Conversing with Rudy Wurlitzer: ‘A Beaten-up Old Scribbler’

Cinema never replaced the written word; indeed the movies have relied heavily upon their first cousin in mass communication from the very start. “The power of the camera,” maverick filmmaker Sam Fuller once said, “is bold-face type” — an accurate assessment that pretty much sums up the vast gulf between movies and literature.

In the ‘70s there existed a brief shining moment in the history of American film when a legion of screenwriters, aided and abetted by willing and capable directors like Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman, attempted to mix the language of film with the rich character complexities of literature. The screenplays were provided by writers like Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo), Walon Green (The Wild Bunch, Sorcerer), Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico, Coming Home), and frequent Altman collaborator Joan Tewkesbury (Thieves Like Us, Nashville). These screenplays, and many more like them, broke with the linear tradition of telling a story on film, expressing an aggressive disregard for the classical conventions of film and exploring what lurks beneath the trappings of genre, not unlike traversing Disneyland via its dark underground sewers where no one except rats ever lurked before.

Of the slim handful of contemporary filmmakers whose body of work shares a heavy debt and undeniable symmetry to ‘70s screenwriting, the iconoclastic independent Jim Jarmusch most certainly stands out. Jarmusch says that he prefers “to be subcultural rather than mass cultural”, asserting that he’s “not interested in hitting the vein of mainstream.”

The Johnny Depp western Dead Man (1995) is Jarmusch’s most artful work and a movie that did hit the mainstream vein, a complex screenplay in search of a novel with its references to (and explorations of) Native American mysticism, the American myths of origin, the words of poet William Blake, and the worlds between the living and the dead. But there’s a problem with Jarmusch’s screenplay for Dead Man. A big problem. Dead Man borrows heavily and substantially from an unproduced screenplay, Zebulon, by ‘70s screenwriting maverick and counterculture novelist Rudy Wurlitzer.

In a May 2008 interview with Joe O’Brien for Arthur magazine Rudy Wurlitzer, who turns 71 this year, characteristically speaks of Jarmusch’s plagiarism “without much bitterness and even laughs about it.” Wurlitzer’s longtime friend, director Alex Cox (Repo Man) is less forgiving: “Jarmusch just stole the idea, which was really shocking,” Cox told O’Brien. “I haven’t been able to speak to Jarmusch since that happened. Rudy could’ve sued him. I would’ve sued his ass.”

Like Alex Cox, if a movie maker had ripped me off as blatantly as Jarmusch did to Wurlitzer with Dead Man I would’ve been cooling my heels in a lawyer’s office faster than you can say “quick and quiet cash settlement to keep this out of court”. But over the course of five months, through a sporadic and protracted email correspondence with the reclusive author and two contemplative readings of his new masterwork The Drop Edge of Yonder (adapted from his Zebulon screenplay), I came to not only an understanding but an actual practical application of Wurlitzer’s Buddhist-suffused principles in my own life. It turns out that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Two-Lane Blacktop

In the spirit of full disclosure I must confess to being a lifelong admirer of Rudy Wurlitzer from my earliest days as a struggling Hollywood screenwriter (circa 1979-95).

Wurlitzer’s original screenplays for the cult classics Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) represented groundbreaking territory in the young art of screenwriting. The terse, sometimes cryptic dialogue and the emphasis on tone and mood over a busy, twist-laden plot created an almost-perfect symbiosis of the literary mind and the conventions and commercial needs of Hollywood at that time.

The movie-going audiences in the days of Vietnam and Nixon were a much more literate and literary crowd than we’re likely to find today, the truth of that statement shored up by a quick glimpse at a few of the names whose books regularly lurked in the pop culture cosmos: Capote. Mailer. Didion. Updike. Michener. Bukowski. Vonnegut. Kesey. Wolfe. Roth. Miller. Those names are synonymous with literary legend now, but they were the subject of casual water cooler chit-chat a mere three-and-a-quarter decades ago, the generation that Rudy Wurlitzer and his fellow scribes were writing movies and novels for.

