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Still Weird on Top

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Arts & Culture

Barry Gifford’s novels find a new generation of readers.

wild at heart

From the poster for David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), which was adapted from Gifford’s novel.

Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart turns twenty-five this year. It tells the story of Sailor and Lula, two young lovers on the lam, driving their ’75 Bonneville convertible toward a better life but finding the violent reality of America instead. David Lynch saw something intoxicating in their pure, honest love. “I wanted to go on that trip,” he wrote. “It was like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad.” He asked Gifford to cowrite the screenplay. The film, starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and launched Gifford’s novel onto the best-seller list. Earlier this month, a sold-out audience crowded into a theater at the Anthology Film Archives to see an X-rated cut of Wild at Heart. (It was the European edition, which features some ten extra seconds of sex deemed too explicit for the U.S. audiences of 1990.) Before the screening, Gifford read from his next novel, The Up-Down, a continuation of the Sailor and Lula saga in which the couple’s son, Pace, embarks on a spiritual quest for the mysterious fifth direction, the “up-down.”

Gifford has lived a life in miles instead of years. He’s never in one place too long, but during moments of cultural upheaval, he has found himself, with an almost Forrest Gump–like serendipity, in the right place at the right time. An autodidact, he’s published poetry, fiction, memoirs, biographies, plays, and screenplays. He turned sixty-eight this year; The Up-Down will be his twentieth novel and his fifty-seventh book. Next year, a new play of his will premiere in New York and a film he wrote will begin shooting in Brazil, with Willem Dafoe as the lead.

At Sarabeth’s in Tribeca, I sat down with Gifford for breakfast the morning after the screening. He joked about the youthful audience, many of whom were younger than the book. “Millennials are discovering Wild at Heart for the first time,” he said. “I’m not quite sure they knew what they were in for.” The Up-Down is, Gifford claimed, the final chapter in the Sailor and Lula story, a story Gifford has told over the course of a quarter century. The collected Sailor and Lula saga runs nearly eight hundred pages and comprises Gifford’s magnum opus, full of recurring characters and settings that center around the titular couple.

Throughout the seventies and eighties, Gifford had been working as a journalist and traveled the world reporting stories. He was under contract to write a book about deep-sea fishing and was staying in a Cape Fear hotel in North Carolina when he heard the voices of Sailor and Lula talking. He called his agent and told him to return the money for the fishing book, because he was onto something. He wanted to write a novel. “My agent almost had a heart attack,” Gifford said. The Twin Peaks producer Monty Montgomery—perhaps better known as the Cowboy from Mulholland Drive—gave Lynch an early copy of the novel. Lynch optioned it, and a year later, they premiered the movie at Cannes.

Decades later, Sailor and Lula’s prelapsarian passion in Wild at Heart resonates with new readers because Gifford doesn’t bullshit; he doesn’t shy away from the hysteria of young romance. Or its growing darkness, for that matter. The novel is a “violent satire,” he told Chicagoist in 2010: “What I wanted Sailor and Lula to represent were innocents. That they were perhaps naive, but innocents nevertheless. And here was all this shit raining down around them … It’s a picaresque. They’re just going down the road, just like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.” Early on, Lula delivers her famous line—“This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top”—as apt an observation now as it was twenty-five years ago.

Gifford was born in 1946, in a hotel room in Chicago, to a racketeer father and a beauty-queen mother. They lived at times in hotels in South Florida, New Orleans, and Havana. Because they moved around so much, Gifford didn’t get much formal education. He learned from late-night noir movies and the strange characters that passed through the hotel lobbies. His father died young, and he and his mother both had to find work. Later, he went to the University of Missouri on an athletic scholarship, but he promptly dropped out and went to Europe to try his hand as a musician and poet. Gifford traveled around for the next few years and then settled in London, amidst the psychedelic movement. It was 1965 and he was twenty-one.

“I have a lot of stories from that time that many people find hard to believe,” he said. He was friendly with Eric Clapton and the Kinks, even met Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon a few times. “I tell these stories not to drop names but to say that the scene was small back then,” he said. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

In 1967, he went to San Francisco during the Summer of Love and was an original writer for Rolling Stone. He fell in with the Beat writers that were still around, including Allen Ginsberg, with whom he became close. They shared a love of Williams Carlos Williams, whose poem “To Elsie” Gifford often cites when describing Sailor and Lula: “The pure products of America / go crazy.”

Over the course of the next few decades, he traveled, writing poetry and nonfiction and befriending outsider writers like Jim Harrison and Larry Brown. He published two novels, but they didn’t sell. Then came Wild at Heart, and his career took off. Ever since, he’s lived in Europe, New Orleans, and New York, but keeps a home base in San Francisco, making a living from his work. When I asked him how he managed to go from an eighteen-year-old kid with a rucksack and thirty dollars in his pocket to a full-time writer, he told me an anecdote about Timothy Leary. (Another old friend, of course.) “Someone asked Tim what he did for money and he said, I just dip my hand into the stream.” And he offered a word of advice: “Be generous and don’t talk down to people.”

A few days after the Wild at Heart event, there was a screening of Lost Highway, Gifford’s other film collaboration with Lynch, at the Museum of the Moving Image. The audience was again packed with young people. I looked for Gifford after the screening, hoping to ask him why the texture and tone of Lost Highway depart so radically from Wild at Heart—but he was nowhere to be found. I asked someone if they’d seen him. “He left already,” she said. “He’s on the road first thing tomorrow.”

Michael Bible has written for the Oxford American, Al Jazeera America, Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Tyrant, and ESPN: The Magazine, among others. He’s currently the senior staff writer at Nerve.com. His novel Sophia will appear in 2015. He lives in New York City.