04 April 2016

Review: Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels by Barry Gifford

Trade paperback, 618 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 1990-2009)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2016
Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels
by Barry Gifford

A few years ago now, I read the comic adaption of Perdita Durango, the second novel of the Sailor & Lula series by Barry Gifford, and I was sufficiently intrigued to pick up the books themselves, the first seven of which are collected in this volume. All of them concern, at least peripherally, the relationship between Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune, a couple from North Carolina.

     "Ever'body got a past," said Red.
     "Just some got more future in 'em than others," Buddy said.
Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula (1990)
If anything sums up the "mission statement" of Wild at Heart, it's that. Ostensibly it's a road trip novel. Sailor's just been released from jail for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight two years ago, and he and his girl Lula aim to pick up where they left off, only Lula's mom doesn't approve of Sailor, and sends a private detective to hunt the two of them down as they flee to California... but the couple's money is running out. Wild at Heart is an odd story, mostly consisting of characters telling stories to one another, or to themselves, in short chapters of 2-3 pages. Sailor and Lula both tell each other about their first sexual encounters (neither are very pleasant); the private detective, Johnnie Farragut, is an aspiring writer, and a couple of his attempts are embedded in the narrative; Sailor and Lula tell each other about movies they've seen, books they've read, and music they've heard; and plenty of the people they meet on their travels have their own stories they relate. The "plot" is largely irrelevant; the joy of the book is letting these weird and often dark stories about strangely named people wash over you, but it took me a while to realize this and get into it all.

     "Need funds to research," Romeo said. "Like the $1,925 some fundraiser withdrew without permission this morning from the First National Bank of St. Bernard's Parish on Friscoville Street in Arabi. Science needs money, just like everything else."
     "You tellin' me you're a grave robber or a bank robber? I ain't totally clear."
     Romeo laughed and stuck a fork into his stuffed catfish.
     "Scientists gotta eat, too," he said.
Perdita Durango (1991)
I didn't entirely grok Perdita Durango when I read the 1995 graphic novel adaptation by Bob Callahan and Scott Gillis. I'm still not sure I do. Perdita was a side character in Wild at Heart, an accomplice in a robbery Sailor gets involved in near the end. This story follows her, alongside a crazed scientist/cultist/psychopath named Romeo; they kidnap a young couple to use in a blood sacrifice, and the story follows their cross-country flight, as they talk and have sex. Perdita is an interiority-free enigma, which is clearly the point, but not enough of a point to keep me interested even across 120 pages. Probably the least interesting and most unpleasant of the Sailor & Lula stories, no doubt due to the lack of the stabilizing influences of Sailor and Lula themselves. Some good jokes, though.

     "Ain't it somethin', though, Dal, how it's just one weird thing happens after another?"
     "Stay tuned," said Dal, opening the front door. "I got a powerful hunch there ain't never gonna be a end to it."
Sailor's Holiday (1991)
Sailor's Holiday feels like Gifford regretted the way Wild at Heart ended. Minor spoilers: at the end of Wild at Heart, Sailor is sentenced to ten years in prison for his part in a robbery. The book has an epilogue where he's released, gets to meet his ten-year-old son Pace for the first time, and decides he's better off away from Lula and Pace. Which is an okay, if depressing, ending for a single book, but doesn't really work if you want to write more stories with these characters. Sailor's Holiday feels like it exists to walk back the events of that epilogue. Six months later, Pace gets kidnapped, which causes Sailor to come gallivanting back into their lives in an effort to save him. This is less interesting and colorful than most of the other Sailor & Lula stories, mostly serving to get the characters back into position for more tales about their relationship, I felt.

"The world's an awful cruel place, son. Worst place I ever been."
Sultans of Africa (1991)
It's been about six years since Sailor's Holiday, and the Ripley family lives in New Orleans now, and young Pace has fallen in with a bad crowd, much like his daddy did around the same age. While Lula goes on a trip to see her mother, Sailor has to track down and save Pace without his wife finding out what's going on. As always, the plot is not particularly riveting, but it's not meant to be. There are some fantastic irrelevant details here, especially the brothers Smokey Joe and Lefty Grove Rattler, son of Pie Traynor and Mary Full-of-Grace Rattler, the latter of whom now resides in Miss Napoleon's Paradise for the Lord's Disturbed Daughters. Flimsy but full of fun.

"Death and destruction ain't never more than a kiss away," she said. "Woman shot at the King of Sweden knew that much."
Consuelo's Kiss (1991)
With Consuelo's Kiss, Gifford raises his rambling plots to high art: this was my favorite story in the book other than Wild at Heart, and I really enjoyed each of the following ones, too. Sailor and Lula go on a road trip for Sailor's birthday (it's been a dozen years since Sultans of Africa) to see Elvis's home in Memphis. Meanwhile, Lula's mother is at the bedside of the dying gangster Marcello "Crazy Eyes" Santos, a recurring character in previous books. Meanwhile meanwhile, a sixteen-year-old girl named Consuelo is hitchhiking her way to the college where her lesbian lover goes, but she attracts some undesired attention. Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, Pace now lives in India. Sailor and Lula give Consuelo a brief ride, and later return to help her when she ends up in jail (only they can't): that's about all these tales have to do with one another. But as meditations on different forms of obsessive love, they come together perfectly: we see the best and worst that human emotion has to offer, and not always in the way you might expect. Surprisingly moving at times.

"Lula used to always say the world is wild at heart and weird on top, and sometimes it's tough stayin' out of the way of the weirdness. Kinda like a tornado, you never know where it'll set down or what'll be left in place after it blows through."
Bad Day for the Leopard Man (1992)
Fun fact: despite Sailor's claim here in Bad Day for the Leopard Man, Lula never said such a thing before, though she does think it to herself in Wild at Heart. She only says it aloud in the film version of the first book! Which is appropriate, as one of the many plots of Bad Day for the Leopard Man is a hack film director with artistic aspirations (Pace works for him as a PA) saying he wants to make a movie of Sailor and Lula's story. Meanwhile, Lula gets kidnapped and everyone sits around the phone worrying. This is probably the least effective of the last three Sailor & Lula tales, though I did still enjoy it. Especially the glimpses into the weird mind of the film director, but even moreso the bittersweet, brutal ending, which made me realize how much I'd grown to like these characters.

"I don't think the world is so wild at heart any more, Beany, just weird on top. Probably each generation on its way out thinks what's come after them is missin' a bulb and dimmer for it. Then again, maybe it's just us old folks can't see so good and it hurts us to admit it."
The Imagination of the Heart (2009)
The first six Sailor & Lula novels came out in a three-year period; this one appeared seventeen years later. It's a bittersweet coda, with Lula going on a Sailor-less road trip with friends to see Pace in a post-Katrina New Orleans. (The timeline of these books is fuzzy at best.) Much of the book is made up of Lula's diary entries, which are nearly heart-wrenching, though between them come the usual Gifford weird stories and strange hijinks, some of them quite brutal. I really liked this one, and it sums up the relationship between the two leads perfectly.

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