Two-Lane Blacktop, considered the greatest road movie ever by scores of film aficionados, was bestowed with the Criterion Collection DVD treatment in 2007 (currently ranking in the top 5,000 movies and TV releases at Amazon.com), and Walker, Alex Cox’s bizarre, hallucinogenic 1987 biopic of William Walker, the American adventurer who appointed himself President of Nicaragua in 1856, from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer, was released in a deluxe Criterion DVD package in 2008, complete with fresh commentary by Wurlitzer and Cox.

Indeed, there is something of a Rudy Wurlitzer renaissance going down in the pop culture zeitgeist; not only through the Criterion releases but also through a well-deserved re-examination of Wurlitzer’s long-forgotten work as a masterful novelist, with independent publisher Two Dollar Radio preparing to re-release the out-of-print novels Nog (1969) and Quake (1974) in late 2009. Two Dollar also plans to release Wurlitzer’s Flats (1971) and Quake in a single “69 turnover” edition (two books in one binding) which pleases Wurlitzer immensely because both novels, the author says, “seem related as they were written back-to-back expressing a sort of post-apocalyptic vision that I was consumed with in those days.”

“I’ve been thrashing around through various recapitulations of the past,” Wurlitzer wrote in October 2008, “now that my youthful publisher wants to re-release Nog and Quake, as well as film folk wanting to know more about Two-Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I find the process strange and more than illusive as I have immense trouble remembering who I was way back then, given all my obscurations, not to mention who the hell I am now. So it goes.”

The paradox behind Wurlitzer’s contemplative “recapitulations of the past” is that one of the recurring narrative and stylistic tendencies in the author’s work (five novels and nine produced screenplays) is a fondness for stories that are rooted in movement and the conflict to be found in forward movement. With The Drop Edge of Yonder Wurlitzer is the weary traveler looking back on his journey, a journey, Wurlitzer writes of his protagonist mountain man Zebulon Shook, “that he is unable to track, without a beginning or end with no boundaries to guide him.” In that respect, Drop Edge is one of the most revealing autobiographies-written-in-the-form-of-historical-fiction, a rare genre, to be sure. The restless wanderer in this contribution to Wurlitzer’s canon is looking for the end of the road, not the limitless possibilities of it that Kerouac promised.

Wurlitzer, who was 19-years-old when Kerouac’s seminal work was first published by Viking Press and cast an undeniable influence on his writing and that of hundreds of other authors either directly or indirectly. (Encouraged at the least through an encouragement of experimentation in the structure and form of a fictional narrative and the urging of young people to go “on the road” and experience life to its fullest before the responsibilities that come with maturity take hold.) Today he looks back on Kerouac’s influence on writers with something that resembles chagrin, noting the “romantic deluded myths he represented for me when I was barreling along western by-ways not knowing east from west, only going ‘further’, as the other sage would have it.”

Solidifying the Kerouac connection is Wurlitzer’s long association with Robert Frank, the Swiss-born American photographer and fringe filmmaker who shares in the Beat lineage for his work as the director of the 1959 film Pull My Daisy, written and narrated by Jack Kerouac and featuring Alan Ginsberg and other Beat movement luminaries. (Frank’s best-known film was the 1972 Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues. “It’s a fucking good film, Robert,” Mick Jagger reportedly told Frank, “but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed in this country again.” The Stones sued to prevent the release of the documentary. A copyright battle ensued and in the end a judge intervened with the ruling that the film can be screened no more than five times per year and only in the presence of Mr. Franks). Wurlitzer wrote two short films for Robert Frank, Keep Busy (1975) and Energy and How to Get It (1982) featuring appearances by William S. Burroughs and Dr. John.

“Seems like a hundred years ago, those days,” Wurlitzer muses in a November 2008 email, “and maybe they are that ancient, given how much it has all changed.”

