Why the Texas Book Festival decided to loosen its criteria
Almost halfway through Goats, Mark Jude Poirier's first novel, Johanna, a New Age guru in Tucson, meets a man who owns some goats. Goat Man, whose birth name is Stephen Luke Cagliano (though everyone stopped calling him that long ago), takes his goats on treks through deserted Arizona and smokes so much pot it's a wonder marijuana smoke doesn't seep out of his ears. Johanna suspects that Goat Man harbors the wisdom that has been eluding her in her spiritual journey. "May I see your goats?" she asks him. "I mean, may I see your friends? I didn't want to imply that you owned them, like slaves or something."
Mark Jude Poirier and His Misfits
"Of course not," Goat Man tells her. "They own me."
Lance, Frieda, Gigi, and Mr. T are, on the whole, unruly types, and they do tend to demand an inordinate amount of Goat Man's time. Many of the characters in Poirier's fiction -- and it often seems as if he has created as many vividly anthropomorphic animals as human beings -- teeter precariously and hilariously on the margins of respectability. Many of them are hicks who have nowhere to go but down. They belong to one another in subtle and often bizarre ways that they don't always acknowledge. "Let Them Love!" is one of the stories in Poirier's first book, Naked Pueblo: Stories (1999), that is both sardonic and poignant, a little wrenching and redeeming. Like the other stories in the collection, it is set in Tucson, Poirier's hometown, where he grew up as the fifth of 11 children. (He now teaches at Portland State University and will begin a Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship at Paramount Pictures next year.) In "Let Them Love!," Snider is a loyal and responsible adolescent; Elena, his mother, is a sassy, unrepentant soul searching for some sort -- any sort -- of fixity in the new West. She cruises for men and brings along young Snider: "She'd park her car outside each man's place: a trailer, a decaying apartment complex, or the sad, drab government prefab homes that clogged the town." How Snider eventually learns to stop being ashamed of her is typical coming-of-age material, but Poirier is an agile, original writer who propels his characters in such unexpected, delightful ways that "coming of age" isn't at all what the reader expects or, in the end, really gets.
Reviewers responded positively and bemusedly to Naked Pueblo, calling it "sleazed-out," "shatteringly brilliant," "subversive and dangerously woozy," a "whacked-out fever dream." When Goats was published this spring, Poirier had moved on, in The New York Times' approving estimation, to "engaging and unusual." Like Snider, Ellis Whitman is an adult-like teenager in Tucson living with Wendy, his slightly wacky mother, and Goat Man, who lives in the pool house and sometimes does maintenance work around the house, to fill the place of his absentee father. When Ellis heads off to an exclusive boarding school in northern Pennsylvania, he makes the transition with remarkable ease considering that his story is the very reverse of many novels about youth: Ellis already encountered loss of innocence long ago; now he just has to figure out how to live in a place that actually has a purpose in mind for him.
It's obvious why a writer would want to specialize in misfits but Poirier handles loony miscreants with an aplomb and immediacy that demands investigation. "Maybe I always wanted to be more of a misfit," he says, "but I didn't have enough courage to sport that mohawk or earnestly pursue my real interests: gymnastics and salamanders. Okay, well, maybe I grew out of gymnastics and salamanders, but I do feel like I tried really hard to not stand out for the longest time. I tried to dress like everyone, act like everyone, and be like everyone." In fact, he almost went to medical school and only took creative writing classes to get out of having to take more education and literature courses. "Seriously pursuing writing was a big risk for me, but it has made taking other risks a lot easier," he says.
After graduating from Stanford, Poirier happened to meet Larry McMurtry, whose goddaughter had dated one of Poirier's brothers. After Poirier had attended the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, McMurtry invited Poirier to work in Booked Up, his bookstore in Archer City near Witchita Falls, and write. For a year and a half, by day Poirier would be surrounded with books while at night he polished up Naked Pueblo and Goats and wrote most of Unsung Heroes of American Industry, a collection of five stories that will be published next spring. Each story has a different industry as a backdrop: worm farming, alligator farming, beauty pageantry, pornography, type design, chicken and egg processing, and pearl button making.
"Sometimes I can't believe I get to do this for a living," he says. "I sit down at my computer and make up stories, and people give me money for them."
Mark Jude Poirier will read at the After Hours event at Mojo's (2714 Guadalupe), which takes place from 9-11pm on Friday, November 16. He is also on a panel, "Miscreants, Misfits, and Mutants: The Dark Side of Fiction," at 2:15pm on Saturday, November 17, in Capitol Extension Room E2.014 and on the "Texas Writers: The Next Generation" panel on Sunday, November 18, at 1:30pm in Capitol Extension Room E2.016.