June 24: “The Ballad of Easy Earl” by Barry Gifford

Good Friday to you, Story366! It was nice to be back in Springfield today, my first day back in over a week, but it’s felt like longer. Being away from home always does, as you have to catch up on your life in chunks. My plants have all gone dry, my lawn needs mowing, there’s a stack of mail to go through, and a million things to do at the office, Moon City and teaching-related. I was able to get a lot of that done today, which I have to admit, gives me supreme satisfaction. My natural tendency is to do nothing, just fall into shambles and cry until someone rescues me. So, paying a bill, opening envelopes, and dumping a cup of water on an aloe plant all seem like major victories.

I also ducked in the local used bookstore, Bookmarx, as I’m always on the lookout for collections. Pretty quickly, I found a few to take home with me. As it turns out, there’s a neat little cupcake shop right next door (The Urban Cup), so me and my youngest ducked in, got a cupcake, and I read from one of my new finds, Night People by Barry Gifford, out from Grove.

I’d never read anything by Barry Gifford before, though I’ve been aware of the name. He is the author of dozens of books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His most famous work is Wild at Heart, one of his novels that features the characters Sailor and Lula, which at one time fetched the interest of David Lynch, who made it into a movie starring Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern. Having seen that movie, read from Night People, and eyed a jacketful of blurbs about Gifford’s work, I would describe his style as “hard-boiled,” as there’s plenty of questionable, colorful characters, in precarious situations, living in very romantic worlds, underbellies of American civilizations. That would be my blurb for Gifford, though no one’s asked for one, as he has plenty.

Night People is only a story collection, by the way, if you blur some definitions. At Bookmarx today, I thumbed through its pages, none of the usual indicators of what type of book it was on the cover, no A Novel or Stories. That thumb-through told me it was stories, as there were a bunch of title pages with different titles on them, the headers revealing the same. When I sat down at the cupcakery to read, though, it appeared to be so much more. What Night People is, it turns out, is a book of four related novellas, all told in flash. That’s probably a first for me, a book comprised of novellas-in-flash, all related to each other. A person with all the time in the world and less than 170 blog posts left to write this year would have disqualified the book from the Story366 project, but let’s face it: I was ready to read, this was the book I had, and novellas-in-flash are mostly short stories, right? Onward.

To be fair, or lazy—not sure which—I picked the shortest of the novellas, The Ballad of Easy Earl, or “The Ballad of Easy Early,” depending on whether you’re supposed to italicize novella titles or put them in quotation marks (I really don’t know). In any case, it weighs in at a brisk thirty pages, but it’s still made up of eight mini-parts, which could be called chapters as much as they could be considered flash selections—they couldn’t really stand alone, so maybe they are indeed mini-chapters. “The Ballad of Easy Earl” (I’m going with quotes, as that’s more story-like) is about Earl, a guy who goes into a New Orleans joint, Alfonzo’s Mexicali Club, for a drink. Earl is definitely easy, as he pays a kid outside to watch his Mercury Monarch, orders the same exotic potion (Crown Royal and milk), and knows the bartender’s name. Earl is set up as a cool cat, ready for whatever the night brings him. We also find out his special lady friend has just left him, taking her four kids with her, after having an abortion and regretting it. Earl appears to be out to forget about all this, and the Mexicali Club seems like the ideal locale.

Things unravel quickly for the cool Earl, however, when a pimp tries to bring one of his working ladies into the club for a shift and that bartender that’s so fond of Earl isn’t having it. Words are exchanged, a fight ensues, a .38 revolver appears from behind the bar. Earl is just a bystander, but when the gun is lost in the tussle, Early makes the biggest mistake of his life (self-admitted): He picks up the gun.

From there, we cut forward and Earl is in his Monarch, speeding away, the gun in his passenger seat, one cop shot in the gut, the other dead on the club’s floor. How did the cops get there? Why did Earl shoot them? What happened to the pimp? Gifford doesn’t tell us any of this, opting instead for the cut, Earl suddenly on the run. And that’s what the rest of the novella is, Earl on the run from the law, because, as Earl hears on the radio, the cops are liking him for the cop killing, which means he’s in big shit, whether he actually pulled the trigger or not.

Gifford’s strengths are many. This fast-pace piece of plot that I describe above happens in the first chapter, which is only four pages long, meaning Gifford can get right down to it. The author also has a flare for the unexpected, as there’s more cuts like the one taking us from the fight to Earl speeding away. Earl tracks down his lady, Rita, in one scene and relays the story of a childhood pal, Willie Wong, in another. Those characters, those settings, are just gone then, making their mark on “The Ballad of Easy Earl” overall, forming Early, but not necessarily changing his course. Gifford’s also good at names, as Rita’s is actually Rita Hayworth Rapides, and has sisters named Lana Turner Rapides and Pocahontas Rapides; Rita’s four kids—none of whom are Earl’s—are named Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Colorado. There’s also this easy diction, colloquialisms scattered throughout, giving a real ear for the Louisiana voice. All this makes the stories fast-paced, interesting, and unique, not what I usually read, not for Story366, not for anything.

Earl eventually has to get out of town, out of the state, and he believes Florida to be the best destination (of course he does). First, he’s got to get there. After a series of evasive maneuvers—many of which are actually pretty smart—Earl finds himself on a backroads bus to the Sunshine State. Does Earl get away? Does he meet anyone on the bus? Or does destiny catch up with him? You’ll have to read Barry Gifford’s “The Ballad of Easy Earl” for yourself. I enjoyed it, though, as it ends as oddly and quickly and as unexpectedly as it starts, as it is on every page.

Barry Gifford

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