Return to Candy Mountain

From Two Lane Blacktop

It should be mentioned at this juncture that my conversations with Rudy Wurlitzer were not unlike a road journey itself with plenty of unplanned side trips along the way. In early August 2008 I mentioned to Wurlitzer that I was interested in locating a screener of Candy Mountain, a little-seen art house feature film that the author co-directed with Robert Frank in 1988. It was no easy task, seeing that the title has never been released on DVD, partially owing to the musical talents involved in the all-star cast: Dr. John, Tom Waits (introduced to Wurlitzer and Franks by Jim Jarmusch, oddly enough), Joe Strummer, Leon Redbone, and David Johansen (then of the New York Dolls). Even before screening the film it was obvious to me that the effort was a pop culture artifact that would have lasting appeal across many levels of collectors if rights clearance issues could be resolved.

“As far as Candy Mountain goes, there seem to be some difficulties or a lack of communication about the music rights, involving musicians, lyricists, producers, etc.” Wurlitzer wrote from Hudson, New York, where he shares a home with his wife, photographer Lynn Davis. “I called one of the producers, who promised he would look into it, particularly as we agreed that after all this time there should be some accord. It was a strange film from the jump, a weird, multiple low-road co-production with a Swiss producer, a French and an American producer, all of whom didn’t get along, and then, of course, the two directors, Robert Frank (now 84) and myself, who parted company after the trauma of production. Given the hierarchy of film production, two directors always present a problem. Looking back on it, I probably should have stepped down as co-director, and actually at one point I tried to do so, as it was clear early on that there was room for only one person to walk that bridge and that was Robert.

Author: Rudolph Wurlitzer
Book: Flats
US publication date: 1996-03
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9781852424107
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/w/wurlitzer-flats.jpg
Length: 160

DVD: Two-Lane Blacktop
Director: Monte Hellman
Film: Two-Lane Blacktop
Subtitle: Criterion Collection
Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 1971
US DVD Release Date: 2007-12-11
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/t/two-laneblackto.jpg

Author: Rudolph Wurlitzer
Book: Flats
US publication date: 1996-03
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9781852424107
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/w/wurlitzer-flats.jpg
Length: 160

DVD: Two-Lane Blacktop
Director: Monte Hellman
Film: Two-Lane Blacktop
Subtitle: Criterion Collection
Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 1971
US DVD Release Date: 2007-12-11
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/t/two-laneblackto.jpg

DVD: Candy Mountain
Display Artist: Robert Frank, Rudy Wurlitzer
Director: Robert Frank
Director: Rudy Wurlitzer
Film: Candy Mountain
Cast: Kevin O’Connor, Harris Yulin, Tom Waits, Bulle Ogier, David Johansen, Leon Redbone, Joe Strummer, Dr. John
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 1987
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/w/wurlitzer-candymountain.jpg

DVD: Candy Mountain
Display Artist: Robert Frank, Rudy Wurlitzer
Director: Robert Frank
Director: Rudy Wurlitzer
Film: Candy Mountain
Cast: Kevin O’Connor, Harris Yulin, Tom Waits, Bulle Ogier, David Johansen, Leon Redbone, Joe Strummer, Dr. John
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 1987
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/w/wurlitzer-candymountain.jpg

“Also, given the low budget there was no bread for anyone, as well as no distribution know-how, and yet, finally, after all the hollering and whining and complaining, there’s an authenticity to the film, which was filmed as I wrote it: a kind of innocence and defiance, that given the usual miasma of Hollywood productions, I have come to increasingly value, particularly as half the movie was filmed on the edge of the wedge, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a place where I have lived off and on and hid out for forty some odd years, a haunting land that I increasingly cherish because of its stubborn insistence for being off the grid. God bless its Irish-Scotch protectors.”

