Down the Dark Highway
Bradley Denton Talks about Blackburn
Road trip novels carry a certain potency, stories to make you clench the book jacket like the handlebars of a grunting hog and force you to ponder whether or not it's possible to kick-start your Laz-E-Boy with the foot rest lever.
When Jack Kerouac published his travel tome On the Road in 1957, conservative elements rallied against "the Beat Generation" and America divided like a yellow-striped highway median. Sal Paradise's incessant roaming from the Atlantic to the Pacific was unsettling to a society whose sentiment was founded on the premise that applying weed-killer to planted roots was always easier than attacking wind-borne seeds. Seventeen years later, Robert M. Pirsig rolled his dual-wheeled vehicle of spiritual maintenance up to the starting line with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, reviving the issue of drifting lives. Even though the tread on those works couldn't pass the Abraham Lincoln test at this point, the spirit of smooth-paved travel is still logging excellent mileage.
The latest protagonist to navigate the American minefield of political debate is Jimmy Blackburn, the dark avenging angel created by Austin-based writer Bradley Denton for his latest work, Blackburn (Picador, $12 paper). According to Denton, winner of 1991's John W. Campbell Memorial Awards for Science Fiction for Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede, the road trip is a means of escape for his characters. This serves not only to keep the story dynamic but also works as a metaphor for the internal voyage of the protagonist, with Denton noting, "that was a theme in my first three novels. I think [those] books are mainly about people running away... that's why the road trip aspect comes in."
Blackburn chronicles the abusive life of its anti-hero from childhood in the fictional town of Wantoda, Kansas, to his cross-country adventures to the West Coast and back again. It is a dark and disturbing look at a man whose conditioned intolerance for abuse and victimization causes him to react with fierce, lethal violence. Denton distances himself from his protagonist but there are noticeable kinships to the early geography of the book and Denton's own childhood years in Kansas - the author's real-life hometown, Towanda, is a simple anagram of his character's birthplace, Wantoda.
"I grew up in Butler County, east of Wichita, just south of the flood hills; it's a rural area, lot of barns, lot of cattle, lot of auto salvage, things of that nature.... I'm hesitant to claim too much autobiographical influence, but I think it's impossible for fiction not to reflect some sort of autobiographical influence.... I also think it's impossible to keep where you come from out of your work. I'm always going to be a kid from rural Kansas no matter where I go or what I think; you can't escape your childhood."
Denton eventually attended the University of Kansas at Lawrence where he earned a Bachelor's degree in astronomy and a Master's in English. As the idea for Blackburn emerged during his graduate studies, Denton admits that the nature of the character disturbed him intensely. In fact, it took almost a decade to confront the story, an extended incubation period he blames partly on experience.
"Blackburn was a book that haunted me for a long time and that I actually had to write. What happened was when I was at KU I wrote a short story called `The Violent Life and Death of James L. Krantz.' It was a story that got a lot of attention in class and the instructor wrote a note on it saying she thought this was just a piece of a much longer work. When I read that, I got very frightened somehow and I put it away.... Eight years later I went back to it, and realized, yeah, there was a novel here, but at age 22 I wasn't prepared to write that book...."
As intimately violent as Blackburn is, does Denton believe his work could impact his readers in a detrimental way, wondering what a bull's-eye target on Bob Dole's political dartboard might think about his campaign platform?
"Well, as someone who grew up in Kansas, which is Bob Dole's home state, I'd just like to say that Bob Dole can kiss my ass. My responsibility - any artist's responsibility - is to tell the truth to the best of your ability. What I mean by that, at least in terms of fiction, is to create a character and be true to that character. Tell what happens to that person, what that person does, and what happens as a result of that. And you have to trust the reader to glean whatever value is in that."
"I think we live in a violent society and to ignore that is telling a lie. Basically, what I'm doing is taking a character, who is more or less a normal human being but gets pushed in one direction just a little too far and does what I think any one of us could do under those circumstances. I think every human being is capable of horrendous violence.
