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Second Glance: Seth Morgan and the Kamikaze Novel

By (April 1, 2012) 6 Comments

Upon Homeboy’s release in 1990, an outlaw legend was born. Seth Morgan, trust-fund son of poet Frederick Morgan turned heroin dealer, addict, boyfriend to Janis Joplin, strip-club barker, pimp, armed robbery felon, and jail mate to Charles Manson, had left prison after a three-year stint, made his way from San Francisco to New Orleans so he could drink himself to death, and instead willed himself to write Homeboy. He was subsequently hailed as heir to Burroughs, Miller, Algren, and just about anyone else that wrote lyrically about derangement, drugs, or sex, and was even likened to Joyce, for his delirious wordplay and, I assume, inventive use of the adverb (“smirkily,” for instance). Following the book’s success, he managed to produce two chapters of a new novel before killing himself and another passenger by driving his motorcycle into a bridge piling, his blood alcohol three times the legal limit.

Morgan didn’t write like the aforementioned writers, and maybe the ultimate testimony to his novel’s uniqueness is how it left critics clamoring for identifiable points of reference in the works of the great. Twenty-two years later, Homeboy remains a singular experience. Joe Speaker’s phantasmagoric odyssey through San Francisco’s criminal underworld is a grime crime classic, beautifully plotted and often berserk in its invention. Like Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes or Klaus Kinski’s All I Need is Love, it’s a cult book that inspires passion and proselytizing. In the bookstore where I volunteer, any time a copy comes in, I grab it, foist it on someone aimlessly browsing fiction, and tell them that if they don’t like it they can bring it back and I’ll pay them for it. No one’s ever brought it back. But maybe that’s because they’re terrified of anyone that would insist they read it.

The plot: Joe’s mentally unstable sidekick Rooski, having accidentally killed someone during their commission of a robbery, is on the brink of being captured by the police, labeled a snitch, and returned to prison where he’ll be killed. As a solution, Joe plans a heist that could provide the financial means to get Rooski out of the country.

Yes, that’s right: ‘One last job, and I’m out.’ But before the cliché’s taken any further, the heist, a startling and hilarious event set in a porn theater, doesn’t go wrong, it goes right. Too right, because along with the cash, Joe and Rooski steal the Blue Moon, an obscenely valuable diamond. As it’s the property of Baby Jewels Moses, corpulent pimp, cavalier murderer, and snuff film auteur, complications ensue, often ingeniously, always outrageously.

But for all the intricacies of plot, the real pleasures of Homeboy are found in its relentless excess. While this is probably to be expected (no one who dates Janis Joplin is interested in restraint), the novel is so extravagant in its language, details, indulgences, in everything, it seems, that barely a sentence passes without a dizzying proclamation, a shocking incident, or the introduction of a new character, or two, or three, all aggressively challenging your suspension of disbelief.

Consider Bermuda Schwartze, a stripper whose “fortyfour triple-D bionic bumpers,” were enhanced “back in the days before implants. A Van Nuys surgeon had simply injected a couple of gallons of silicone into her chest with a syringe the size of a cake decorator. And all he asked in payment was to be strung up by an engine hoist in his garage and sodomized with a caulking gun.”

Or Dwan Wand, “her neo-Nazi roommate. The perfect homo companion for a junkie diesel dyke who relaxed listening to CD’s of the Ontario 500 while selfirrigating with homemade herbal colonics.”

Or The Troll, shooting gallery proprietor, legless atop a wooden platform, “his breath rotted in the basement air, his nails…grown into hard hooked claws…his eyes, like those of any creature of the deep…enfeebled by desuetude, vestigial, glistening in the dark like poisonous berries.”

Or Baby Jewels Moses himself, a sort of Jabba the Hut of the Tenderloin. A “fourhundred pound venereal wart,” he sports a “neckless glabrous head, shivering jowls talced like sugared aspic…tiny black eyes sunk deep in fat like cloves in ham.” His reflected visage, “a jiggly morass of talced blubber” requires “one of those convex jobs like truckers use” to be seen in its entirety.

Or Firecracker, with his “face like a desiccated apricot,” the blind horse handicapper Hymie the Hat, “wearing his trademark homburg…hawking racing forms stacked in his toy red wagon,” or Whisper Moran, he of the “penis with flames inked down its length as if its glans were an engine cowling.”

Or, just open the book anywhere. There’s a ceaseless cavalcade of vivid lunatics, most exhibiting, or enduring, some massive exaggeration of the human form. To call them larger than life minimizes the effect – they’re cartoonish, but exude sensitivity, as if the ordeals of their lives have shell-shocked them into a willful one-dimensionality, adopting grotesque facades to avoid any further agony of depth; instead of awareness, there’s theater, inventive profanity their cris de coeur.

