“I had the idea of an average San Diego guy, with a baseball cap, you know, and flannel shirt and Levi’s and burritos. He watches the Padres, and he’s a bouncer at a topless bar.” John Brizzolara was telling me about Nathaniel York, the central character in his novels Wirecutter and Thunder Moon. “He’s a kind of marginal slob. He’s smart, fast, burned out. He was in the Vietnam War. Very cynical. He really doesn’t give a damn about anybody or anything, except — here’s where you find him — he’s got a streak of sentiment, a streak of humanity, a streak of ‘this is not right, this is wrong, and I’ve got to do something about it.’ He’s the kind of guy that wants to get through life with the least amount of trouble, yet gravitates toward trouble.”
Nathaniel York would probably expect to end his days in a room like John Brizzolara’s. It’s in a clean, attractive residential hotel around the corner from the Little Italy sign. But walking down the hallway of the Villa Caterina doesn’t prepare you for what’s inside: the decor is one Smirnoff bottle away from Contemporary American Skid Row. The bed — a bare mattress with a couple of disheveled blankets — commands most of the space; a laptop computer and TV contend for space against the rubble of a small desk; piles of clothes and papers and empty food cartons obscure the rug, which may be a mercy. Paperback novels, an exception to the disorder, sit tidily on their shelves, a kind of protest against the surrounding chaos.
Brizzolara cleaned off a chair and motioned for me to sit on it. As he reclined on the bed he said, “You be the psychiatrist, I’ll be the patient.” He had had plenty of experience as a patient, judging from the array of medications on the nightstand. On the floor, within easy reach from the bed, were a giant bottle of Beck’s and a tumbler of clear liquid. I hoped it was water. It was 11 o’clock in the morning.
He is a large man, with long black hair and a beard so handsome it made me wonder if I should grow one. Khaki shorts exposed a long scar on his leg, the site where surgeons had extracted a vein for his heart. Dirty white socks covered most of his toes, allowing only two to roam free in open air.
On the bed next to him was a manuscript of Thunder Moon. He started talking about it before I had time to turn on my tape recorder. I had planned to begin with questions about his background — family, hometown, education, literary influences, the usual stuff of interviews — but what mattered to him was the work, the story, the Thing Itself: “Not bad, you know. Better than I thought it was. The pacing, the action, the dialogue. But it is, fundamentally, pulp writing. I’m puzzled by reading this — like, like why was I screwed out of this?”
In Wirecutter, published by Doubleday in 1987, Nathaniel York falls for a topless dancer, a beautiful young woman from Mexico. York’s “streak of sentiment” sends him to Tijuana in search of her missing brother. While there, he stumbles upon a scheme for smuggling migrants across the border, some to become laborers and some to become prey for well-to-do hunters on a North County estate. York manages to destroy this nefarious business, but its chief, Eugene Walters, escapes into an unknown future.
That ending left the door open for a sequel, but Brizzolara’s next project was a comic novel about Italian-Americans. His editors at Doubleday weren’t interested in it. They wanted him to write, instead, another story about Nathaniel York. Brizzolara said, “So I thought, ‘Okay. I’m a novelist. I can do this.’ ”
He was living in Mexico at the time. In 1980, after playing rock music for 15 years — 10 in New York — Brizzolara and his wife and young son had moved to San Diego. They found a fixer-upper in Mission Hills. “Got it cheap,” he said. “Now it’s a nice house, but we refurbished it, redid everything. We called it ‘the edifice complex.’ ” Almost as soon as it was done, they divorced. He had just finished Wirecutter and had had an affair with a woman who accompanied him to Mexico for two weeks. “I was balancing, you know, my wife, my son, the woman I loved — or was enamored with — and I made a choice. I left my marriage. To this day, I don’t know which would have been the better choice or decision. It’s one of those deals, like, no matter what you do, you’re going to regret it. But we’re still good friends.”
To begin his new life, he’d moved to Mexico. He had not only gone through a divorce but, after many months of chemotherapy and radiation, had survived Hodgkin’s disease. He felt liberated: “I was free! I was cured! I had a multiple-book contract! I had this big house, right on the cliffs overlooking the sea — seals and pelicans, you know, dolphins — a really nice Mexican hacienda. I got it pretty cheap. It was surrounded by trailers and surfers — Mexicans, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders. People from all over the world came because that was a particularly cool surf spot. I knew nothing about this world. I grew up in Chicago, and it’s, like, ‘Surf, what?’ But I got to know some of these guys, and they were fascinating. What we’d do is build a fire at night. They tried to teach me how to surf. I wasn’t very good.” As he told me this, he rubbed his shoulders and groaned, “Oh, like Ben-Gay.”
He drew on what he learned for his novel. He had originally titled it K-38-1/2, the exquisitely unimaginative name of the town he was living in, exactly 38 1/2 kilometers from the border. But Doubleday didn’t like the title, thought it sounded like a pistol. “So I came up with a really pulpy title, which I like a lot — Thunder Moon. You know it’s not literature, not Faulkner.”