"My hope in writing the book was that... perhaps at some point people would be sympathizing with him [Blackburn] and even glad that he killed some of these people that he kills. But as they're doing that, I'm hoping that at some point in the book they will come to an event that will make them say, `Wait a minute; I don't feel the same way about this as I did the others.' I've been gratified that I've gotten that reaction from a lot of readers."
A number of elements work together to push Jimmy Blackburn "just a little too far," one of which is a disillusionment with religion and the false prophets connected to it. Denton clearly depicts religion with a certain degree of cynicism (and humor) in Blackburn, but he maintains that faith is a vital part of anyone's life.
"Almost everyone thirsts for some kind of spiritual water... Blackburn finds something at the end of the book that satisfies his thirst, and it's a blasphemous religion when you come right down to it. Yet it satisfies everything he's believed in, which is that actions have consequences and as Morton [another character in the book] says, in his church, commandments are conditional. `Honor thy father and thy mother, if they deserve it. Thou shall not kill, unless the guy's an asshole.'"
The book jacket describes Blackburn as Holden Caulfield with a gun, but Kane from Kung Fu may be a better analogy. Like Kane, Blackburn is on a kind of quest for the truth, except he kills everyone instead of incapacitating them with crafty Shao-Lin moves. He brandishes a Colt Python like a divine crucifix, ridding the earth of those he believes "had it coming." A large part of Blackburn's travels consist of him trying to find the love he never received as a child, a condition resulting from a family system that included an extremely abusive father and an inconsistent mother.
"I think the American family has always been in shitty shape," Denton says. "I think it's only now we're recognizing it. I think, you know, the whole 1950s TV image was always a lie. Not to name names but for lack of a better word - let's call them `Republicans,' - would like you to believe that in the past, American families were pure and pristine... and there was none of this horrible social violence and national malaise that we have now. What you see people reacting to now is hearing the truth. Which is not to say that there haven't always been great families, too."
It is Bradley Denton's clarity of thought and conviction that makes his writing consistently honest. Traces of Kerouac's technique appear throughout, where pessimism and optimism cooperate with one another from page to page in a sort of literary see-saw. He uses this polar recipe more starkly in his second book, the award-winning Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede, a sci-fi romp that has the legendary singer reincarnated and broadcasting from the satellite orbiting Jupiter.
And yet, with all the attention he's received from the book and the current success of Blackburn - it's now being published in seven countries - Denton is still careful about calling himself completely satisfied. He's reached his personal goal of supporting himself by writing full-time, but agrees that the place authors have at the American dinner table today is a less prestigious one than it was 30 years ago.
"One of the things that I find discouraging or at least ironic, is that it seems to me the only time an author of novels gets great public acclaim is when one of those novels is turned into a movie. Who ever heard of Winston Groom before Forrest Gump became a movie? It's a little discouraging to think that you have to succeed in some other medium before you can be recognized in your own medium."
This comment might sound self-effacing considering Buddy Holly has been optioned by a small production company in L.A. Denton admits he's encouraged by the prospect but doesn't spend a lot of time considering the possibilities.
"My feeling is the same feeling that I've had when I've talked to other writers who sold movie rights. If the movie turns out bad, you can stomp up and down and say, `Ah, those bastards; they screwed my baby! They ruined my work!' And if it turns out great you can say, `Well they had such good material to work with.' I, personally, have no ambition to make movies or to write screenplays."
For the 37-year-old who cites Mark Twain as his personal hero, it looks as though America may need a nitro-kick to keep up with his career vehicle. Denton just finished his fourth book, Lunatics, which is set in Austin. He calls it his first adult novel, "not in the sense of adult bookstore," Denton jokes, "But adult in the sense that I think my first three books were rooted in childhood."
So what is Denton's ultimate goal as a writer? Is it something as grandiose as to change the world? He responds to the question with genuine reflection.
"Do I hope to change the world? I think it's foolish to hope to change the world. I think the most you can hope for as a writer is to tell a story that is true, that is moving, and that maybe will affect a few readers the right way." n