Barry Gifford

“I ain’t never heard so much concentrated weirdness in my life…”

The return of Twin Peaks prompted a lot of excitement amongst some of my friends. One sent me a Spotify playlist dedicated to the music of David Lynch’s films, while I was persuaded by another to join him watching the original series and film, an exercise he set about with a kind of dedication and ceremony, rich in nostalgic significance. Rather than leading me to watch the new series, however, this project prompted me to get hold of an expanded version of Barry Gifford’s Sailor and Lula novels.

David Lynch’s Wild At Heart is based on Gifford’s novel of the same name. It introduces us to Sailor and Lula, star-crossed lovers from the Deep South, whose love and misadventures are charted across a cycle of seven novels. The novels are arbitrary and disposable, built out of short, chapters, all of which have titles, making them like punchy prose poems. The cycle is notable for its pulpy, violent energy: partly epic, partly soap opera. It’s a combination which makes the first novel perfect for Lynch’s treatment, although the cycle grows beyond the young, wild rebels of his Wild at Heart. In Gifford’s version, Sailor and Lula’s adventures take them through family and failure, from middle age into death.

My first exposure to Gifford’s work came, not through the Sailor and Lula novels, but through his fine crime novel The Sinaloa Story. The novel begins in true B-movie fashion (like the great Detour) with a drifting character passing through town. The narrative perspective is passed like a bomb across a variety of crime fiction staple characters, soldiers, brothel keepers, killers, revolutionaries, lowlives. It was scintillating, cryptic, addictive and weird. I loved it. Later, I discovered Gifford’s poetry. I’ve always been intrigued by a novelist’s poems. Michael Ondaajte, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Auster, WG Sebald, Denis Johnson, Roberto Bolano: I’ve made a point of reading all their poetry over the years, although it has, admittedly, provided varying results. Mainly, I think this is a hangover from my early appreciation of poetry, which came from discovering writers like Charles Bukowski and the Beats, who employed poetry as a form of immediate journalism, unconstrained by canonical ideals.

Gifford is one of those writers whose characters start to pass through your world. The man in white gloves wiping down a train seat before sitting down. The woman reading Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to a parakeet in a cage. A man with long white hair wearing a checked lumberjack’s coat, talking to himself as he paces up and down Haverstock Hill. Tune into the bizarre and you puncture reality. The routine gets scrambled. Around the time I first read his work, my girlfriend’s brother came to stay with us in Brixton, bringing an old friend with him to tag along. There was something vaguely Giffordesque about these two men: they had the air of a hapless double act, whose misadventures led effortlessly into trouble. The brother had recently joined the army, leaving the friend facing up to being marooned in his own fecklessness. The morning, while everyone else slept off the night before, he managed to set fire to our kitchen. I found him in the back garden, reading my copy of Ghosts No Horse Can Carry.

‘I was learning about ghosts,’ he said.

At that time, I was writing my own road novel, about a brother and sister escaping a past of abuse and weirdness, to describe a circuitous path around the nation’s roads and towns. I wanted it to blend myth and genre, a black comedy about place and how it defines us. During the slow process of its failure, I called up an agent who liked to interview prospective clients before accepting their submissions. ‘How would you describe yourself as a writer?’ he asked. It was one of those questions you can spend your life preparing for, but are never really able to answer. ‘A British Barry Gifford,’ I replied after hesitating, as though such a thing was likely, or even possible.

2 thoughts on “Barry Gifford

  1. For what it’s worth I enjoyed and admired your chapbook very much. Genuinely. Despite our estrangement I think you are on to something with this current line. Blurring the division between bucolic/city poet. Interrogating the landscape without a prescribed stance or position of privilege: an alien in both. Like De Chirico: it’s ALL landscape- in/out, town/tundra, train/horizon, tungsten/milk-thistle. No writing if it isn’t geography. Your best work so far. John.

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