It may not be literature, but it’s a fast-paced adventure. At the risk of sounding like an old British military officer, it’s a cracking good yarn. It has more twists and turns than a mountain road, and a climax that would please James Bond. Nathaniel York knows Eugene Walters wants to kill him, so he decides to get Walters first. It’s about being chased and chasing, and that’s why Brizzolara said, “Not to pat myself on the shoulder — but I think it’s like Moby-Dick. The white whale in this story would be the big, bad white guy.”
“Really?” I asked. “I thought you were going to say the white whale is death.”
“That’s interesting that you say that. Really, really interesting. There’s a scene I love in here. It came from out of nowhere. I don’t know where it came from. Nathaniel York and a guy named Sufi…”
Before he finished his sentence I said, “I know: they’re talking about death.”
Brizzolara bolted up from the bed and grabbed my leg and said, “It’s a fucking thrill to have somebody read this story!”
“Well, I did read it, and when I got to that part I wondered if it wasn’t what the whole book was about.”
“Yeah, you got it. You nailed it. It’s about death.”
In the scene we were referring to, Nathaniel York is surfing with a character named Sufi. The waves are flat, and they’re just lying on their boards, talking.
[Sufi] waved at a low-flying detachment of the primal-looking birds scooping the shoreline. “So you gotta let go of that. Rather, you’ve got to be ready to let go.”
“You talking about pelicans or death?”
“Yeah,” he answered. Very Sufi-like. And then, “You see, I know something dead men know.” He turned and looked at me levelly. He didn’t seem any crazier than he had a minute ago.
“Some soldiers know it and some cops, old people, sick people, firemen, and doctors…a few other people know it.”
“I give up.”
He whispered, “You ready?”
I nodded, smiling, ready for the big revelation.
Still whispering, he said, “It’s better to be alive than it is to be dead.” We stared at each other for a moment, smiling questioningly at each other, and then he laughed and tumbled off his board into the water.
He climbed back up and splashed some water at me. “Once you know that, there’s only one kind of passion you really got to look out for. Know what it is?”
“Death,” I answered.
“You got it. Perverse, isn’t it?” He started to paddle farther out with strong, even strokes.
That’s the image Brizzolara and I had in our minds. I said, “Running from death. Running to it.”
“And how we each do it. This poor schmuck, you know, has these bad circumstances. I mean, you know, I’ve got heart disease, cancer, all this stuff. We’re all running from it. You’re right, it’s death. The white whale.”
“Nathaniel York is running from it. But in another way, he’s also running toward it. Like in Moby-Dick.”
“Yeah, like Ishmael. In this sense, it’s paradoxical. He’s trying to embrace life on the one hand. On the other, it’s, like, ‘Take me out of here! Give me the worst that can happen!’ ”
Brizzolara looked down at the floor, or maybe the tumbler. I waited until he said, “Ask me some questions.”
“All right. To what extent is Nathaniel York really John Brizzolara?”
“I’m not the tough guy Nathaniel York is, but the thing is, I’m the wise guy. You know, you wake up in the morning and you’re pissed off at your boss and you’re telling him off in the mirror. All the things you wish you could say. York gets to say these things. I don’t, because I live in the real world.”
He paused at this point, as though mentioning the real world had suddenly made him too aware of the one he was living in and the one that was living in him. He reached down for the now-empty tumbler on the floor, hauled himself off the mattress, and took three steps to a little cupboard. He filled the tumbler with vodka, leaving just enough room for a tiny splash of orange juice, the closest thing to nourishment he would get all day.
“This is really a bad time for me,” he said. “The past few months I’ve had bypass surgery, and then I got the flu, and, you know, I’m an alcoholic. The alcohol has really screwed up the medications.”
I had pushed too hard. Nathaniel York is John Brizzolara, and we both knew it. But I had wanted him to say it, to admit it, to make the point for my nice little article. I had opened a not-so-nice wound of self-awareness that he now wanted to medicate with his drug of choice.
I had to pull back, find safer ground. It seemed a good time to bring up his background. “You were raised in Chicago?” I said.
“Yeah. Big Italian family. Eight kids.”
“Where were you in the lineup?”
“Second born. I have an older sister who is a Jehovah’s Witness who considers me a prime candidate for hell. I took off to California and became a rock musician, ending up in New York. Not a very literary background. I always just wanted to eat life, to devour it. And I thought I could do anything, anything. I’m 52 years old right now, and I realize now [he chuckled], ‘You’re an idiot!’ But the thing is, I’m proud of some of the stuff I’ve done. These things you see on the walls? These are illustrations for stories I’ve done.”
“Why did you start writing?”
“My father was a writer. He did some fiction, but mostly he was a writer for Catholic magazines. I’d watch my father smoking his pipe, sitting at his Remington, and he’d pull the page out, and I’d look and I’d read it and I wouldn’t understand a word of it, but I knew it was magic. It was just, like, ‘Wow! This is wonderful! Where does he get all these words?’ Apparently some Freudian thing, you know. That’s what I wanted to do. And my father would always buy me books. Sherlock Holmes, Robert Benchley. I’d love every one of them. And this stuff” — he pointed to his manuscript on the bed — “is a direct descendent of my dad in the drugstore, pulling a book off the rack. ‘Here, read this, read this.’ I admired this guy so tremendously.”
