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The Divine Child

After obsessing for weeks on TV coverage of EliÁn González, West Hollywood X-rated and documentary filmmaker Phil Tarley made a pilgrimage to Miami to see where America’s favorite castaway was held during much of the brutal custody tug of war that followed his rescue at sea. Outside the surprisingly tiny stucco house, Tarley found a treasure-trove of folk art attesting to the passions that brought thousands of weeping, chanting strangers together in what the filmmaker calls a modern-day cult of the Divine Child.

“Every day, throngs of believers had come, waiting for a visitation from El Elián,” Tarley wrote in an account of his travels. “He was the one, rescued by the Virgin and sent by God. For as sure as Christ will rise, Castro will fall — and Cuba will be theirs again.”

The painting above shows the little Cuban refugee afloat in a tire held up by dolphins; both his mother, Elizabeth, who died in their desperate ocean crossing, and the Holy Virgin gaze from the canvas at the child. Tarley’s other finds included a broken and bloodied doll (that’s Elián) pegged to a cross; a bearded man in a noose with his tongue sticking out of his mouth (Fidel); and numerous photographs of Donato, the condo-cleaner-turned-“fisherman” who rescued Elián, and whom Tarley calls the “Kato Kaelin” of the Elián affair.

Although the TV cameras are gone (as is Elián, who was forcibly reunited by federal agents with his father), the veneration continues. New shrines pop up each week as fresh pilgrims stream in to pay their respects, Tarley said.

“I can see Elián being sainted,” he added.

“And what has happened to his little puppy, and to the rabbit? Will they also be for sale on eBay, along with the other Elián memorabilia?” Tarley wrote in his travel diary. “Elián, I miss you . . . Please, send us a sign.”

COFFEE-SHOP COMEDY CIRCUIT

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Brody Stevens coos to an attractive blond. “You do now,” he says, then looks defiantly at the 30-plus crowd on hand for the one-year anniversary of the Last Laughs Before the 101 comedy showcase. “I get chicks people!” he screams.

Moments later, Conan Kilborn saunters up to the makeshift podium at the back of the Hollywood Hills Coffee Shop on Franklin Avenue and begins to stew over the pending birth of his child. “My wife is pregnant, and we have decided not to find out the sex,” he states matter-of-factly, then shrugs. “I didn’t find out till I was 13. Why deprive the kid of that type of insecurity?”

Swaggering up next is a sure-footed, blond surfer-looking dude named Greg Behrendt, who raves about his lack of confidence and his secret longings for Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. “They are so good, when I eat them I laugh.” Wayne Federman hates car-pool lanes. “The car-pool lane is immoral because it discriminates against the lonely,” he says. The Sklar Bros., who are identical twins, rehash their recent road trip and favorite bumper sticker: “Fat People Are Harder To Kidnap.”

The night is waning when a clean-cut, bespectacled comedian named Bob Oschack comes on. Noticing a video camera taping his every move, Oschack pulls his striped golf shirt out of his pants and looks sheepishly at the audience, then to his cut abs. “Entertain yourselves, people,” he says, admiring his biceps. As odors of ketchup, eggs and salsa waft over the tables, the small crowd still remaining in the coffee shop cheers.

Though the talent is sometimes more Foster Brooks than Chris Rock, Last Laughs Before the 101 has become one of the top showcases in L.A. for standup comedy (the name comes from the coffee shop’s location, just before the Franklin Avenue onramp to the 101 Hollywood Freeway). As venues such as the Comedy Store and Laugh Factory restrict themselves more and more to established talent, coffee shops, bars, restaurants and even laundromats by default are becoming the training grounds for the next generation of Jim Carreys and Ellen DeGenereses.

“The future of comedy is at these coffee shops,” says Oschack, whose credits include the Oprah Winfrey and Martin Short shows. “There is a generation of performers who are cutting their teeth in smaller rooms, and they will one day be on TV. Before, if you wanted to see topnotch talent you would go to the Comedy Store.” But now, it’s the Coffee Shop, O’Brien’s Irish Pub in Santa Monica, the Gypsy Cafe in Westwood and Sonoma Blue coffeehouse in Studio City.

The competition is hardly cutthroat. Oschack says he and his fellow comedians move in a group from gig to gig together, cheering each other on. Sometimes, they spend a whole night standing around a club, waiting in vain for a last-minute hole to open up in late-night lineups.

“We spend half our time in line waiting to go onstage. It can be tough, but when stage time is as rare as it is, you have to make do,” says Oschack, who works as a computer programmer during the day. “We are just trying to survive in the trenches together.”

Although Oschack performs three to four nights a week, there is no real money on the L.A. coffee-shop comedy circuit, he says. Last year, he made less than $1,000 from his appearances. But he isn’t complaining. Instead, he recounts his experiences fondly, especially an unpaid performance at a local youth hostel. “If you can entertain someone in their living room, then you can definitely entertain someone drunk in a club,” he laughs. “It makes you a sharper performer.”

—Christine Pelisek

GRAFTING A NOVEL

In these days of high-concept book publishing, Oprah’s TV endorsements launch authors to the top of the best-seller list, and everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to MTV has a publishing tie-in. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that one author is willing to give a pound of flesh to distinguish himself from the pack. Or, in Canadian writer Kenneth J. Harvey’s case, at least a few millimeters of his own meat.

Harvey’s 11th book, Skin Hound (There Are No Words), a literary thriller about a serial killer who skins his victims, is due out in early September from the Mercury Press in Toronto. Prior to the debut, the Newfoundland author is grafting bits of his skin onto swatches of paper for a limited number of promotional covers. Well, OffBeat believes in putting yourself into your art, but this takes the “blood, sweat and tears” precept a tad literally.

We ran it by Kerry Slattery, manager of our favorite literary hangout, Skylight Books. Slattery feels the publicity stunt is “strange,” but indicative of a trend in book marketing. “A lot more attention and money is being paid to [the cover] than ever before,” she says. “They feel they have to grab people while they can.”

Harvey is a well-regarded author (Jane Hamilton of the Vancouver Sun called him “a powerful writer” whose prose sparkles with “evocative imagery”). He says the idea for the flesh cover surfaced when his wife, an artist, began making hand-painted patches of pink paper for the special-edition covers (they will be distributed at a booksellers’ convention in June). “We realized, when she sewed it on, that it looked like skin. I said, ‘Why don’t I put my own DNA in it?’ It made sense. It tied into the concept of the book.” So Harvey mixed scrapings from his arm, as well as tiny pieces of solid skin, into the pulp used to make the paper, and his wife stitched it onto the jacket with red thread (“It looks like stitches on skin,” he says).

The idea has a metaphorical tie to the book’s content, which weaves excerpts of the author’s own, real-life dreams and journal entries with the main characters’ fictional ones. Harvey feels this approach humanizes the killer. “In order to create a monster, you have to make it human first,” he says. “The most memorable villains have a tender side.” Grafting his skin onto the cover of the book was simply the next step. “It was a natural evolution from the concept of the book, which is about identity,” he explains. “In the book, you have journals, which are a part of me. Now, when you carry this thing around, you’ll be carrying around another part of me too.”

The gimmick has generated so much publicity, Mercury is trying to devise an equivalent design — without skinning the author — for the planned 5,000 book run.

While Skin Hound isn’t available in the States, Harvey says it’s making the rounds with U.S. publishers. Should he get an American book deal, Slattery feels, “People will pay attention, this I’m sure. But it doesn’t mean they’ll buy it. The book has to be good.”

—Deborah Picker

Edited by Gale Holland


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