Boonville by Robert Mailer Anderson

[30 April 2003]

By Tara Taghizadeh

PopMatters: How long did it take you to write Boonville? Robert Mailer Anderson: From the time I put down the first word, a decade probably. I was kind of a dropout in a way . . . I moved to New York and I wasn’t able to write full-time. I had a bunch of unsatisfying jobs, but I was still learning and writing a lot in New York when I could. Then I came to a sort of emotional cul-de-sac, as Tom Waits would say, and I realized I wasn’t good for anybody or myself if I wasn’t writing at least 16 hours a day, or at least attempted to finish this first novel. I eventually checked myself into this welfare motel which was all I could afford and then it got very simple. I finished the book in a year and a half. PM: Have you always wanted to be a writer? RMA: I thought I wanted to play for the Yankees first. But my uncle has a small radical newspaper called the Anderson Valley Advertiser which I wrote for since I was about 15. I always knew that I wanted to write, but it became clear very early on that I wasn’t a journalist, and even my journalistic heroes—Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion—were inserting themselves in their stories, and it was a different sort of journalism that I became interested in. The novel has always given me something that nothing else in the world really has. PM: There’s a story about how one of your friends gave you $3,000 to write? RMA: Yeah, Awadagin Pratt. I was writing but I was also working at this place [in San Francisco] called Caffe Triestte, and I was jocking coffee there, and it looked like I was going to have to take on a couple more shifts to support myself. I was complaining about the money, and you can see that as an excuse and a distraction. So he did a very scary thing of taking that excuse away from me, saying “Don’t tell me it’s the money.” He gave me an envelope with three grand in it, and said, “There’s more where that came from.” PM: You’ve always said that you admire the myth of the cowboy. Why? RMA: The cowboy is a great metaphor for the “American”…it’s old-school American of just going your own way and doing your own thing. Not in the John Ford sense, actually . . . the cowboy to me is also punk rock in the same way that the cowboys I’m thinking of are Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson . . . and then it became for me, Joe Strummer and the Sex Pistols. Once again, Norman Mailer is a cowboy; John Dos Passos is a huge hero of the cowboy; Nabokov is a cowboy for writing Lolita. Cowboy is an easy word to attribute to anybody who goes their own way: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young. . . . I also like the way William Gibson re-appropriated the word for Neuromancer . . . these guys became computer cowboys. PM: Who are your literary influences, and which writers do you read today? RMA: There are people you can directly attribute to your own personal style, and then there are people that you love and you know you’ll never write anything like them. Joseph Mitchell is one of the greatest writers of all time. You can only hope that one day you can write like him. John Dos Passos, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway in terms of short stories. These days I would say Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and Philip Roth-the last few years he’s just been lighting me up; it’s completely heroic and inspiring how he’s writing now towards the end of his life. He’s somebody I go to school on in terms of construction. There are so many others. PM: What are you writing at the moment? RMA: I’m working on two things. I’m almost done with a play about the end of the world . . . it’s actually easier writing a play. I told myself you have to keep writing; that’s what you have to do. If I wrote a bad novel, it would be horrible for me, but if I wrote a bad play, who care’s, I’m a novelist. I was working on all this post-9/11 neurosis which really didn’t belong in the novel I had started. I didn’t have time to also work on the novel I had started, so I put that neurosis that didn’t belong and time that I had into writing this play. It’s unabashedly David Mamet meets Eugene O’Neill. I hope it sees the light of day. The novel I’m writing is about personal hypocrisy here in San Francisco, and takes place in the Tenderloin and North Beach. PM: You’re a native Californian, yet you moved to Florida and then to New York. Is there a reason you decided to return to California? RMA: I never thought I would ever leave New York. When I was living there . . . that 2 a.m. vibe of finally meeting ‘your people’ and that great energy that’s there, and all the life lessons you learn. I didn’t get a really good education, but it was more than enough to finally stumble onto Jackson Pollock and theater, opera, and ballet, and so on. Things I had only touched base on became really apparent there. We’re really good at leisure in California . . . it’s a better life here, but there’s more production in the [East Coast]. But my wife is from this area, and San Francisco is a great city. And as long as I can stay on my game, then I’ll stay here—I don’t have to be in New York. PM: Hippies play a major role in the book, yet you have been openly critical of them. Why? RMA: I have no problem with them. The hippies back in the ‘60s—that’s fine for me. Anyone calling themselves a hippie in the 21st century though, has their head up their ass. Environmentalist? Great. Radical? Great. But Hippie? How feeble. The people I know who call themselves Hippies . . . whatever happened to peace, love, and understanding? They are the most aggressive, uptight, angry, narrow people . . . the least accepting people I know. I think it’s apparent in the book that I’m not one for anyone really defining themselves by some sort of a heading. It really gets under my skin. PM: How are you coping with all this newfound fame? RMA: It’s silly . . . goofy on some level. Somebody once said: There are no famous poets-you can’t be famous and a poet, because nobody cares. A lot of people (especially in Northern California) have read the book, and it’s interesting to get the respect that you’ve always wanted for being able to write a book. . . . You finish the first one and you see it on the shelf. . . . Truthfully, I’m the sort of person who’s really driven, so now I feel like I’m a one-hit wonder, and I have to move on to the next book. To be a novelist, you have to keep churning out books. By the time I’m 50, I really hope to write the USA Trilogy or Absalom, Absalom! I would really like to lay that on the altar. The note I did get from Norman Mailer . . . I dropped off a first-edition copy of The Naked and the Dead for him, and he wrote in it that I was a dark horse kid, but he had his money on me to come in and win the race in the long years to come. That is the nicest thing, pretty much. When people are taking you apart, you can at least say that Norman Mailer thinks I got it in me.
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A Genius in Our Midst

“Thing is with retards. . . . Half of them don’t know they’re retardedÂ…You pity them like the Krishnas or Reagan because they seem harmless, but next thing you know they own every copy shop in California or get themselves elected president of the United States.”
— Robert Mailer Anderson Boonville

All right, here’s a question: Have you ever listened to great jazz while drinking a glass of rich red wine? There are few combinations that can achieve this perfect symmetry, except of course, should the remarkable Tom Waits also start crooning on your stereo, and you’re in the midst of reading an unexpectedly awesome book. On a recent March evening, that’s what happened to me. The jazz CD (alternating with Tom Waits tracks) was Coleman Hawkins’ In a Mellow Tone, the wine was a Robert Mondavi merlot, and the book in question: Boonville by the spectacularly talented Robert Mailer Anderson.

