Anyone who attended a performance at the Public Theater this fall might recall an odd apparition in the lobby: a tall, lanky fellow peddling newspapers out of a shoulder bag and dolefully intoning, “Wrrrong Guys, get yer Wrong Guys hee-yuh,
one dollar an’ a half, complete Wrong Guys.” Wrong Guys was the name of both a theater piece by Mabou Mines and the novel on which it was based. The hawker in the lobby of the public was the author himself. Jim Strahs belongs to that eternally marginal class of artists peculiar to Manhattan: they used to be called bohemians back when poverty was a joke, but now you see them nursing coffees at the Kiev, hoarding hors d’oeuvres at gallery openings, hustling their work to whoever’ll listen, and meeting mostly with indifference. Strahs
is more talented than most, extremely promising, extremely persevering, extremely…unpublished.
Rather than let his novel sit in a drawer, he wanted to capitalize on the theatrical adaptation, so he and his wife Ellen LeCompte teamed up with
Zone editor Peter Cherches to print the entire text in that magazine’s fall/winter issue.
Zone had previously published a documentation of the Wooster Group’s production
Point Judith, including the play Strahs had custom-written called
Rig (he had been similarly commissioned to write the pilot episode of a radio series called
The Joey Schmerda Story for Mabou Mines’ Bill Raymond). The tabloid edition of
Wrong Guys sold briskly during the run of the play, which ended in early November. Strahs returned to the Public Theater a month later to give a reading from his latest novel,
Queer and Alone.
It may seem strange for a novelist to spend so much time involved with theater. But Strahs learned a lot about occupational flexibility while living the daily drama of a draft dodger during the Vietnam years. After graduating from Tulane, he moved to New York and wound up working for the Department of Welfare for six months until his draft notice arrived. From June 21, 1968, to the day Nixon resigned, Strahs was on the lam, traveling from England to France to Spain to Turkey to India, returning to the States with bleached blond hair and a fake name. He finally settled in Montreal, where he taught English for two years. “It was odd to leave school and enter the national psychosis,” he says. “I was obsessed with Vietnam. Having not gone there, it was all I could think about.”
Some of these adventures are cryptically chronicled in Seed
Journal, which Harper and Row published in 1973. This “Diary of a Mad Draft Dodger” is practically unreadable now. Whatever political urgency it ever possessed lies buried beneath the dribblings of a mind gone frantic with boredom. But knowing something about Strahs’ fugitive past helps in understanding the peculiar energy that
Wrong Guys runs on.
The novel concerns the sinister, violent and pornographic adventures Jack Straw has during his year-long search for Johnny Street, his partner in an outfit wholesaling pharmaceuticals out of a warehouse in Niagara Falls. When their truck overturns on a dangerous curve, Jack goes for help and returns to find Johnny’s disappeared; he turns up a year later, stumbling into Jack’s hotel room half-dead and out of his mind. Certain conventions of detective fiction are clearly recognizable, especially the tough-guy dialogue (“Cough, pancake”); others are stood on their heads. There’s humor in the ineptitude of his antihero and in the way the author purposely interrupts certifiable pornography with deflating realism (“His penis was hard, three inches long”).
But Strahs is after more than a spoof of Spillane. The last third of the book veers off in an enigmatic, semi-allegorical direction. Johnny accounts for his absence in a rambling monologue that mixes druggy, ecstatic poetry with messianic self-absorption. Then he dies in
Jack’s arms from a sniper’s bullet, and the book ends with Jack’s report of his new life, full of ambiguous banalities and gratuitously apocalyptic references. Are Jack and Johnny alter egos? Is
Wrong Guys about schizophrenia? Vietnam? Jack (Johnny-We-Hardly-Knew-Ye) Kennedy? Ruth Maleczech’s staging made enough connections to suggest it’s a fable linking big business, organized crime, and the government.
But this is less clear in the book. The story is told through the first-person voice of
Jack Straw, and Strahs makes him an “unreliable narrator” so you never know when he’s telling the truth and when he’s lying to cover his ignorance, or his ass.
