What Duff Brenna Knows

Duff Brenna’s novels include The Book of Mamie, Too Cool, The Altar of the Body, The Law of Falling Bodies, and The Willow Man. Honors for his work include the AWP Best Novel Award, Favorite Book of the Year Award from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, a Pushcart Honorable Mention, Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, inclusion on the New York Times Noteworthy list, and an NEA fellowship.


October 1, 2010

Duff Brenna’s novels include The Book of Mamie, Too Cool, The Altar of the Body, The Law of Falling Bodies, and The Willow Man. Honors for his work include the AWP Best Novel Award, Favorite Book of the Year Award from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, a Pushcart Honorable Mention, Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, inclusion on the New York Times Noteworthy list, and an NEA fellowship. His stories, poems and essays have appeared in AGNI, The Nebraska Review, New Letters, Cream City Review, and many more journals and magazines. The Bloomsbury Review calls him "an American treasure," and his work has been translated into six languages.

Duff is currently Professor Emeritus of English literature and creative writing at California State University, San Marcos; a freelance writer; and the founding editor of Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts. He was also, I should mention for full disclosure, the editor for my own novel and is now a friend.

The occasion for this interview, as if there needed to be one, is the long-awaited re-release of Duff’s novel The Holy Book of the Beard (New American Press, 2010).

The New York Times called The Holy Book of the Beard, on first publication, “A moving meditation on the dissipation of youth and our raw need for intimacy and love…. Loaded with all the ingredients of an underground classic…it is nearly impossible to put down.”

The novel bears passing similarities to Finnegans Wake and to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, but you’ll also see aspects of Steinbeck, Twain, Bukowski, the Marx brothers, and the Mitchell brothers. In the end this novel is so utterly itself that it has its own gravitational field.


Welcome, Duff. Let me get to it: This book is a rollicking farce, a picaresque that stays put, a slander on American culture, and a meditation on purpose.

Farce, slander, meditation. I like that.

This book is a Rabelaisian vulgarity, an apostasy, a double-stacked Ferris wheel in a carnival midway at midnight. Yet it dares to offer genuine emotion by portraying tenderness, compassion, and the contents of the dark closets of love as clearly as it does an armed robbery in an alleyway.

Where would vulgar comedy be without good ole Francois and his larger than life Gargantua urging us to “Drink, drink, drink!” And Pantagruel saying the same thing as he searches for “The Holy Bottle.” Rabelais taught me that being outlandish could be a way to leaven your narrative with the spirit of comedy, while at the same time being realistic and serious.

I mean, this book is a death-by-chocolate-cake with coxcomb filling, frosted with buttercream and gunpowder.

Where were you when I was writing this thing? “Death-by-chocolate-cake with coxcomb filling, frosted with buttercream and gunpowder.” I would have stolen all that and put it in the mouth of Henry Hank.

Would you like to summarize the plot of your own book?

Twenty-three-year-old Jasper John has come to San Diego on his broken-down Harley to put a hell-raising and felonious adolescence behind him. He attends college part-time, but his involvement with the employees and regulars at the diner where he works forms his real education. Meet the bearded, devilish Henry Hank, pimp, thief, badass, who is always trying to tempt Jasper into shady, often illegal schemes. Along the way there’s death, a good many brawls, and lots of confusion about sex—all as Jasper tries to figure out what it means to be a man and find love in a world that seems to be spinning out of control.

Somebody sitting around a picnic table once suggested that you, the writer of this novel, are to be found in the characters of young felonious Jasper John and older but just as hell-raising adjunct professor Godot. Once we head down that dusty road, I start hearing you in the fine voice of Fat Stanley, an artist (opera singer) with his only venue the diner he himself owns. How much of yourself is written into these people?

