All the Wayward
A confidently insecure Brian Pera publishes his first novel, 'Troublemaker.'
By Ashley Fantz
JULY 31, 2000: This is Earl.
His back is slightly bowed, his mouth full and pouty and feminine. His ribs are stacked like scaffolding underneath a thin cotton T-shirt. He could have been an extra in a Fellini movie -- his eyes hiding equal parts cunning, desire, and innocence. Fingers as long as his stride, Earl shuffles from place to place until he's nowhere. The ultimate nomad archetype, he leaves home after his crazy father drinks himself to death and his mother slams a screen door in his face for loving boys. From Arkansas to Omaha, Colorado Springs, Memphis, and New York City, Earl keeps moving like Finn and Caulfield, chasing what he imagines home feels like to a body.
He faces his mother:
Just to bug her, or cause I come all that way for nothing and now what, I stood there, not a budge -- stared her down. Her eyes skirted every which way over the windowpane, without she'd look me in the face. The more she done it the harder I stared. How we get to this place's what I's thinking. It was all in my head but not put together.
Earl is so many things extracted from the places he's been, but he is definitely not his creator, Memphis novelist Brian Pera. The 31-year-old writer is going through the muck and drudge and joys of publishing a first novel and most interviewers want to turn Troublemaker -- a story about a gay, male, drug-addicted hustler -- into a memoir.
"Everyone wants to know who that is, 'Is that you?'" he says, his eyes behind a pair of thick, horn-rimmed glasses studying Midtown Memphis traffic. "If I'm writing about black kids, do I have to say I'm black? That's the hook, the way that books are sold now. Make the author a persona with a catchy identity. I don't want to sell me; I want to sell my writing. But that's the Jerry Springer thing -- our lust for the sordid, [our] hangups about celebrity."
For his sake and this article's sake, Pera is not sexy or enigmatic, nor has he ever canoodled with anyone to the reporter's knowledge. He is not having lunch with the reporter after which an Event has been planned, giving the reporter the opportunity to make contrived revelations about Pera's actions or remarks. But if he were a tree, he says, he would be an oak because it drops all its leaves in one big dump when you least expect it.
Pera half-expected never to drop Troublemaker. He spent five years on the manuscript, wondering if he would ever feel satisfied with every paragraph. By the time he approached his 30th birthday, he did the usual panic dance of people who have not accomplished at least one lifetime ambition. The usual options paraded their easy fare in front of him -- graduate school, going back to waiting tables, journalism.
Pera sent Troublemaker to a few agents who, to say the least, weren't willing to take a chance on a brothel-set manuscript that would likely not appeal to Oprah's herd of sentimentalists. Some complained about the book's language, a veritable stew of mix-matched colloquialisms punctuated with I's and on-account-a's. Pera had worked for months crafting just the right speech pattern for Earl using three slang dictionaries and taped phone conversations.
"Earl is a product of rootlessness," explains Pera. "I didn't want to give him a solid identity as defined through a regional way of speaking. Grammar is boring; people don't talk like that."
One reviewer just didn't get it and classified Earl as retarded. Another agent deemed the book "juvenile fiction" with an "upbeat but dark" story line that probably wouldn't sell well.
Eventually the manuscript found its way onto the desk of someone important at St. Martin's Press. This was mostly to the credit of writers to whom Pera had sent excerpts, hoping for their endorsement. Troublemaker is dedicated to novelist Dennis Cooper, who initiated the back-patting and the introductions.
But the book sold on its own merits, thanks to what Pera considered his "insane level of confidence and insecurity."
"You have no assurance that it will ever be published, but you have to accept that there is no such thing as perfection either," he says. "There was no final version of this book that wasn't imperfect."
Troublemaker does have a resolution, though it's not a traditional one. The chapters are not written chronologically and rely heavily on Earl's spotty memory. If this is the confidence part of Pera's fiction M.O., he might deserve a Pulitzer just for experimenting. And as often as major publishing houses profess to endorse the radical, the ground-breaking, they will also plug a story with a gay protagonist as gay fiction, thus narrowing the universality of the novel's plot.
"A book should not be geared toward any community," says Pera. "The big thing about Earl is that he doesn't find acceptance anywhere. He would be rejected in a gay bar, too."
It's understandable that the writer flipped when St. Martin's sent him a copy of the book's first edition: a photograph of a buff Gap model kneeling beside railroad tracks.
Pera ended up having to pay St. Martin's $1,000 to change the cover -- money that would have been spent on Troublemaker's book tour. The author is paying for his own small West Coast reading tour, but not before he gives a reading at Burke's Book Store Thursday evening. But overall, that's pocket change for publishing a first novel that wasn't compromised in style or subject.
"The book deals with a character who is supposed to be stupid but usually shows an intelligence unrivaled by anyone else he comes into contact with," says Pera. "I hoped that he'd keep frustrating expectations, including those of the reader, because while we romanticize the so-called wayward innocent, he's not ultimately often very innocent at all, and there's not much romance in his situation."
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