There are thousands of books published every year, read dutifully by book critics who once in a while stumble onto something truly great. This is such a book. Forget the standard charted plotlines and the “beginning-middle-and-end” formula. Boonville breaks all the usual rules, and establishes a few of its own. The reason to read this “rant” (which is probably the most accurate description for the book) is because it’s hilarious, witty, engaging, and the writing is what great writing should be: the sort that makes you turn page after page, wondering what the author has to say next.

The story revolves around John, an endearing, quick-witted marketing employee living in Miami with his upwardly mobile girlfriend, who stumbles onto an inheritance from his dead grandmother. Sensing that his relationship and career are headed nowhere, he trades in Miami for a new life in his grandmother’s old place in the town of Boonville, California.

Boasting a population of only 715, Boonville is—how shall we say?—an odd place, dominated by a slew of quirky characters who speak their own garbled language, “Boontling”, and march to the beat of a different (and definitely certifiable) drummer. Upon his arrival, John meets the strange array of locals, and is immediately attracted to the intelligent hippie-chick/wannabe artist Sarah McKay. He sets up camp in his grandmother’s place, then attempts—with difficulty—to establish himself as a full-fledged resident of Boonville, while warding off serious urges to flee the godforsaken place and return to Miami at the drop of a hat. As Sarah aptly warns him: “Boonville is for losers. And we hate outsiders because they have an option we don’t, the chance to leave.”

John’s burgeoning relationship with the independent Sarah dominates the story, and Anderson offers an almost refreshingly old-fashioned, touching courtship as the two slowly but surely begin to establish a bond. However, if this is the meat of the story, the bones are equally interesting, since were it not for the colorful lunatic fringe (the immoral deputy Cal, the insane Daryl, the bizarre Kurts family, the dope-dealing Blindman, not to mention Sarah’s commune-happy mother) which filter through the chapters, the story would be lost. Boonvillians are a cross between gun-toting, beer-swilling rednecks with questionable morals, and marijuana-growing “I can’t believe the ‘60s are over” hippie throwbacks who live in a neighboring community.

There are few sections that run into the cliche problem (specifically, typical California stereotypes of which we have all heard too often). However, Anderson’s gift of painting vivid descriptions and writing witty repartee is so astonishing that we can’t help but forgive him for the minor error. The book is peppered throughout with sections which are roll-on-the-floor funny, such as a conversation between John and a local:

“Kinda makes you wonder,” a voice said. “Maybe aliens really did kill Kennedy. . . . “
“I’m sorry,” John apologized. “Did you say aliens assassinated Kennedy? John F. Kennedy?”
“Haven’t you seen the videotape?” the man asked. . . . “The same people coverin’ up the UFOs. They had the real E.T. and nobody knew it, except government agents, and when he died they destroyed the body. . . . It’s complicated and linked to drugs and patterns in cornfields and LBJ not runnin’ for a second term.”

Who can blame John for his mind-boggling quandary?—that of either fleeing for his life, or sticking around Boonville, knowing that if you can’t beat them, you’ll have to join them:

“John wondered if waking up in Boonville was the worst thing the world had to offer. Worse than Turkish prisons, worse than being buried alive, worse than reruns of Three’s Company, fruitcakes, heavy metal, herpes, Lee Iacoca, being trapped in an elevator with Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Whitney Houston, who all want to sing rounds of show tunes until you’re rescued.”

The story behind the story is even more interesting. This is Anderson’s first book (which given his prowess, is hard to believe). A native Californian, he actually lived in Miami for a while, then schlepped around New York working as a suit-seller, furniture-mover, and temp before finishing his novel. Now married with two children, he lives in San Francisco, a stone’s throw away from the town of Boonville, which actually exists. (Talk about putting a town on the map.)

Anderson has received praise and words of encouragement from a slew of distinguished literati, including Calvin Trillin, Naomi Wolf, and Norman Mailer who said of Anderson: “[H]e could become a member of that vanishing American breed—a major novelist.” (Note: Anderson’s middle name is Mailer—no relation to Norman, but it’s inevitable that Mr. and Mrs. Anderson had literary aspirations for their son.) Critics around the nation have lauded the book, and heralded the age of Robert Mailer Anderson.

There are a few writers I have wanted to meet after reading them: J.D. Salinger, the late, great Ring Lardner and Peter Taylor, and now Robert Mailer Anderson, who was gracious enough to grant me a phone interview. He loves jazz and Tom Waits (which earned him additional points), Cole Porter, and Hunter S. Thompson. Boonville has been described by some reviewers as Pynchonesque, but there’s more of a “Hunter S. meets Salinger’s Holden Caulfield” thing going on, which makes for captivating reading. This is a book about rebellion, courage, and coming of age—a great American story. John is a fond addition to a long line of unforgettable literary heroes: charming, gentlemanly, sharp as a tack, and hysterically funny, leaving us with the question: how about a sequel?

Anderson can easily establish himself alongside other American literary giants, but he needs to keep writing—which he is, thank God. This is a great start and we want more, a lot more.

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