“When you write a novel, do you begin with a scene and see where the story takes you? Or do you begin with the end and find a way to get there?”
“I had no idea where Thunder Moon was going.”
“Earlier in our conversation you said you were screwed out of it by Doubleday. What did you mean?”
“They paid me $10,000 for the book, then decided not to publish it. They had been purchased by Bertelsmann, a big merger, and my editor left and they let a lot of writers go.”
“Did you try to find another publisher?”
“This is when I found out about the nature of publishing. I went to half the other publishers, and the refrain was, ‘What we’re looking for right now is women who are investigating crimes, who have cats, who have psychic powers.’ It was a women’s market. But here’s my ax to grind: women like to read books by male authors!”
Brizzolara took a long swig of vodka. I wanted him to continue what he was saying, but he only stared at his glass. The silence grew, became a kind of third presence in the room, substantial, and demanding its share of the time. So we honored it. Neither of us said anything, not for a long time.
Then Brizzolara looked up and said, “Why go on? Why continue to put words to paper? Nobody cares, nobody likes it, nobody gives a shit.” These questions were not rhetorical; they came from the wound I had opened.
Several responses attempted to get out of my mouth, but I bit my tongue until they retreated. I wanted to hear Brizzolara’s answer, not mine.
Brizzolara seemed willing to let silence take over completely. I was afraid he was going somewhere I couldn’t follow, so I tried to pull him back. “What’s the answer?” I asked. “Why go on?”
“Well, because you have to.” He said this so loudly, so intensely, I thought he might be mad. “I mean, you have to! It’s like a friend of mine — a local writer — says: you either sit in front of that machine [he pointed to the computer] or you go out and do something crazy.”
“It’s all about the great white whale, isn’t it? You’re either running from him or going after him.”
“The great whale. Death. That’s what it is. You leave stories behind. We need stories. If we don’t have stories…”
“We’re in trouble. We go out of our minds. We invent stories.”
“Because our lives are what they are! I’ve got spaghetti in my carpet, and I feel like a schmuck, and my hair is all…I’m uncomfortable. I’m really not.…” His head slumped down and he said quietly, almost in a whisper, “I need stories. Why that is, I have no good answer, but I know it’s necessary. It really is necessary.”
Brizzolara’s speech was slurred and he couldn’t have walked across the room without stumbling, but he was speaking from an inner place of lucidity that vodka hadn’t yet reached.
I asked, “Are stories — any form of art, really — our way of coping with the white whale?”
“Yes. A song, well rendered, or a grandiose painting — these are little hedges against death, the mess, the white whale. John Irving, in The World According to Garp, ends with the line, ‘We’re all terminal cases.’ That’s true. None of us live forever. What do we do with it? What do we fucking do with it? You and I choose to write. I don’t really know why, but somehow I sense it’s a noble pursuit.”
“Are you writing anything now?”
“Yes. It’s about a guy who’s looking for the transcendental in his life, but he doesn’t notice that it’s everywhere.”
After talking for a while about his new story, Brizzolara pointed to my tape recorder and said, “Maybe you should turn that off now.” I didn’t move. “Oh, all right. You get the sense of God, you know, that God does not expect everything to be perfect. He sets these things in motion. But God is as uncertain and nervous and worried as most human beings are. But He has the power to set all this stuff in motion, and He’s responsible, and He knows it.” After another long silence, Brizzolara continued, “He’s going to feel far worse, far worse than any of us when finally His —” he made a motion of everything coming apart.
“John, I’d like to make an observation and get your response to it. Beneath all the adventures in Wirecutter and Thunder Moon, something else seems to be going on. The books seem to be about oblivion — the attraction to it and flight from it. Nathaniel York drowns in alcohol, and he almost courts death by throwing himself into dangerous situations; yet, he also fights heroically to live and save others, and he runs from Walters, the great symbol of death. And now I see John Brizzolara, who seems attracted to oblivion, who embraces it with alcohol and asks, ‘Why go on?’; yet, he also runs from it, fighting against cancer and writing his stories. Do you ever wonder how your story will end?”
“Oh, God,” he said, and I don’t think it was profanity; it came from a place too deep for that. It sounded like primitive prayer.
“I mean, Nathaniel York runs away from Walters — death — and yet at the same time goes straight for him, attempts to chase down the threat, wants to get close enough to kill death itself. Do you think that is what you’re doing?”
“That is so right.” Brizzolara spoke very slowly, as though wanting to apply every bit of lucidity he had left to each word. “Exactamente. I have this, you know, conflict. You have to be creative to write, and that’s my life-affirmation. But on the other hand, I’m running straight toward death. It fascinates me. I want to know what the worst is. What’s the worst it can do to me? And yet, poetry and literature and art and beauty — these things are so important to me. But they seem to be threatened by the Big Nada. It pisses me off. So it encourages me.”
“To do what?”
“To write books.”