Some philosopher said that nothing is real except what is inside our own heads. How does that “reality” get there? One way or another we experience it, whether it’s an actual physical experience or a vicarious experience, something from a book, perhaps, an anecdote, an article, a movie, television. Point being, I’ve experienced all of my characters one way or another. I infuse parts of my young life into Jasper. Godot is the work of my middle age, my experiences teaching at a university and my imagination, of course. Godot is almost totally based on the premise that God has fallen to earth and lost all of his magical powers. Such was the notion guiding me throughout the writing of my Holy Book. Fat Stanley became the moral center of the book because I needed a moral center. I needed a good man to add counterweight to all the devilish behavior of the Hank and others.

What was your experience publishing with the big New York houses?

It was good while it lasted. I’m basically a pessimist, but I did think for a while that I was on my way to becoming a writer who could do that rare thing: live off his writing. It seemed like it was going to happen. And then it didn’t. Neither Doubleday nor Picador got behind my novels, not even Too Cool with its to-die-for reviews. Not even beautiful Nan Talese herself could persuade her boss at Doubleday to get behind the book, advertise it, make a fuss over it. Still, it sold fairly well before they let it go out of print. What can I say? I’ll never understand anything. I’ll never understand the so-called Big Houses. So many of them buy books and then turn their backs on them. Thousands and thousands of authors across this country will identify with what I’m saying.

The good news is, however, that there are independent presses like New American Press, Wordcraft of Oregon [my own publisher, --Churm], Dzanc, Black Lawrence, Hopewell and others stepping in, taking up the slack. Which reminds me of John Edgar Wideman turning his back on the major publishers and self-publishing Briefs with Lulu. Wideman self-publishing? It seems crazy, impossible. But it’s true. In large part this is what publishing in America has come to: If you’re a celebrity with a juicy story to tell, or maybe not even juicy at all, so long as your name is big enough (scandalous, salacious topics add flavor along with big bucks) publishers will cast aside a thousand needy mid-listers to give you the advance you want. Long live the little guys, the independents. Most of them are still interested in the quality of the storytelling. They are in some sense an author’s safety net.

And there’s a book publishing arm of Serving House? What are your plans for it?

That division is run by Walter Cummins and Thomas E. Kennedy at Serving House Books. They’ve got an impressive list of authors already.

Back to Holy Book of the Beard: Up to two-thirds of the way through, I saw this as imminently filmable. But there is an inevitable turn in the book so true and dark that it might take a cinema like nothing before, as your Godot says, to get it on the screen. The problems of filming it would be different ones, but again I think of Confederacy of Dunces, which still hasn’t been made, despite abortive attempts, and Will Ferrell, who was on deck to star, calling the failure “a mystery.” Has anyone ever optioned Holy Book? If not, why not, do you think?

The Book of Mamie and Too Cool were optioned right away and are still under option after all these years. But never a word on Holy Book. I don’t have a clue. Maybe because parts of it flirt (literally) with pornography?

One of the pleasures of this novel is how inevitable you make it seem. There’s a motorcycle accident that’s a consequence of a bad clutch, perfectly foreshadowed twice, combined with the characters being true to themselves at that particular moment in the book. When or how did you get to the accident and its cause? At what point in the drafting? Was it a surprise when you found it, or did you plot it out?

I rarely plot anything. I write intuitively, always hoping my characters will come to life and start dictating their own behavior. I didn’t know why I had the Harley slipping its clutch, until later when the slipping causes an accident. At that point it all felt inevitable. The way things came together, plotlines, people, was almost spooky. Isn’t that what Norman Mailer called fiction, The Spooky Art? Writers understand that line of thinking, I’m sure.

The book was first published in 1996. You seem prescient in the character of Godot, an “untenured,” he says, professor, who turns out to be an adjunct in Religious Studies, let go for trouble that starts with students bridling at his presentation of religion. There have been similar (but opposite) cases as America tries on a Great Reawakening, and the use of adjunct labor of all kinds has soared. Do you ever feel that fiction, when it’s using its own process well, sees the future?

