Is any writer in Austin as revolting and entertaining as Andrew Hilbert?
When he was a boy, Andrew Hilbert asked his grandmother how to write a poem. She said: "Write whatever's inside of you." So Andrew wrote poems about bones, blood, and piss.
Today, there isn't a subject too gross for Hilbert. Whether he's writing about decapitating teenagers in the suburbs of Los Angeles or a house becoming flesh and oozing a cocktail of bodily fluid, Hilbert takes already absurd situations to their grotesque end.
The most recent case in point is his new novella, Bangface and the Gloryhole. In it, Hilbert's antihero is a down-on-his-luck detective tasked to explore glory holes appearing in public restrooms around the city. The glory holes leave "fractal" scars on the men who penetrate them. "They glow in fuchsia and neon orange, too," one client explains to Bangface.
"Are you familiar with glory holes?" He was all whispery like the CIA was watching him or something.
"Speak up," I said because I was not familiar with glory holes and, boy, once he was done explaining to me what they were, I wished I still weren't familiar but what's done is done. Now I know what a glory hole is, a hole in a bathroom stall that folks use to commit anonymous sexual favors for each other.
"I wanted Bangface to do the exact opposite of detective novels," Hilbert explained in an interview. We were sitting on the patio, eating bad pizza in a beautiful Travis Heights mansion that he and his fiancée were house-sitting. Hilbert took a long sip of beer. He looks like an intense Portuguese fisherman pulling the nets full with fish, in anticipation of a storm.
"Bangface is addicted to Topo Chico, not whiskey. His damsel in distress is a gay man. Bangface, being the conservative doofus that he is, has some colorful language, but hopefully readers will finish the story and see that Bangface is not some hateful person, but a person coming to grips with a present he can't change and a past that is always changing, thanks to memory and a government conspiracy."
Andrew Hilbert was born on January 12, 1986, in Artesia, Calif., and grew up in Norwalk and La Palma, where his first published novella, Death Thing, takes place. These small cities, all suburbs of Los Angeles, are integral to Hilbert's persona. His mother was born in Terceira, a small island in the Azores where his maternal grandfather didn't want her and her sisters to grow up, so he brought his family to America. His father's side of the family has been in the U.S. for generations. Hilbert's paternal grandmother, the poet Donna Hilbert, was an inspiration from the beginning. She hung out with Charles Bukowski and introduced Hilbert to the writing of the famous poet, who, in turn, turned him on to such writers as Gerald Locklin, Steve Kowit, Joan Jobe Smith, and Fred Voss.
Hilbert and his father, Andy, are especially close. Hilbert shares everything he writes with him. "[Andrew] will confirm that we tried to raise him in a religious, strict, and humorless way," says Andy. One time they were watching Siskel & Ebert, when the movie Beavis and Butt-head Do America was reviewed. Andy was against letting his family watch such trash. Being confident about his opinion, he told his sons that if the movie received one thumb up, he would take them to see it. The movie received two thumbs up. At that point, Andy agreed to take his sons to see whatever movie they wanted to see, but on one condition: that they listen attentively to an hourlong lecture about how morally reprehensible the movie was.
"He gets his sense of humor not from the movies themselves, but from the righteous monologues that I subjected him to after each one," Andy speculates.
In 2008, Hilbert received a degree in history from Cal State University-Long Beach. Two years later, he moved to San Antonio to work with his uncle. In November 2011, he moved to Austin to be closer to his then-girlfriend, now-fiancée, Nina Barker. For three years, he worked at BookPeople, where he found – as he did throughout Austin – a community that embraced him. In addition to turning out novels, he has since opened Weekly Weird Monthly, where he's published writers such as Sam Treviño and Ebony Stewart, among others.
On July 14, 2015, the Whip In in South Austin had a Bastille Day celebration in which Hilbert was invited to read a story of his choosing. He picked "Flesh House." (Full disclosure: I was the host and organizer of this event, at which I also read some of my own work.)
"Flesh House" is about a house that turns to living human flesh from the inside out. It's slowly trapping its human inhabitants inside as they try to come to terms with their situation. Their relationships are co-dependent, troubled, and toxic. Their house is diseased, dying, made of prematurely aging flesh that somehow still feels sexual and hormonal. Everything they do makes the whole process more painful, bloodier, rash-ravaged, and aggravated with cuts that graduate into pus-filled infections. There's no relief in sight.
Hilbert read the story to a standing-room-only audience that had, as it turns out, just finished dinner. Many talented writers read stories that night, but the only writer that the audience likely remembered was Hilbert. Never have I experienced an audience so revolted and entertained. (The event was memorable enough to earn a "Best of Austin" Critics Pick in 2015 for Best Author Reading.) As gross as Hilbert's stories can be, he has a trump card: He's funny, sometimes to the point that we find ourselves laughing at things we feel we shouldn't laugh at. We're forced to question our own humanity, our own morality. Hilbert makes us ask: To what extent can humor excuse the reprehensible?
When I first read Bangface, I was upset. Then I read it again, and it made me laugh. The book puts a mirror to our faces, revealing what we don't want to see about ourselves. But it does so in a such a way that makes it okay, in the end, to face our darker selves. We can deal with it, because it was funny and spoke some truth, maybe not to power, but at least to perversion. The past is fuzzy, and the future inches forward whether or not we are on the train.
The critics are certainly on board. Dale Bridges, Austin short story writer, summarizes Death Thing this way: "If only Jim Thompson, Kevin Smith, Charles Manson, and a bag of meth could write a novel, it would probably look something like this. Holy crap. I have to go scrub my eyeballs now." Poet Zachary Locklin from California adds: "What's brilliant about [Death Thing] – and I think this is true of a lot of Andrew's work – is that it starts at full-throttle, bat-guano insanity and only gets more and more insane. He doesn't plateau, and he doesn't rest on a funny premise. He looks at a crazy situation and says, 'Okay, what's the logical conclusion of this?'"
At the end of the day, Hilbert lingers on the literary periphery because he eviscerates us with the truth, and makes us laugh at our own ugliness, and endures. How can we resist, after all, concluding scenes that, such as this one, simultaneously repel and invite:
Not even two hours had passed until a series of unpleasant knocks came at my office door. I was sleeping underneath my desk because my old lady wouldn't let me stay home anymore because of technicalities like my name wasn't on the lease and I never paid rent and she didn't love me anymore.
I crawled out from underneath and sat in my chair and put a book in front of my face so that when I said, "Come in," whoever knocked would feel like they were interrupting me pretty awful.
A release party for Bangface and the Gloryhole will be held Sun., April 24, 7pm, at Radio Coffee & Beer, 4204 Manchaca Rd. For more information, visit www.hilbertheckler.blogspot.com.