Barry Gifford is now more than forty years and forty books into his career, yet still no one seems to know what to do with him. Andrei Codrescu calls him “a great comic realist,” while Pedro Almodóvar likens him to the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Jonathan Lethem describes his style as “William Faulkner by way of B-movie film noir, porn paperbacks, and Sun Records rockabilly,” and also reaches for the Abstract Expressionist artist Philip Guston’s late period. David Lynch, who directed two of Gifford’s screenplays, Lost Highway and Wild at Heart, says that reading him is “like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad,” which is an odd statement, given that things in Gifford’s novels tend to go very, very bad, and quickly too. “Death and destruction,” as one character says, “ain’t never more than a kiss away.”
Gifford’s admirers can’t be faulted for imprecision. He’s a moving target, as omnivorous as he is prolific, having published poetry, novels, story collections, memoirs, biographies of William Saroyan and Jack Kerouac, art criticism, plays, screenplays, a libretto, and nonfiction monographs about horse racing and the Chicago Cubs. Even this kind of classification is inaccurate: his history of the Cubs is really a memoir, his poems read like prose, his prose like poetry.
His most remarkable achievement to date, the Sailor and Lula saga, is equally hard to pin down. It is composed of seven discrete works—Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula, Perdi...