by Lars Eighner
St. Martin's Press, $21.95 hard
Long after Grapes of Wrath, long after establishing himself as one of America's greatest storytellers, John Steinbeck took a vacation. At the time, somewhere around 1960, Steinbeck was happily married and highly praised as an author. But that summer, Steinbeck decided to leave his wife and hit the road with a trailer in tow. He chose, as his road companion, a large female poodle named Charley. And from Steinbeck and Charley's journey, came one of America's most beautifully written narratives, Travels With Charley.
Near the end of the Eighties, another writer, Austinite Lars Eighner, found himself on the road, traveling from Austin to Los Angeles and back again, sharing the experience with his dog Lizbeth. And from these "three years on the road and the streets," came Eighner's autobiographical account of those times, Travels With Lizbeth. But where Steinbeck left a happy marriage, literary cocktail parties, and traveled in the luxury of a trailer, Lars was gay and homeless, finding himself searching through the dumpsters for his and Lizbeth's next meal. It was not long after its release that Travels With Lizbeth became "Editor's Choice" of the New York Times Book Review. Eighner's style of writing was described as "grandiloquent and simple, alienating and compelling."
And now it is 1996, and Eighner came back last fall with a new contribution, Pawn to Queen Four. This time, Lars goes under the tag of fiction -- and does he avail himself of the freedom of the genre.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to the Imperial Court of the Jade Chimera and its leader, the six-foot-seven, 300-pound drag queen Agnes. The Court's purpose is to protect the general interests of the gay population. As Agnes explains, "Dogmatist come. Dogmatist go. Some hate blacks and queers. Some hate capitalist and queers. Some hate Jews and queers. Some hate communists and queers. What they all hate, we think, is to be free, to be free like the truly queer."
Their current order of business is Brother Earl, the evangelical leader of Holy Word of God University and Technical Institute located in Osage, Oklahoma. Like his real-life counterparts Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, Brother Earl has certain unethical sexual fetishes. The former radio preacher likes cheap sex with men, something about which he spends a great amount of time and money preaching against.
At one time, the court had pictures, which have since disappeared, depicting Brother Earl and a young stud in lewd, graphic sexual positions. The court now decides to send a youthful, handsome man to retrieve, or, if needed, re-enact those positions -- to get film at whatever cost. And along the way, scandals surface and plots cross.
Eighner is at his best when he is writing about the scenes in a gay bar, the Reservation. This is a slice of the underbelly of life like the "Original Lavender Bluesman," Crumbelly Croissant. The musician is a neighborhood fixture who makes his way down to the Reservation from his room in a "fleabag motel" to play for tips and more than a few scotch and waters. Eighner describes the trip, from room to bar, beautifully -- "He plodded on, past the three-balled pawn shops, past the barred storefronts, past the alarm striped windows of the credit jewelry store. Past the hanging-out guys supporting their boomboxes with hypertrophied arms, the early hookers still yawning and stretching, the old paddy snoozing in his cherrytop, the cluttering of dishes and the smell of burning grease, the barking dog stationed for the night in the gun shop -- Crumbelly walked on."
Lars Eighner is a good, powerful writer, a writer whose reputation was quite possibly over-inflated with his first major work. When Travels With Lizbeth was first published, critics were amazed that a homeless person could compose a work of real literary merit. Pawn to Queen Four may not be up to the high standards of Travels With Lizbeth, but it suggests that, homeless or not, Eighner is emerging as an important literary figure. -- Jeremy Reed