I was an adjunct for 15 years before finally getting a tenure track job. Over the course of those years I watched while adjuncts became the default switch for colleges everywhere. The part-timer has no power, comes cheap, rarely makes trouble. He or she is the migrant kneeling in the strawberry field. But to your question: It’s the writer’s job to read omnivorously in all genres (fiction, philosophy, history, poetry, etcetera etcicero) and remember always that history repeats itself. If you steep yourself in the themes that are common motifs of the human past—from Gilgamesh to Sophocles to Dante to Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Metaphysicals, Milton, Pope, Austin, Melville, Twain, Dickinson, Whitman, Faulkner and on and on right through The Great Depression and the giant egos that tried their best to make political reforms fail—you’ll be someone who grasps the overall picture pretty well. Nothing human will surprise you. And yes, using such a process may make you somewhat clairvoyant. Or at the very least, someone who is never easily shocked by all the chicanery, deception, pure fraud, corruption and self-serving deceitfulness overwhelming our society. ALL societies.

One of the least sympathetic character in the book, it seems to me, in a book filled with criminals, drunks, troublemakers, pornographers, and more, is a young woman named Didi Godunov, an ambitious poet without talent, empathy, or conscience. She was going to be a gymnast, but her body filled out and wouldn’t cooperate, and she thinks that was “heartbreaking until she found she was a poet.” You’ve written some (very bad) confessional poetry for her, and written her as predatory, tricking Jasper, through sex and flattery, into an engagement so she can sponge off him and be the genius she (so falsely) feels herself to be.

Is this directed outward at the talentless? Is it a self-loathing swipe at all those who write, when “writing doesn’t do anything,” as some claim? Is it at the Philistines in American society, as Nabokov defined them?: “[F]ull-grown person[s] whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.”

Bless her mercenary heart. Didi is like many of us. She wants it all. Fame, fortune, admiration, love in all its forms. She has an ego that supports her ambitions. When it comes to getting what she wants, a conscience would prove a liability. She knows that success overrides everything. Successful artists are forgiven their sins. Failure breeds contempt. She doesn’t have the self-reflective insight to see how mediocre she is. Thus she’ll go through life expecting to write a breakthrough book that will lift her out of the ordinary ranks of the second-rate majority. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and other women made their marks, so why not Didi Godunov? Well, we know it’s because she’s not good enough and never well be. Ninety-nine percent of poets are Didi Godunovs-in-waiting. Modestly talented dreamers who eventually become bitter and burned out.

It’s striking—and very moving—how your characters fool themselves. For instance, Mary Quick feels a second heart attack coming and wills her own death (“Let it be,” she says, in an echo of the Beatles singing to Mother Mary), even while furiously digging for nitro meds in her purse. Fat Stanley believes he’ll get back to the England of his childhood but can never do that, even if he moves back to England. And late in the book, when Jasper is furious about people giving up, rolling over, Fat Stanley says, “Uh-huh, you want actors. You want…illusions.” How consciously is your work about necessary illusion?

Very consciously. I’m not telling anyone anything new, but if it weren’t for our illusions, I’m not sure we could get up in the morning or go out the door, go to work, go through the motions. The reality of life is a fearsome thing, a monster. We just can’t face it without a buffer, so we project our creations of reality onto the world, letting our minds interpret what we see in a way that makes it somehow tolerable. Now and then the throat-tearing terror breaks through (death of a loved one, cancer, battlefield chaos, a sentence of six months to live, etc), but as soon as possible we jettison the unbearable and hide behind the illusion again. Nature’s gift to us, I’m convinced.

Your character Henry Hank has an enormous personality. (Like New York, he’s so nice he’s named twice.) He’s a kind of Mike Fink character, claiming to be the sort of half-alligator, half-man, who has fought Floyd Patterson, been the “second-most decorated soldier in history” (confusing army and Marines along the way), and given “General Dwight D. MacArthur himself lessons in hand-to-hand combat and showed him how to outflank the maneuvers of the yellow peril.” He says he is “muy ugly, muy macho, muy lovable, muy mysterious, and the last of a dying breed that tamed the old west. ‘Those are my references,’ he says, ‘what’s yours?’”

