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

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
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

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.


Photo (partial) by Lynn Davis