In late October I acquired a passable (bleached colors, mono soundtrack) VHS to DVD dub of Candy Mountain, and settled in late one night between deadlines to screen it on my laptop. Rudy was curious and eager for my advice on his options in exploring, along with the other producers, a DVD release of the film since I have business associates who work in the world of film preservation and restoration as well as rights clearances.

In Candy Mountain, Kevin J. O’Connor (There Will Be Blood) stars as Julius, a not terribly likeable and rather dense musician wanna-be working on the fringes of the New York club scene. Julius hears about the Holy Grail that will grant one immediate access to the movers and shakers in the music world, a guitar from legendary but reclusive guitar maker Elmore Silk, and sets out on a quest to find the old hermit and acquire one of his instruments so that Julius can claim his rightful place among the hipsters.

Lots of Joseph Campbell in there but also, more importantly, it is an “anti-road” movie because the road does not lead to a good place for Julius. When he finally catches up with Elmore Silk (Harris Yulin), a man swallowed up by his own mythology in the snow-blasted wilds of Nova Scotia, Julius interrupts a Faust-like bargain in the making with a shrewd Japanese industrialist.

“As a writer who has depended on the journey or road mythos so often in his work,” I wrote Rudy at 1:00AM that night after finally watching the film without interruption by domestic duties, “you pretty much debunk it all in Candy Mountain. In the end, Elmore Silk takes the road that provides stability, a monthly check for the duration of his days and the road trip that Julian embarked upon is rendered null and void. The depth of what you are saying about the intersection of art and commerce is interesting and perhaps an allegory for your years of toil as a screenwriter.”

Using the recent DVD re-releases of Two-Lane Blacktop and Walker as leverage, I assured Rudy that there would be no problem in convincing a distribution entity of the commercial value of the film for wide release in the DVD market.

Wandering Trails and Tributaries

Wurlitzer was suddenly cool to my enthusiastic response about getting Candy Mountain into the right distribution hands.

“I’m touched by your generous gestures toward Candy Mountain and the fact that you stayed up past midnight to watch it,” Wurlitzer wrote. “Right now I think it is best to be somewhat cautious and wait for more focus from the others, because of all their different factions and their shifting and distracted disarrays.”

“On another level for me personally,” the writer observed, “is how much I value your insight into the film, giving me the opportunity to reflect on it once again as I find myself in a kind of transition state, between acts, as it were, sitting on that long bench in front of the Trail’s End Saloon, looking backwards, dazed and somewhat confused by all those drifting tracks in the sand that go into measuring old journeys and by the byways (Who the hell was I in those old days and who am I now?), those kind of ruminations which I hardly ever indulge in, preferring to push on toward the horizon, toward the present, however misty and deluded and cracked my onward engine might be …

It’s all somewhat like the film, which seems, as I think about it, to represent an exhaustion with romantic myths of the road, as well as all those other myths of origin that go into inventing this culture’s deluded brochures – as the song goes, The road ain’t what it used to be … all the wandering trails and tributaries that make up the thru-line of a life and lives lived; at their best, a furious embrace of the present, on the chosen margins that avoid commercial culture. Which is not to say that one isn’t faced with livelihood issues. And so on. Keep the wind in your sails, even if there’s no wind.”

The plan was to write-up Rudy Wurlitzer and The Drop Edge of Yonder in either my September or October column but life, as it has an annoying and redundant tendency to do, got in the way. On 31 August 2008 my terminally ill mother passed away rather unexpectedly (“always a primal event”, Rudy kindly wrote in his condolence note) and I was suddenly catapulted into an unpleasant battle with my mother’s elderly and wealthy sisters for control over her meager estate (“I was spared some of that when my Mom went out at ninety-four,” Rudy wrote, “along with most of her coin, which was considerable, but at least it spared me all the contentious wrestling.” Wurlitzer hails from the Wurlitzer jukebox and organ family empire).