Do you see him as a particularly American type?

Type of big BS’r, yes. Maybe he saw too many John Wayne movies, too many war movies, where heroes charged machine guns and lobbed grenades. Certainly he didn’t inherit the modesty and stoicism that mark what we call America’s Greatest Generation. He’s the loudmouth we’ve all met, the one who has done it all. And in the Hank’s case much of what he says he’s done is probably true. When he talks about his criminal past, Jasper totally believes him and so do I. Henry Hank comes as a composite. I met a wild and scary ex-con on my first trip to San Diego when I was 18. I coupled him with one of my mighty-man stepfathers who couldn’t seem to open his mouth without a lie leaping out. Braggers, I grew up around them and was even a bit of a bragger myself for while. After you hit 50 or so, most of the bragging has been filtered out of you one way or another.

Hank is also the Trickster, Groucho Marx, or Bugs Bunny, again, a very American character, it seems to me. There’s a scene I can’t stop laughing about, where, frustrated in his desire to cause other problems, Hank makes a scene at a mail box, pretending his infant has dropped through the slot and crying out for help. When a man comes by with a little lapdog and shows concern, Hank distracts him then scoops up his dog and drops it swiftly into the box for real. The man wails and calls the dog’s name, Filbert. Soon a huge crowd has gathered, wondering who will save Baby Filbert.

“Cars slow down, stop; there is a traffic jam. The crowd grows and grows. Jasper hears one man in the back tell the person next to him that there is a chopped-up infant in the mail box and the killer is its mother. She jumped on the bus and got away.” The crowd fistfights and clamors. Police, fire, and paramedics are on the way, the whole city “hellbent to rescue the little whozit nooked in a mail box.” The Hank, having caused it all, drives off with Jasper in satisfaction. “These is good people,” he says. “Fine Americans.”

Anything you can say on the necessity of people you’ve known to act this way, what role they serve, and their eventual ends?

That scene with the dog in the mailbox was pure invention, a gift from the Muse. I needed something that would establish Henry’s ability to create chaos whenever he wanted to, wherever he goes. The potential chaos in Henry is always right there a millimeter below the surface ready to burst out. I tried to suggest that potential every time he appeared.

A word on the title. There’s a lot of full, bushy beards here, and of course the imagery is extended to pubic hair (“from her beard to mine”), the devil (but also a monk’s cowl), and the abstract notion of being wild, free, and primal. Are you a fan of Hair, the musical, Duff? And what are the baldheaded to do?

Not a fan of the musical. Being baldheaded is in now, so I’m not worrying so much about losing my own hair. Which is thinning on top. But the beard thing: I pulled that from a guy I knew, a college professor, who grew a beard and changed his life. This was back in the ‘70s when beards were Hippie. The beard the professor grew was thick and wavy and dark. It emphasized his rather startlingly beautiful blue eyes. Women were (or at least seemed) mesmerized by him. He divorced his wife. Took up with a coed. Then another and another. Every semester he would seduce a new favorite. I thought about him when I wrote the book. Meditated on the notion that a beautiful beard was (or might be) a mask to hide behind, a mask like an actor’s makeup or persona on stage that would allow you to become the person you thought you wanted to be and shed the old boring person you used to be. The natural extension applied itself to beards of all types, whether on a man’s face or a woman’s pudendum. The connections came together and took on some aspects of humanity’s “holiness” or “wholeness” or “hole-ness.” The spirituality of it all, the goodness, the evil. Maybe it doesn’t make much sense now, but at the time, it was a sort of insight that helped guide the book towards wherever it was going.