Wrong Guys earned Strahs a CAPS grant, and Mabou Mines optioned it for production in manuscript, but no one would publish it. (One editor, perhaps wishful-thinking he’d unearthed the new Harold Robbins, inquired, “Have you got any more of these?”). So Strahs put it aside and wrote a play with Ellen LeCompte, “a Broadway musical without music,” which was actually in production at the Performing Garage until Richard Schechner returned from a trip to India and scotched it. Two years later, however, Elizabeth LeCompte – Ellen’s sister and the director of the Wooster Group – asked Strahs to sit in on rehearsals and write what would become the
Rig section of Point Judith, a funny and tersely dramatic play about four guys on an oil rig playing cards, fighting, and talking dirty.
“Rig is very much about my relationship with the Performance Group,” he says. He watched improvisations by the actors and gave them the play line by line, page by page, sometimes right out of the typewriter. “None of the scenes I wrote were worked out in
improv, but the energy was. I’d provide vocalization to go over the energy. It was probably like soap opera writing.” Ultimately interwoven with a fragmented excerpt from
Long Day’s Journey into Night and a Ken Kobland film called
By the Sea, Rig is most memorable for its language: scathing, hilarious, with relentless obscenity and sexual invective. The virulent misogyny that runs through the play – and much of Strahs’ other work – comes with the territory, he points out, when you’re writing about male society.
While Wrong Guys remained tangentially related to Strahs’ draft-dodging experience and
Rig reflected a collaborative effort, Queer and Alone
– an old-fashioned though perverted traveling comedy of manners, a la Graham Greene – is his first independent piece of fiction. “As I was publishing
Seed Journal, I suddenly realized there was something called fiction that holds out
the possibility of being more than your personal history. And I opted for it because I realized I could get closer to the truth, the existential fact. I used personal history models as building blocks for writing
Wrong Guys, but the story was fictional. With Queer and
Alone, I took it on a fantasy voyage and created a cast of characters that doesn’t exist.”
The novel’s narrator is Desmond Farquahr, an independently wealthy aesthete on a luxury cruise from Rome to Hong Kong by way of Capetown. The book is not heavy on plot, because Strahs is creating a voice – a character who exists almost exclusively in his inflections, disguising his wisdom in witty, blasé epigrams. Accordingly, Strahs has edited the work by reading it in sections before audiences; he unveiled two chapters at the Public and one at the Performing Garage, and he hopes to read the fifth and final section at St. Mark’s Church this month. It’s in performance that Strahs’ flair for language and his peculiar narrative rhythm come into focus. Reading Desmond, he affects a fey, pseudo-aristocratic enunciation and mumbles into the microphone with a sort of world-weary breathlessness, and the fictional persona instantly springs to life. Irritating as hell, too, which is partly the point; like the “unreliable narrator” of
Wrong Guys, Desmond’s disdainful voice is the screen, the novelistic device through which the story of
Queer and Alone emerges.
It’s not hard to understand the attraction of writing “fantasy voyages.” Strahs has the limbo lifestyle of most of his characters, and fiction is an escape. He’s 38 and lives in a tiny, three-room walkup between Avenue A and B with his wife and their four-year-old daughter. He struggles to maintain as much pride and professionalism as he can muster. But there’s no real market for his brand of nasty humor, and it’s pretty hard to support yourself – let alone a family – providing vocalizations for the energy of starving theater troupes.
A classic example of the pitfalls a promising, unpublished author faces these days was the reading Strahs did with Ellen LeCompte at a bar in November. Asked to inaugurate a reading series and promised 50 bucks apiece, they showed up at this scuzzy midtown place where off-duty Hell’s Angels shoot pool and play the jukebox. They waited patiently while a crude sound system was set up. The woman who hired them wrung her hands, waiting for the hordes of people she expected to arrive; maybe 10 student-types who had seen
Wrong Guys at the Public wandered in. The reading finally began about an hour late. After two rounds, the bar owner put a stop to the proceedings by plugging in the jukebox. “I can only take so much sexist shit,” she announced. To top it off, she stiffed them 10 bucks apiece on the fee. Strahs looked around the bar and all he could see were wrong guys.
Village Voice, January 20, 1982