Furious phone calls to lawyers were made, legal aid agencies conscripted, and dispatches by U.S. Mail ominously presaging an epic blood feud flew back and forth between my aunts and me. The trenches were dug for a long, protracted battle with neither side a guaranteed victor. In my jagged past I might have endured the warfare just for the visceral satisfaction – a motive one never wants to reveal to a judge; but something came over me one Sunday afternoon mere hours before an appointment with a probate lawyer — motivated in no small part by Wurlitzer’s interesting low-key reaction to having his Gold Rush era ghost story raped and pillaged by Jim Jarmusch — which caused me to assume a long-view from atop my battle-ready encampment and ask myself if tossing all of that energy and weaponry in that direction, toward the soul-numbing negativity and heated animosity invested in civil litigation, was worth the effort if the same forces could be mustered into a more positive and lucrative venture. The answer, ashamedly, was painfully simple. I placed a call to my legal field commander and cancelled our planned assault.

Something good will eventually come of my decision to invoke what Wurlitzer calls “the action of no action” instead of the easy and bloody path to warfare because the ineluctable workings of karmic law operate that way as the tangled road of The Drop Edge of Yonder, published in April 2008 by Two Dollar Radio, proves.

When Rudy Wurlitzer first began shopping his original screenplay, Zebulon, around Hollywood, the legendary Sam Peckinpah expressed an interest in directing but had no studio deal in place; before he could secure a deal, the boozin’ and brawlin’ Peckinpah succumbed to a fatal heart attack on December 29, 1984. The marvelous Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, Being There) next developed an interest in helming the production but Hal died of complications from liver cancer on December 27, 1988. At one point, Wurlitzer tells me, director (Under Fire) and film editor (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) Roger Spottiswoode planned to mount a U.S.-British-Canadian co-production of Zebulon but those plans soon flew south as well. Later, Wurlitzer almost had financing complete to direct the movie himself in Canada but “couldn’t get it on”. And then there was the whole matter with Jim Jarmusch.

“After a while I just dropped it because the venture started to feel cursed,” Wurlitzer told Arthur magazine. But the novel that emerged from the lineage of directors felled by death and one tempted by the bitter fruits of intellectual property theft, “is sufficiently different,” Wurlitzer believes. “And in a way, the good part of it is after awhile I felt compelled to write my own version to get away from what had essentially been contaminated, not only just by Jim, but by the long journey of the script.”

The end result is a novel that we hope is not the swan song of one of America’s most idiosyncratic novelists and screenwriters, but if the last note from the road must suffice with The Drop Edge of Yonder then it is a fitting conclusion to a stellar career.

The Drop Edge of Yonder

Zebulon Shook is a man “who settled the frontier, fought and lived with Indians and experienced unimaginable hardships.” But by 1850 the world is changing; the once-lucrative fur trade is collapsing, taking with it “the last days of the free trapper, when a mountain man could ride wherever he wanted and perform any sort of mischief that suited him.”

Zebulon’s way of life has been “replaced by sinkhole towns and know-nothing Eastern greenhorns honking the arrival of civilization and the dictates of the Sabbath – none of which, at least for him and his kind, were even remotely possible.”

Author: Rudolph Wurlitzer
Book: Quake
US publication date: 1995-06
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9781852424091
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/w/wurlitzer-quake.jpg
Length: 158

DVD: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Film: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Cast: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson
MPAA rating: R
First date: 1973
Distributor: Warner
US DVD Release Date: 2006-01-10
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/w/wurlitzer-garrettbilly.jpg

There is a Gold Rush booming in California but Zebulon is not gripped by gold fever like the rest of the nation (“Gold is a blessing that provides the fuel that creates transportation and business,” newspaperman and California booster Artemis Stebbins tells Zebulon. “There’s never been anything remotely like it in the world. Thank God that this country is on a gold standard.”). Zebulon is too busy figuring out how to change himself to care about gold ore from the ground. His mind is wandering, his body isn’t what it used to be, and more and more he feels an ominous presence lurking behind him.