I’ve been trying to write an essay for months, titled “On Wild Dumbasses.” Several of your characters would make my list (“…wild as wolves, man, wild as wolves!” Henry Hank says). Fairly late in the book, Hank says, “Youse can sit round waitin for life to come knockin, or youse can go grab it and yank it through the door. Now what youse think is my philosophics? Let me put it this way. The Hank has lived by one rule: If it feels good, it is good, and fuck any motherfucker who says pain is gain and your reward comes after youse die.”

Accordingly, when the opportunity arises to get involved in making a porn film (grotesquely and hilariously based on Romeo and Juliet), the Hank goes for it so wholeheartedly that he sounds like some junk mortgage venture capitalist: “Making the movie is just the first step. From there they will branch out, they will diversify. They will incorporate. They will gobble up the weak. They will sell off the sick. They will create pandemonium in the stock market and build an empire with ill-gotten gains in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Does Jasper understand Henry’s philosophics?"

Have you pinpointed the connection in American culture between our insistence on the idea of freedom and our uncaring greed?

As you know, we don’t have a thing on the Romans. A greedy species. As long as I’ve got mine, to hell with you. Make your own. Or die, weakling. Nothing at all new in what the Hank is saying. The last ten years have shown us what the insistence on MY FREEDOM, FUCK YOURS, can do to a country. Old story played over and over for as long as conscious beings such as ourselves have been parasitically ruining this suffering earth. It’s what will do us in, ultimately, this inability to curb our personal freedoms for the good of others. Not that people don’t sacrifice. Many, many do. But not enough of them. And certainly not enough of those who have all the money and power. For them freedom is like giving meth to an addict. Freedom is a drug, not a responsibility. Don’t you dare regulate anything. Don’t you dare make what I’m doing unlawful. They’re using all the power at their command and the stupidity of our own people to get their way again.

Exploring this subject is obviously not good for the psyche, hmm?

Mary Mythwish, the vociferous conservative student who brings down Godot’s career, says, “It’s your own fault. Listen to you, listen to what you’ve been saying all semester. You hate God’s country, you hate its religion, and you’re trying to make us hate it too. We’re not going to let you. God bless America. Jesus bless us.” A very complex presentation of character, even in satire. She’s unlikable, shrill, humorless, unthinking, yet she’s not wrong in saying Godot helps create a situation that causes his own downfall, almost in a classical sense of tragedy. Comment on her?

Turn on the TV. She’s there many times over. The spirit of Sarah Palin infusing the desperately fearful, the appallingly ignorant, the corrosively confused, the True Believers Eric Hoffer warned us about, the political and religious fanatics who create mass movements. Mythwish and her ilk fit right in.

In fact most of the characters feel ambivalently toward academe, on the one hand admiring “the educated” but on the other saying, “Can’t stand them Ph.D.s,” and, “There are no real people in academia.” When Godot finally self-destructs (I’m talking about the time before he attempts auto-Bobbittry), he rants in a way that is both brilliant and mad, a kind of adjunct Lear. How do you, a writer who’s taught Shakespeare in lit classes, feel about liberal education in America? What might a writer bring to the classroom that a scholar cannot?

Without at least a modicum of liberalism, we become appendages of our computers, our machines, the corporations. It is the liberal attitude that made us human in the most humane and ideal sense of the word. The liberal agenda created the great social programs, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and encouraged tolerance and freedom of speech, civil rights and education for all and moderation in all things, those very old Greek ideals that we give lip-service to. But liberalism is a two-edged sword. The heart of its weakness has to do with wanting too strongly to believe in the essential goodness of the human heart. Yes, there are millions of good people around the world, but there are just as many millions who are evil, who are sociopaths to whom the liberals are “food for powder” as Falstaff says in Henry IV. Teaching Shakespeare for so many years taught me a lot of things, but above all else is the understanding that we are infinitely complex, angels and devils on our shoulders, self-interested to the nth degree. Shakespeare was neither a liberal nor the latest stripe of a right-winging conservative. Shakespeare was the old type of conservative, the middle-roader, large and liberal in his understanding of human nature and in his knowing that what you say means very little or maybe nothing much at all; it’s what you do that defines you. You are what you do, Shakespeare says constantly.

