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Book Review: Sam D’Allesandro

'A dead lover wants your soul'

Warhol’s scrumptious 1960s bad boy Joe Dallesandro was not amused the day he learned that San Francisco poet/writer Sam D’Allesandro had claimed him as daddy. This was the early ’80s, and Sam was giving a reading in Venice, California to his growing legion of fans. The press release made the masquerade public, and the reading venue got an irate phone call from Joe.

Editor Kevin Killian has gathered together all of D’Allesandro’s stories for the first time under one cover. In his intro, Killian considers Sam’s reasons for taking a pen name that co-opted the working-class appeal of the Dallesandro legend. “Sam… proffered this fake name as if only he and you were in on the joke, as a shortcut to intimacy. Another part of him wanted to be famous, so he could get to meet and know as equals his idols.” That long list of idols included Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Warhol, Jean Genet, James Baldwin, William S Burroughs and Leonard Cohen.

As a writer, D’Allesandro (who died in 1988) made his mark as part of a group literary project called New Narrative. The goal, says Killian, was “to recuperate narrative from the trap of modernism by rearticulating it as a postmodern conceptual art, wise to the precepts of language poetry.”

The po-mo jargon is quickly redeemed by the ensuing fiction. Killian reports that D’Allesandro obsessively revised his work, sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph. The result is a compression and refinement of thought and observation that may force habitually speedy readers to step on the brakes.

Sam’s narrators feel like variations on their probing, hyper-aware author. The emotional power of the stories comes from their candour and intimacy. The first tale moves so quickly from falling in love to final loss that, read too casually or inattentively, it’s over before you can feel the fire of the crucible you’ve been drawn through. On the last of its seven pages, the narrator considers grief (though he never uses the word):

“It’s how I feel him most sharply. Without it, every move I make echoes because he’s not there to absorb me…. A dead lover wants your soul, wants your life, and then your death too. And you give it, it’s the only way to feel anything again. Take the death as a lover and sleep with it and eat it and purge it and suck it back in quick. And finally it’s no event, it’s nothing that happened, it’s just you: an anger and beauty that never really goes away.”

The wild creatures of the book’s title story are both farm animals and the predators that torment them — and by extension the 12-year-old boy and his father who find themselves slogging through an icy river in a rainstorm to save two newborn lambs and their mother. The tale presents family ties and elemental farm life as the defining backdrop for a restless son’s departure — his “wordless leavings” as an “adolescent devil” takes hold of him. “My mother and father are the way I remember them, still patiently waiting out prodigal returns.”

The voice of anecdotal memoir is at its strongest in “My Day With Judy.” The narrator clearly adores his best friend despite, or sometimes because of, her long monologues about the messy pointlessness of existence. They holiday in a desert of shimmering white sand in an attempt to jolt Judy out of her doldrums. Driving naked through searing heat in an old stationwagon, dripping sweat, drinking beer, with Buster (goofy dog) in the back seat, they attain a tenuous happiness.

Some pieces are ultra-short, finely focussed. “Teddy Kennedy,” at a mere half-page, confirmed just about every thought I’ve ever had watching media portrayals of the surviving brother of Bobby and JFK. The man always seemed a sad, hapless shadow of his iconic brothers.

We all recall enduring dead-end conversations with irritating navel-gazers, finally sputtering something along the lines of, “It’s all about you, isn’t it?” Here’s D’Allesandro’s refreshing version of the same utterance: “Listen, not everything I say to you relates only to the fact that it’s being said to you. Some of it relates to me!” Wherever a cliché might have snuck in, this prose wrests extra meaning from the familiar.

D’Allesandro was not much into story arcs or narrative closure. There are no striking climaxes or final redemptions. He focusses on minutely dissecting brief moments and putting rich (sometimes farfetched) conversational confabulations into his narrators’ mouths. It’s all so earnest and probing and forthright that you can forgive the insistence on content over form. Anything called New Narrative, after all, is meant to challenge storytelling expectations. But finally, D’Allesandro’s work is less a challenge than a veiled homage to his idols Genet and Burroughs, from half a century ago.