By the age of 20 I wanted to be a novelist of dark bitter books with criminal characters trudging their sins, diseases and poisoned dreams around California’s golden landscape. The writers I idolized, and which I imitated in what would now be embarrassing rip off work that thankfully went unpublished, included Bret Easton Ellis, Charles Bukowski, Henry Rollins, and mostly Hubert Selby Jr. My father, a restaurant owner, Rotary Clubber, and Republican, was a closet supporter of the independent and alternative arts, and an insomniac, often reading till dawn books by Raymond Carver, Jerzy Kosinski, Elmore Leonard, Woody Allen and more. It was in that small shelf by his bed that I discovered “Last Exit to Brooklyn”. I read it over a perspired evening when I was seventeen years old and he had moved out for the last time.
When I graduated from high school, two friends and I went on a surf trip to the remote southern jungle of Costa Rica and got ridiculously shorted on waves and mis-marketed on the all-inclusive surf camp. We surfed on day one then the ocean went flat as a quesadilla and the air turned oppressively hot. Without a vehicle, we bought a carton of cigarettes, drank Imperial beers as if that was something we normally did, and I read. I was bored by “The Virgin Suicides”, felt too low tech for “Shampoo Planet” by Douglas Coupland, got through “Where I’m Calling From” by Carver but felt the distance of my age all the while, then Selby’s “Song of the Silent Snow” with his free form lower case usage and occasional allegiance to proper punctuation cut through me with the speed of Black Flag storytelling, and I reread it in our mosquito infested hut, in between cigarettes on the beach and eating the three meals a day that the camp provided. I wanted to be a short story writer then and there. I attempted to write a few in my journal, the only one worth mentioning starring an older restaurant owner who was a gambler with a suicidal wife and a mistress in Vegas, and who gets locked up at closing by an enemy in his walk in freezer, presumably left for dead. We left Costa Rica early – the youngest of us broke down mentally and we’d discovered we’d been fed horsemeat three meals a day. Plus, I awoke with a black tongue the final two mornings, and fearing a fatal insect bite was causing my rapid deterioration, we arranged our complicated transport home. Turned out it was overdosing on Pepto Bismol.
After Costa Rica I experienced a radical breakout of acne that absolutely floored my selfesteem. I started to feel like one of Selby’s blistered Brooklyn-based creations. My mother got me on Accutane which cured your layers of skin like a leg of prosciutto, requiring monthly blood analysis for the power of the pills. It was an eight month remedy in which I shed skin, partially attended college classes, worked at the pizzeria, and found safety in a bohemian café called Linnea’s in San Luis Obispo, reading special ordered copies of “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Demon”. I filled notebooks with story ideas, journal entries about what my home was like now that my father had left my mom for his own mistress which led into the beginning of a loosely fictional take on my teens, often getting refills of coffee till midnight. I believed that I was a writer. Most of my friends were all about surfing and drinking at parties while I was moonlighting as an awkward, pimpled, literary nightowl.
All those hours and notebooks didn’t completely go to recycling. In 1998 I landed an editor’s position at The Surfing Group, publishers of Surfing Magazine. With the office based in San Clemente and my then bride-to-be and I finishing up a yearlong lease in Morro Bay before moving south, I was crashing at her travelling grandparents’ home in Santa Monica on Sundays through Thursdays, and frequenting institutions like Beyond Baroque and Laemmle movie theaters. I was reworking my first novel in café’s and the kitchen of that old wood-floored house. On one warm August Sunday, I made it to their place with the Sunday edition of the L.A. Times. I brewed coffee and read through the Books section, when I checked the calendar for the week’s events and nearly spat out my sip when I read that Hubert Selby Jr. was reading that afternoon on the 3rd Street Promenade and signing copies of his new book “The Willow Tree”. Started at 2 pm. I was on it.