Even their dreams of success are mired in the basest sort of methods. Randolph Scott, But Not the Actor uses his penis as a divining rod to find fossil fuels; his cousin Harry Truman, No Relation dreams of designing a “zerogravity toilet”; Joe’s prison mate Earl dreams of breeding armadillos because “They sperm cure baldness”; and the “tattooed tragedy” Rings ‘n Things, aka, “The Illustrated Hooker”, longs to meet a man who’d want to sleep with her and not have to pay for it. At one point, Morgan writes, “Joe thumped the heel of his hand to the side of his head to dislodge whatever was making him hear things.” With this group, it’s a miracle he’s not whacking himself all novel long.

It can all be stupefying, but the unflagging invention is remarkable, and only a special kind of genius could produce such a diversity of gruesome death: A junkie inadvertently shoots battery acid, tries to claw open her chest, and tears one of her own breasts off. A jail guard dies during a prison riot from blood loss, having been repeatedly anally raped with his baton. Baby Jewels gets eaten by sharks (come on, that can’t be surprising at this point). And while it usually takes a hell of lot to evoke pity for a child rapist, his fate at the hands (and other parts) of an even greater monster, the Reverend Bones, makes for a tableau I haven’t been able to shake in the twenty years since I first read the book, and has probably served as my single greatest inducement to stay out of prison.

Morgan was savvy enough to realize that without being tethered by plot, and a beautifully structured one at that, this would all collapse into a mess of delirium and gratuitous lunacy. But even more than structure, it’s the other unquantifiable elements that ground Morgan’s outrageous stretches of the imagination.

Throughout, the reader is never unaware of an exhilarating new voice emerging, hyper-attentive, sensitive and alive to the possibilities of writing (at times, it reads like Morgan is exploring all of its possibilities). We’re talking 390 dense pages of often mind-boggling verbosity, the sort that might make you laugh while you think, My God, he’s still going. But as you gradually become inured to nonsensical metaphors and surreal exposition, it feels like the distinction between “good” and “bad” writing has been rendered moot, as if Morgan has needed to invent a new mode of expression to describe a previously undiscovered planet. For instance, after you’ve read sentences like, “Day broke like a wine cooler smashed suddenly on the curb of the sky, splashing the derelict building with lemon and peach, drenching its concrete crevices cherry, inking the lacework shadows of exterior catwalks and ladderways in grape” and “Tool launched into a convoluted mestizo curse on the next thirteen whorespawned, doggysired generation of el jooge who took such a dim view of converting Detroit’s finest into fourthousandpound steeljacketed jumping beans that he whipped twelve bowlegged Receiving Stolen Properties on the Guerrero Caballeros’ spiritual advisor and sidewalk jefe for the twelvevolts in the Goat’s trunk,” you get to “thunder cracked the sky like a hammer striking a gourd, spreading electric branches overhead; and the rain fell in fat drops, plucking silver nipples from the flagstones without,” and barely blink. Amazing to consider that the original manuscript came in at over 1,000 pages and these lines were left in by his editors – the excised sections must read like Morgan’s speaking in tongues.

But these aren’t the strainings of a hack; it’s the type of baroque excess that comes from the author’s euphoria, not pretense, and it makes a sympathetic reader laugh in delight, not derision. There’s the inescapable sense of Morgan’s bliss throughout, and even when he’s ludicrously verbose, you sense it’s from exhilaration, not a lack of craft. It’s writing that indicates less a struggle for articulation than an inability to turn off a roaring valve.

And then there’s Joe’s other reason to pull the heist: “Turn this last trick and we’re free. We can get out of this Life before it kills us.” This from his girlfriend, Kitty Litter, a whore with a heart of gold (the only kind in Homeboy, and the novel’s packed with them) – and for a moment, we’re back in cliché. But again, Morgan uses cliché as a launching point, an indication of perspective; his characters find purpose in platitudes, and many of the novel’s essential frictions (and much of its melancholy) arise from the characters’ inability to conform to them.

So Kitty implores Joe to do The Last Score. Joe is eventually arrested on another charge. Kitty can’t visit him because she’s listed as one of his crime partners from a previous arrest. You think she stays home, being comforted by friends and family, writing to the governor for Joe’s parole? No, she whiles away Joe’s prison time by shacking up with Dan, a married man with artistic pretensions prone to declarations like, “Ah, the Cubist nightmare of post-Versailles Germany…. I can feel it in my…my…my viscera!” Eventually, a very drunk Dan crashes a car, killing his passenger, and suffering a fatal injury. Just before he dies, groggy with morphine, Kitty has him sign a check for a “few hundred” to compensate the victim’s family. It’s soon revealed that the check was for ten thousand dollars, and Kitty cashes it to pay her doctor’s bills and incidental expenses. So much for cliché.