As to what a writer might bring to a classroom that a scholar wouldn’t: Maybe nothing. It all depends. As a writer, I’m interested in the words more than anything else. I never teach theory. Theory bores me to death. I teach some history of Shakespeare’s times and try to link it to our own times, this whirlwind world and our whirlwind country. But mainly I teach what is on the page. I teach interpretation. What is the man saying? What are the character’s “philosophics”? What do the themes and the psychology mean to us today? Let’s unpack those lines. Let’s explain them in light of our own experiences. Is Shakespeare even relevant? Sure he is. There really isn’t anything new we can add to the psychology of human behavior that wasn’t first revealed in his plays and sonnets.

Holy Book of the Beard is incredibly clear-sighted, even when the characters move through life in their own limiting clouds. I was re-reading the section of Helga’s death by cancer and kept hoping I’d be permitted to look away. You don’t permit it. I’m wondering how necessary you feel this is; is it tonic against sentimentality or frivolousness?

Hard to escape the bottom line. One way or another nasty things catch up with us and we are forced to face them no matter what. I think one of the greatest gifts literature gives us is the gift of preparing us for the iceman coming. Through literature we live countless lives. Vicariously, of course, but the experiences we witness let us know that we are not alone, not the only one suffering, not the only one baffled and full of wonder and unloved and unfulfilled and unprepared for illness and death, so on and so forth. Helga faces her approaching death with as much courage and dignity as she can muster. I see her as an example of how to behave when disaster overtakes us. I would hope to be a Helga if what she is going through were happening to me. I’ve seen a lot of death and none of those living the process went kicking and screaming. All of them, my mother, my stepfather, two of my uncles, died out of this world courageously, even graciously.

“Life is ninety-nine percent the mallet,” Fat Stanley thinks. Yet soon he’s shown “fat as a pig, frisky as a colt, and blessedly alive,” gently stroking a woman’s cheek dented by a beating from her ex-husband. Elsewhere he sings at a wake: “No one whispers to another, no one moves. He is on stage. He is at the Met.” For a moment he feels transcendence beyond even his disappointed ambitions as an opera singer, “and he understands the pull of religion and he wants to be religious, and for the duration of ‘Ave Maria’ he is.” There’s hope?

The hope is found in the moment and living it to the hilt. Yeah, ninety-nine percent the mallet, but just one percent of happiness, contentment, job-well-done, love realized makes it all worthwhile. That tiny one percent allows you to handle the mallet, I’m convinced.

Like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Holy Book of the Beard saves some horrors for us to experience before its end, which provide late exposition for what we’ve come to believe. They’re not silly horror-film horrors, but things that make us understand what we are and are not capable of doing. Then, like a boat that rights itself on its keel after being capsized, the story returns to its former tone, albeit with new complexity. How the hell’d you do that, Duff?

Oh those endings! During the writing of Holy Book, I fretted over its ending. And really I didn’t need to. When the dust settled and I had to imagine the final scenes, they came to me as if I had known all along what they would be. Basically, I believe it was knowing my characters so well, living with them for months, even dreaming about them, letting them dominate my life and never-never missing a day of writing about them—what I’m saying is the intimacy I had with those people led me to the final period put in just the right place, I believe. That righting of the keel stays true to their personalities. It follows the dictates of the last chapter, “Tender Mercies,” and the ad that Jasper puts in the newspaper:

Sensitive, down-to-earth young man looking for love and longtime relationship… If you’ve asked the questions raw and sown your wild oats and are tired of guessing who’s who and are ready for a mate who believes that one is known by action not words, and that the point of life is life itself, and the hope of life is to find something of value worth struggling for, write J.J. in care of Adam and Eve Possibilities. All races, creeds, colors will be considered.

The themes embedded in Jasper’s letter made the rest of the chapter pretty much fall on the page.

Many thanks, Duff.


Buy Holy Book of the Beard here.


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