I dressed as least beachy as I could, drove down Lincoln and parked in a garage near the promenade, with its street performers, high end shoppers and tourists buzzing about. I expected a line coming out of the bookstore, but I was fifteen minutes early and walked right in. A middle aged guy in black framed glasses greeted me from behind the register and said if I had any questions to let him know. Near the new releases was a table filled with dozens of the small format red hardcovers of “The Willow Tree”. I grabbed one immediately and kept browsing my way to the back. The very rear of the bookstore had a separate room that was being set up by two women, with enough folding chairs for fifty or more people. There was a podium and a microphone in the front and a table full of the new books there too. Leading to the entry of the room was a purple roped line for guests to wait in. More minutes went by. I kept looking around the bookstore to see when he was going to appear. Was he already in back? Would he crawl out of the dumpster-filled back alley like one of his inventions? One of the major writers of our time would be appearing in the flesh at any moment. My finger prints had melted into the jacket.
Then it was 2 pm and the store was empty but for me and the three employees. I eyed the front door and finally saw him. Two men, the author himself and what appeared to be his handler who was much taller and dressed in a beige trench coat, walked in. Selby was dressed to present in a button up collared shirt with a sweater over it, and there was something very New York about these guys in appearance and their movements compared to the rest of the promenade. Selby looked around the store and started waving his palm up in question. I was next to the travel section, where they’d pass me right by, but I was staring for sure. I’d never met a famous musician or actor or anything. This was strangely my Beatles moment, somehow. One of the women from the back room came out and shook his hand eagerly. “Mr. Selby, we are so excited you are here. Really. This is going to be great.”
“This?” Selby said. “Where is everybody?”
“Well it’s just two so we expect readers and fans to fill in over the hour so…”
“Yeah but nobody’s here,” he said again.
The guy behind the register rushed over to shake his hand and paint a positive light.
“Hi Mr. Selby. We’ve had a lot of calls today about this so yeah, I think people will fill in.
In the meantime, can we get you anything? Or you sir? Anything? Water, coffee?”
It truly hit me that I was the only one here for this and I’d possibly be getting one on one time with Hubert Selby Jr. and that freaked me out. What did I have to say to him or tell him about? Acne and horsemeat was all I got! And how did I deserve this? This National Book Award Winner, survivor of life, worldwide celebrated author who at the peak of his career was at his book launch event in a major US city with nobody in attendance but me.
“No no. It’s done,” Selby said to them. “We’re outta here.” Then he said to his handler “Joe let’s go. We’re going.”
“Mr. Selby please don’t,” the guy pleaded. “Please stay. We have it all set up and…”
The duo was heading my way now to take off out of the store. I had the copy of The Willow Tree in hand. I could’ve dodged them and said nothing. “Um Mr. Selby?”
Through his large thick square lenses he gave me a startled look. He was upset I could tell.
“Could I get you to sign my copy?”
“No, I’m not signing anything. I’m leaving.”
His friend nudged him then, making him soften a little.
“Okay, but fast.” He pulled out a pen.
“What’s your name?”
“Darren. With an e.”
He was signing so fast that if I was to say anything it’d better be now.
“Your book ‘Song of The Silent Snow’ has influenced my own writing so much. Thank you for writing it.”
He paused then, blinked, then looked at me and said “’Song of the Silent Snow’ did? Really?”
“Thanks kid. Keep writing.” Then they were gone, leaving the three employees in a quiet circle, fully flustered.
I paid for my signed copy at the register, and the guy apologized to me about the event.
I walked out on the promenade toward a coffeeshop, past hundreds of people seemingly happy and spending. My mind was swirling with what had just happened. If my dream was to write books like Hubert Selby Jr., to be like him and devote my entire life to characters and stories, and a no show book event was the culmination of a career, why do it at all? For the craft?
“Keep writing,” he’d said to me.
With a cup of black coffee at a two top table in back, I smiled and dove straight into Selby’s world like it was my own cool band discovery, my own punk rock secret, while Santa Monica was missing out on it all.