In this world, infidelity is the tamest sort of transgression, and the love between Joe and Kitty is genuine, but painful to watch; solipsism is a means of survival, and yearnings for love and commitment are always battling against stifling self-involvement. Like many of the novel’s quieter, introspective moments, these characters’ reflections aren’t terribly deep, but they are heartfelt, and for all the linguistic gymnastics, what ultimately makes the novel unforgettable is that rarest of qualities – heart. Kitty’s got one, and so does Joe, and Morgan’s combination of the crass and the lyrical is used to its most powerful effect when his characters are at the precipice of emotional vulnerability.

Here’s Joe, in the midst of his heroin-slinging, strip club barking duties:

[His] mind saw Kitty all creamy fold of breast and buttock opalescent above the candycolored lights and wondered why he bothered always saying he loved her. Sure he loved her coarse mestiza hair, her dimpled coccyx and obloid nipples. He loved her screwball wandering eye that looked like the five ball off the eight, the hard way; loved the consumptive blush rising to her cheeks when she needed a fix… But it was only love’s delusion, its desperate carnal charade… By blocking his heart from hurt he’d stopped it from love, and until he earned the courage for the one he was denied the others’ grace. Dopefiends don’t take lovers; their hearts seize hostages on the long retreat.

And here’s Kitty in bed, thinking of Joe while Dan is off “reading a critical tome, copping egghead comments to drop at the upcoming San Francisco Film Festival”:

Okay fella, I’ve gone all day and haven’t thought of you once…then it just comes over me like a chill…. I remember the little things, like your voice so tough but pudding underneath and the way the tip of your tongue sticks out when you concentrate on things like tying a shoe or jacking a shot…

In prison, Joe eventually finds out that Kitty’s pregnant, but doubts the child is his. He asks, “what’s the word of a whore?” and Earl lays out some wisdom:

The word of the right whore’s good as a guvmint check. I learned that comin up in Nawlins. Folks referred to socalled good women as women of character. Well, I learned it was the other way around. It was the socalled bad ones, the whores and strippers and all who had the market cornered on character, yeah. Good girls was plain as grits, it was the bad uns had the gumption of gumbo. Only they understood when you down and out, when life’s laid you low, your word’s all that’s left to save you. The others, the ones who never had to fight to keep their souls, they never learned they had em to lose, and their word aint worth the breath they spend on it…Show me a gal who’s scuffed and scratched to save her heart and soul and I’ll show you God’s best version of a woman.

The notion of soulful whores, both men and women, as “God’s best version” – this, maybe more than all that’s lurid, is the appeal of the lowlife novel. Maybe for many of us, it’s a kind of envy, that we’ve never had to struggle this deeply, that we’ve never lived this much. Or maybe it’s the fear that if we were in similar situations we wouldn’t find these stores of resolve and ingenuity, and we cheer the characters that do. Homeboy is a testament to endurance. As Kitty tells Joe, “I seen that wanting to love, struggling for it, is more real than just loving. It’s deeper, stronger, more honest. The other’s too easy and cheap. For cheap, easy people… Our kind has to suffer.” For all the book’s madness, the chord this strikes is a resonant one.

Revisiting Homeboy, I was reminded of a story about Martin Scorsese. In the throes of a cocaine addiction that was bringing him close to death, he was pestered relentlessly by Robert DeNiro to make Raging Bull. Scorsese finally acquiesced, but was so convinced that it would be the last film he ever made, he went kamikaze, that is, he utilized every bit of his cinematic technique and creative powers to produce a wholly uncompromised work, unconcerned with whatever might follow its completion.

It’s hard not to wonder whether Seth Morgan felt a similar way when he went to New Orleans. Homeboy, with all its extremes, may have been his kamikaze gesture, or maybe it was just a redemptive one. As a writer, he emerged with a celebration of survival, not only of the physical self ravaged by abuse, but of will and the spirit, a massive, contradictory talent, infused with the ludicrous and the cruel, with grace and dignity. It’s a tremendous achievement, sad and beautiful without accounting for Morgan’s fate, and doubly heartrending when you do.

Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine, teacher at City College, member of the Terranova Theater Collective, volunteer at the Housing Works Bookstore, and loiterer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.   His fiction has appeared most recently in The Coffin Factory, and will be in upcoming editions of Locust and Anemone Sidecar.