It was a grand free for all life that he took for granted, one that he thought never would end … He had just enough presence of mind to sell one of his mules and ride out before he lost it all. Things end, he told himself as he pondered his options.

Zebulon’s plans, loose as they may be, are thrown askew after what can only be described as a tragic and bloody love triangle between the mountain man, a fellow trapper, and his half-Irish, half-Shoshone Indian common-law bride, Not Here Not There. As she slowly dies in lake waters from a hatchet wound in the abdomen, the Indian maiden curses Zebulon to “drift like a blind man between the worlds, not knowing if you’re dead or alive, or if the unseen world exists, or if you’re dreaming. Three times you will disappear to yourself and all that you know.”

Like a newborn child, Zebulon is sent kicking and screaming (and cursed, naturally) into a turbulent, chaotic and violent world on the edge of modern civilization in a desperate quest for personal meaning and relevance.

“The individual survives through his ability to analyze his chances realistically,” director Sam Peckinpah told journalist Garner Simmons in a 1974 article for Velvet Light Trap that explored the intricacies of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, “and then he will make his play as fairly as the circumstances permit.”

Kung Fu and Déjà vu

As in the popular dime novels of the era, The Drop Edge of Yonder could easily have been subtitled “The Three Deaths of Zebulon Shook”. Death, in fact, and all of its strange highways and byways, is one of the central preoccupations in Wurlitzer’s revisionist frontier saga; the story is riddled with characters who are either “haunted by memories and the approaching shadow of death” or by the transitory nature of life: “(Zebulon) was part of it all, a drop of water in the ocean, a crushed wildflower under the heels of an outlaw’s boot, a sun-baked skeleton in the desert.”

Or, as Zebulon’s wild and cantankerous mountain woman mother reduces it for Zebulon and his half-brother Hatchet Jack: “The whole stew is a passing, me and you and all the rest. The goddamn joke is on us, boys.” Wurlitzer has always been a fairly minimalist writer (witness the in media res nature of the brilliant Los Angeles novella Quake which begins, simply enough, with the wholesale destruction of Southern California) but the well-chosen philosophical topic – the fleeting nature of life and the counterintuitive instinct to destroy all that God and man have created – brings out the poet in the novelist:

Outside the hotel, a man was singing a plaintive song about a woman’s soul that no one, not even the lover he was singing to, was able to comprehend. The man’s voice made it seem as if he was drowning or committing suicide inside someone else’s dream.

Zebulon travels to Panchito, New Mexico to sell his pelts, where he hooks up with his half-brother –who tried to drown Zeb in a river when they were boys, a sore memory for the mountain man — and a beautiful Abyssinian courtesan, Delilah, who just might be a witch (“I am the one who hunts for redemption in the darkest night,” says Delilah, “the one who is imprisoned in dreams within dreams. Because I have lost my way, I am hostage to all that floats between the worlds.”). It is in a saloon in Panchito, in a crooked game of seven-card stud, nothing wild, that “the tall, raw-boned man … with matted yellow hair falling over his shoulders” feels the full effect of Not Here Not There’s curse begin to take effect in the form of déjà vu:

As the night wore on and the hands flowed back and forth with no clear winner, he surrendered to a strange sense of relief. It was as if he had been through this before, in the same dimly lit cantina with most of the oil lamps burned out, listening to the same restless chords from a banged-up piano with cracked and missing keys, the same row of moose heads with their eyes shot out, the same low murmur of betting and raising, the same slap of shuffling cards whose numbers and faces had become so bent and rubbed that they were barely visible. He was dimly aware that he might be in trouble because winning and losing no longer seemed to matter, as if the results had already been decided.

So begins Zebulon Shook’s wildly circular path between the material world and the spirit world; in many ways Drop Edge accomplishes what the landmark ‘70s TV series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as a Shaolin monk wandering the American West armed only with his martial arts skills and Buddhist wisdom, attempted to do but rarely succeeded at, blending metaphysics with the random and phantasmagorical realm of history and the human capability for violence.

