. I wrote back, “Innocente Fontana can’t possibly be your real name … can it?” He didn’t respond; three months passed. During that time, I was living off of unemployment benefits and savings from a job I’d recently lost, and I was feeling exhausted. To make a living as a writer, as I was trying to do, seemed impossible.
In the fall, presumably because he’d read a blog post I wrote about traveling in Morocco, Fontana e-mailed again. This e-mail was longer and mentioned that, decades back, he’d spent time in Tangier. He said he’d known Paul Bowles during that time, that Bowles had become his literary mentor. Skeptical, I probed for more detail. Who was he, really?
I’m publishing everything using the name I. Fontana. I’m sorry if it seems like I’m trying to be mysterious. What happened to me was that I published with some success, and then the incurable, degenerative disease I have went a little bit downhill for a while. I thought my life was over, essentially … Although I’m still fucked up (MS), I have an injection once a week of an experimental drug, and I’m sort of stabilized. I’m okay. It’s not that bad. But then when I decided to write fiction again, it seemed liberating or interesting to kill off the old product line and see if I could get anywhere with a new name and no past.
Fontana claimed that he’d written three novels under his real name, the first of which, published by Vintage, was edited by Gary Fisketjon. Google only turned up a few fascinating, opaque “I. Fontana” short stories published in online magazines like Pindeldyboz, but I was intrigued. And I’d spent much of the time since I lost my job in a foglike depression; acquiring a faceless literary confidant felt like a good way to stay in my room without being entirely alone.
I told Fontana that my dad had MS, too. (He didn’t—he’d been misdiagnosed, but I didn’t know this yet.) That shared confidence opened the floodgates. Now housebound in a Portland, Oregon, apartment, Fontana began to tell me the story of his life in the haphazard style of a digressive uncle:
I became student body president my senior year in order to impress a certain girl, whom I then didn’t get pregnant until something like two hundred fucks. Well, that was our guess at the time. I used to feel it kick …
I was seventeen and she was fifteen. Her parents were wealthy … and out of nowhere on a Tuesday night at 10:30 she called me from the Sellwood Specialty Clinic. She said they were going to induce labor first thing the next morning. I didn’t know what to do …
I didn’t go to one minute of college. I thought I could educate myself and become a great novelist on my own. I went from working in a couple different factories or warehouses to … getting a job at the VA Hospital. This is how I ended up in the Intensive Care Unit. I thought it would be good for my writing to see people die.
He wrote thousands of words to me in e-mails over the next few months. I replied in kind. I told him about my own small-town adolescence, about my foundering relationship with my girlfriend, about my frustration with editors who ignored me. It helped that he wasn’t entirely real to me. By then I’d stopped asking about his real name: he was more useful to me faceless. I felt I could reveal to him things that I couldn’t to people who knew me better. And his e-mails (which he’s given me permission to quote here) were so consistently riveting. I didn’t want to break the rhythm. I liked reading the anecdotes of his life:
I was too excitable, I had no inner repose. And I was drawn to dramatic gestures now and then. I broke a Coke bottle, as though I might slash her throat when going for a walk at night with a girlfriend I’d just discovered had been cheating on me. I broke it so well! It really heightened the tension … no doubt we both felt we were starring in film noir.
Then an I. Fontana short story called “What the Matter Is” appeared in the online fiction magazine Spork. The story is about a young, promiscuous Jean Harlow going incognito in San Francisco after her husband’s suicide, and it was thrillingly good. I tend to read in binges, and when I read something I love, I have to consume everything else by that writer. So I pressed him for his real name. A few days passed. Finally, he replied with an e-mail containing no text, only a JPEG of the cover art for an out-of-print novel called Brand New Cherry Flavor. The author’s name was Todd Grimson.
I ordered a used copy. I started reading it on a Monday night before bed and didn’t stop reading until the sun came up. The novel, a horror noir about an aspiring film director whose vendetta against her former lover has bizarre consequences, was something that David Lynch, James Ellroy, Clive Barker, and Bret Easton Ellis might have collectively mind-birthed at the height of an epic mescaline trip. And yet it was a thing unto itself, a novel unlike any other. It was a depraved masterpiece:
Outside, on the street, everyone was glam, the S&M hurt-me look a constant. Rouged children, baby-faced under the makeup, the metal fatigue girls in mesh hose and garter belts and microminiskirts, guys with wild teased hair. All this ready flesh like bruised raspberries, glazed, unborn faces, faces waiting to be born in twisted noise.
I read Grimson’s other two novels, Stainless and Within Normal Limits, and admired their cool fatalism, but Brand New Cherry Flavor was my favorite. It’s the novel that, out of anything I’ve ever read, most closely mirrors the rhythm and logic of nightmares.
Grimson later told me he had written it while sitting in bed with his Burmese cat, “watching VHS movies of every Nastassja Kinski vehicle known to man. Plus endless horror movies … over and over, all night long. I tried to kill off characters every single way that people ever got killed in a horror movie.” He said that Brand New Cherry Flavor was “in a way a gay novel, starring myself as played by Nastassja Kinski.” He was obsessed with the young, eroticized Kinski of Cat People and Tess. He was obsessed with films and obsessed with watching, with “the visuals.”
Grimson, though he now had an identity, was still a distant figure to me, but now more so because he inspired in me a sense of awe. We discussed talking on the phone, but I was reluctant; it would’ve been too real, with awkward pauses and actual human voices stumbling over each other in the manner of a bad date. So we kept e-mailing. Grimson sent me images of the art he was doing in his apartment: jittery collages, crude but compelling. I sent him drafts of stories I was writing. I moved to California and started writing screenplays, and Grimson read those, too. I kept his number on hand, waiting for the right time to call. But it never seemed to come.
Early this summer, however—after two years of correspondence—he wrote to say that his sister had died. He had talked about her before, how they had a troubled relationship, loving but complicated by her disapproval of some of his writing. When I read this e-mail, I was sitting beside a Westwood swimming pool with my laptop on a crystalline Los Angeles morning. I got in the pool and swam a few laps, thinking. Then I got out, dried off, and finally dialed the number.
Todd Grimson’s voice was more mellow than I’d expected—wry, reflective. There’s something both uncanny and satisfying about hearing a person’s voice for the first time when he’s already given you the history of his life. And that was that: Todd Grimson wasn’t a faceless confidant anymore, and he wasn’t a literary personage. He was a friend.
We’re still in touch almost every day. He told me he’s decided to kill off I. Fontana and go back to being Todd Grimson. The extraordinary Brand New Cherry Flavor, long out of print in America, has just been rereleased by Schaffner Press with praise from Katherine Dunn, A. M. Homes, and James Ellroy. This is fortunate, because my old copy is falling apart. I keep it on the bookshelf beside my bed and I reread it every six months or so. It gives me good nightmares.