Wally Rudolph's debut novel, Four Corners, tells the bleak story of Frank Bruce, an addict entering middle age and nearing the end of the road. Roped into a kidnapping scheme concocted by his meth-head best friend, Frank finds himself desperately trying to outrun both a thuggish casino boss and his own brutal history. As he careens through the Southwest in a stolen Riviera, the plot is rendered in vivid, punch-drunk prose, colored by the cold, jaundiced sunlight of late December in the high desert, a land so imbued with harshness that even its snowflakes prick the flesh.
The people who roam this landscape embody its extremes. The kind of damaged goods who drinks bourbon for breakfast and leaves his hopped-up young fiancée alone in a seedy hotel with a loaded gun and an adolescent boy, Frank manages to destroy nearly everything he touches.
“With Frank, especially at the start of the novel, he so wants to be good,” the author explains recently over iced coffee near his Northeast L.A. home. “He needs that so much, to feel grace again and to feel the sunshine on his face. He's a thick stew, Frank. There's a lot of me in him, but there's not much of him in me. I think.”
A lean, kinetic bundle with a penchant for peppering his real-life conversation with character voices, Rudolph is the pen name (and real middle name) of Walter Wong, an actor best known for his recurring role on FX's biker drama Sons of Anarchy.
In Four Corners, Wong found a way to make sense of a dramatic episode in his personal life. “I was in therapy, and the process [of writing] was totally coinciding with me getting sober,” Wong says. “It became intensely important for me to write it the deeper I got into it.”
Growing up in the Dallas suburbs, Wong took his first drink around the age of 10, with his substance abuse escalating alarmingly after his father's death in his junior year of high school. “By ninth grade and 10th grade I'm drunk at school; in 11th grade I'm tripping acid all the time and smoking a lot of pot,” he says. The day he was scheduled to take his SATs, he was smoking crack with a friend in the back of a car.
Somehow, he made it to the College of Santa Fe, studying writing in New Mexico before he traded in higher ed for more drugs. Though he lit out for Chicago and a life in the theater in the mid-'90s, the region left an indelible imprint: its heady mix of epic poverty, majestic vistas, mind-altering solitude and a pace of life so leisurely that “going into Walgreens feels like you're stepping into a time warp.”
“To me, the whole area just feels like a huge chapel,” he says.
Unsurprising, then, that an aching for transcendence vexes his protagonist, a noir-ish Everyman whom Wong wanted to speak with a voice equal parts Lil Wayne and Johnny Cash.
An avowed “language junkie,” Wong is more apt to kick back with a book of verse than narrative fiction, citing as a potent influence Frank Stanford's 15,283-line, book-length poem, “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You,” a work rife with religious under- and overtones.
The list of writers he admires includes poet Anne Sexton and hip-hop artists Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and UGK – any artist attuned to the sound of the words and a lyrical economy. “I'm trying to work inside that space where the music in the language is coinciding with the truth of the characters,” he says.
Wong has made a career of shady characters. Almost every TV or film role the actor has ever taken has ended gruesomely. “I've been blown up. I've been frozen and exploded on Heroes,” he ticks off. “I've been shot a bunch. I just got my arms and legs hacked off courtesy of [Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt] Sutter.”
In tackling criminal types, Wong, 37, believes he's hit his stride.
“I always feel that I'm the best person to play those parts,” he says. “Because you've got to bring the humanity to it, the vulnerability, for it to ring true.”
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