In Quake, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s short third novel about an earthquake that hits Los Angeles, triggering the apocalypse, the author and screenwriter keeps exposition to a minimum. Omitted details tell the story as much as anything rendered on the page, Hemmingway’s iceberg theory at work. Quake is Wurlitzer — the author of five novels and the screenplays for the cult movies Pat Garret and Billy the Kid and Two-Lane Blaktop — at his most show-offy. He demonstrates that he can craft a story out of absolute chaos even as he urges us to resist reading anything deeper into it: “We’re being castrated while we wait for the news,” one character intones after someone urges him to stay put in a motel room until he knows more information about the devastation. “Look at you,” Wurlitzer writes as if he is addressing the reader directly, “Your whole life has been devoted to interpretation and analysis. It’s been a total failure.” The scene is as apt an indicator of Wurlitzer’s work as any, where everything seems to lack backstory.
Slow Fade, his fourth novel, is being brought back into print by the record label Drag City (in both print and audiobook formats) for the first time since, well, fading into obscurity shortly after its release by Knopf in 1984. This should tell you something about the writer’s relation to mainstream publishing. The novel opens with A.D. Ballou, a disillusioned roadie with unsteady work, receiving a job offer to be the tour manager for Gang Greene, a punk band long past their prime. He flies to a farm in Albuquerque to join them, but when he arrives, they have already broken up. As the group disperses, Melissa Greene, the singer, asks A.D. to come with her to Los Angeles to “help me drive and explore my needs, which are considerable.” He agrees, but first decides to ride one of the farm’s horses into the desert. He happens to gallop right onto the set of director Wesley Hardin’s doomed 39th film, a Western that is already $5 million over budget and has no conceivable end in sight.
This false start is characteristic of most of Wurlitzer’s novels and screenplays: A dissociated character is dragged into the story as an unwilling participant, only to quickly become assimilated into his new surroundings and the narrative framework. A prop arrow from an extra’s cross bow greets A.D. in his left eye, tagging him as if to say, “You are a part of the story now.” A.D. loses the eye and threatens to sue. “How do I know what an eye is worth?” he wonders. “I won’t have any peripheral vision or depth of field.”
This handicap makes A.D. into a kind of half-functioning Tiresias, arriving with the objective insight of an outsider but too stirred up to offer any real knowledge. It is also the first of many strong allusions to director Sam Peckinpah, most famous for The Wild Bunch and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, as well as the clear real-life analog of Hardin. Peckinpah’s camerawork made frequent use of wide angles and close-ups to build intensity, which he accomplished by using lenses with a shallow depth of field. These shots were the antithesis of John Ford’s sprawling landscapes, favoring instead a kind of cinematic myopia in which long and short distances, as well as foreground and background, were largely indistinguishable; a destruction of the camera’s periphery, if you will.
A.D., symbolically and literally lacking foresight, strikes a deal with Hardin to work with the director’s son, Walker. He has just returned from a trip to India with his wife. The point of the journey was to find his sister, Clementine, who has disappeared in the desert with a struggling musician to practice fundamentalist transcendental meditation, but it is more of a last ditch effort to save his marriage. Walker, however, returns from India alone. Wesley, unable to communicate with his son, asks the noticeably shaken Walker to tell him what happened in language he can understand: He commands Walker to write a screenplay about the experience and appoints A.D. the executive producer.
These layers of narrative make Slow Fade unique among Wurlitzer’s body of work, which also includes the novels Nog, Flats, and The Drop Edge of Yonder. Whereas many of his books are short and acerbic, essentially one long, tense scene rather than a montage (and one could argue the same of his minimal scripts), the novel abandons his usual concision in favor of a sprawling story filled with twists and turns, a narrative model of the chaos it describes. Hardin presides over the pandemonium, his ever-deteriorating film becoming a metonym for the novel’s own structural tangents. There are sudden, disruptive cuts to Walker’s script that recall the quick edits of the so-called New Hollywood directors of the 70’s, derailing the story only to digress further. Walker often interjects to address his father firsthand: “I’m stopping here to say, who are you, Pop, and why are we indulging in this devious contract?” he says, parenthetically, though it is hard not to read the passage as Wurlitzer appearing to critique his own “devious contract” with his readers, as if claiming the entire enterprise of fiction is little more than glorified lying.
The directionless cycling around the story only makes Wurlitzer’s writing compulsively more readable, and functions as a backhanded nod to Peckinpah. If it is a coincidence that Slow Fade was published the year of the director’s death, it is a highly significant one. Wurlitzer’s own role in the filming of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as the depraved screenwriter is eerily similar to A.D.’s — a stranger pulled into the depths of another person’s mania. Peckinpah handed in the film to MGM 20 days late and $1.5 million over budget. Bob Dylan, who plays Alias in the film and recorded the soundtrack, referred to Peckinpah as a “little king, ordering everyone around.” One legend, propagated by Jean Carroll in a 1982 article in Rocky Mountain magazine claims someone on the production team hired a hitman to kill another member of Peckinpah’s team for threatening the director’s life.
As Hardin’s film continues to fall apart, he instructs the camera crew to film his failures, the director becoming both timid hero and confused antagonist of his work. “Other directors had turned an occasional trick,” Wurlitzer writes, “John Huston had acted, as had Von Stroheim and Welles and Nick Ray. But their performances embarrassed [Hardin] because he could never do it.” Slow Fade transforms into a book about a movie about a director trying to make a movie, mixed with the story of a son trying to communicate to his father by writing a second (or third) movie. Wurlitzer is unapologetically experimental, dismissive of structure and storytelling convention. He is himself like Hardin, “a ruthless cocksucker,” to steal the word’s of a movie producer in Slow Fade. But unlike his trickster postmodern peers — Delillo, Barth, or Pynchon (who wrote one of the great book blurbs of all time for Quake: “Wurlitzer is really, really good”), Wurlitzer’s manipulations finally give way to an attempt at sincerity. And somehow, you can’t help but believe him.