Let It Go and Don’t Leave a Mess Behind

Setting out for the California gold fields after the incident in Panchito (every journey must have a goal), Zebulon crosses the Equatorial Line in a wild and frightening seafaring adventure reminiscent of Jack London’s superb Nietzschean novel The Sea Wolf; he momentarily considers getting involved in the New Mexico range wars (a sly Wurlitzer nod to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid); almost joins William Walker’s doomed expedition to conquer Nicaragua; succumbs to near-fatal disease in the jungles of Central America; has his deeds exploited and memorialized by a shrewd New York tabloid reporter; joins an inmate revolt aboard a floating prison in the Sacramento River; and always, somewhere in the background, floats fellow wandering soul Delilah because Zebulon’s lost and confused path is inextricably entangled with her own journey. It is with good reason that writer Gary Indiana called The Drop Edge of Yonder “Samuel Beckett with a six-gun and rattlesnakes.”

Although shot through with action-filled adventures worthy of a dime novel or a blood-drenched Peckinpah movie, the central conflict that hooks readers is of a spiritual nature: When is Zebulon Shook going to wake up from his refracted dream state and change his path? Doesn’t he realize that the only true freedom in life is the ability of the individual to alter one’s life path? One of the elemental truths that Zebulon learns to embrace is the letting go of emotional traumas attached to individual memories, as the Mexican shaman Plaxico explains to Zebulon and Hatchet Jack near the book’s conclusion:

Don’t either of you hold on to whatever was said or done, even if it comes from me or that power witch over there, or anyone else. If you’re foolish enough to hold on to what don’t exist, one of you might go up in smoke and the other find himself driftin’ between the worlds, not knowin’ how to shake loose. If someone pushes your head underwater and laughs about it, or you snake a card off the bottom, or you get suckered from behind, let it go. And even if you don’t, let it go anyway.

Plaxico has a simple phrase for this toxic hiccup in human behavior: “Getting stuck in your own fun”, succumbing to grudges and petty insults, prolonging on an individual basis the collective human craving for conflict and destruction. As Delilah tells Zebulon: “Let go whatever comes, good or bad. And when your time is up don’t leave a mess behind.”

In The Drop Edge of Yonder Rudy Wurlitzer strives “to address the reality of death and thus impermanence.”

“Not dealing with that reality is often the cause of intense suffering or living between the worlds, as Zebulon finds himself, in a half-dream world of hungry ghosts and obsessive confusion,” Wurlitzer writes in late September 2008. “Zebulon’s acknowledgement of his own death, taking it on, even embracing it, in a sense relieves some of the root cause and effect of his discursive fear which, in his case, often embraced impulsive violence and thus suffering, etc. An ancient insight, no doubt, and one expressed over and over through the centuries far better than I can manage.”

Wurlitzer manages the task in spectacular fashion, repeatedly underscoring the philosophy that “everything, including nature, is impermanent, and you and I and everyone else are not what we appear to be.”

A small tip for upstart New York publisher Two Dollar Radio: The Drop Edge of Yonder could have tremendous crossover appeal to the same crowd in search of enlightenment that keeps titles like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Tao of Pooh, and Kerouac’s On the Road and The Dharma Bums evergreen and in heavy circulation. Arguably, however, Wurlitzer (who refers to himself as “a beaten-up old scribbler”) frames his guide to awakening around a rousing adventure tale that is far more compelling than any narrative the reluctant guru from Lowell, Massachusetts could have arrived at.

And so we rest our weary steeds at the Trail’s End Saloon where endings, as one of the characters in Drop Edge observes, “are more complex than beginnings, are they not?” I’ll simply conclude with Rudy Wurlitzer’s standard closing salutation: Keep the wind in your sails, even when there’s no wind.

Amen.

Photo (partial) by Lynn Davis

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