It’s hard to figure out if Rudolph “Rudy” Wurlitzer’s new novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder, is newfangled or old hat, a relic or a revolution. In many ways, it feels like it’s being published 40 years too late. Living large and free in the Wild West, altering one’s consciousness and finding enlightenment outside the confines of the culture, these dreams have passed us all by — haven’t they?
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Literature in the 21st century generally seems more concerned with mapping society than with dropping off the edges of it, in making connections rather than severing them. But the thing about revolutions — as the word implies — is that they don’t just happen once, they happen over and over. Punk rock, for example, might be dead in the historical sense, but every day, kids discover the fevers of creative anarchy and the liberation of DIY. Love songs seem trite until someone figures out how to sing them like you’ve never heard them before. A novel like Drop Edge, with its gorgeously old-fashioned cover, published by the young husband-and-wife owners of Two Dollar Radio, might not take the culture by storm, but there’s a bawdy, lunatic thrill to the tale that still seems somehow radical. It’s the kind of book someone will stick in a back pocket before heading out on the trail into the unknown.
Wurlitzer has always been interested in what he calls “journeys to nowhere.” His 1969 debut novel, Nog, followed the aimless wanderings of a nameless character through a surreal and absurd American landscape. The 1971 cult-classic film Two-Lane Blacktop, written by Wurlitzer (and directed by maverick Monte Hellman), begins with a promising Hollywood premise: Two hot-rod fanatics race their cars cross-country, with their pink slips as the wager. But the plot soon goes sideways and never comes back. In the film’s infamous last shot, “the driver” (played by a laconic James Taylor) is drag-racing his ’55 Chevy when suddenly the sound disappears, the film blackens and cracks, and the image burns into nothingness.
Four novels and dozens of screenplays later, Wurlitzer still hasn’t given up on his peculiar twin obsession with constant movement and never arriving. The Drop Edge of Yonder is a psychedelic Western, a tripped-out blend of Hollywood convention and ecstatic mysticism: poker games in old saloons, shootouts, prison breaks and lynch mobs mingle with healing rituals, midget shamans, vision quests and an underlying emphasis on the Buddhist concepts of death, rebirth and the wheel of suffering. The novel’s main character, Zebulon Shook, is a rugged mountain trapper who wanders out toward San Francisco’s gold rush via the Panama Canal, chases after his Abyssinian whore lover, becomes a notorious outlaw and even dies a few times along the way. As the novel opens, Zebulon is nearly axed to death by a horse thief named Lobo Bill while he’s in flagrante with a half-breed Indian on a tabletop, and from then on, the novel is a deluge of action and movement, a parade of “bad hombres and doins.”
Still, despite all the adventure, love and cholera, the novel feels weirdly static, like an eerie repetitive dream. The man playing the honky-tonk piano in the first saloon is the same man playing in the last one, and when the cards in the poker hand are turned over, the result is always the same: a queen-high straight flush of hearts beating a full house. You feel two myths of freedom colliding: the Western myth of finding freedom somewhere out in “the big empty” of the frontier, and the Eastern belief that enlightenment comes only after divorcing oneself from physical reality and desire. The result is a bawdy, rambunctious, exhilarating book that is simultaneously claustrophobic and stifling. It’s fun to read, but the novel subversively suggests that a true triumph would be to stop reading altogether, to give up on your need for narrative catharsis. In the end, Zebulon goes nowhere, and the last line describes his photograph fading to nothingness, a clear throwback to Blacktop. It’s remarkable how long Wurlitzer has been dedicated to his vision of nothingness and Nirvana, and it’s more remarkable that the idea still packs a kick. Perhaps it’s a story that needs to be told again and again.
In Manhattan over coffee, Wurlitzer talked about his travels, his adventures in Hollywood and his recommended psychedelics.
L.A. WEEKLY: You’re from the Wurlitzer family — why didn’t you go into the music business?
RUDY WURLITZER: Luckily the whole Wurlitzer empire had collapsed, and my father had become a violin and cello dealer. I was the end of the line, and my father never imposed what I should do. He was always curious about how weird I was, and he wanted to see what I would do.