Tim Barrus is an oxymoron inside a paradox inside an enigma on steroids. Nasdijj was only a fluke, coming to success when Esquire bought Tim’s seminal story about a Navajo father and son while Barrus was practically unconscious, fighting fungal pneumonia from Hurricane George. The hurricane also destroyed his home and wiped out a tall-masted sailing ship and its lesbian crew, all of whom he dearly loved because he had sailed with them when he won a lesbian story writing contest. (He is a shape-shifter.) Time on the crew had been the prize. They had been a little surprised when he showed up to collect, but soon laughed and pulled him aboard, being classy dames not hung up on ego stuff. From the prednisone necessary to keep him breathing, he developed avascular necrosis -- bone death. The Esquire short story led to a book contract. His hips collapsed in the midst of publicity for “Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams.” Some of his readings were from a wheel-chair.
The PEN Award for “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” came while he was recovering from double hip replacement. Navajo, the dog in the book, became a trained helper dog. Tim wrote the third Nasdijj book, “Geronimo’s Bones” while still on the morphine and fentanyl necessary for the operation. He nearly died kicking the drugs, surviving because of Tina, his second wife. They had met in San Francisco, married there in 1993, and taught on the Navajo reservation, as well as in Taos.
A New York professor. who specializes in hanging out with low class folks and sharing his insights. had written a rave review of “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping.” But lots of people knew Tim Barrus was Nasdijj and had known it all along. This professor was chagrined at his misfire and helped a student of his to write the infamous “Navahoax” article in the LA Weekly. (NOT the LA Times.) Sherman Alexie, who had expected to get that PEN Award, helped. Not one Navajo said anything. The truth is that the controversy -- far more than the books -- hurt them, including some who were doing important scholars’ work about gender/culture issues. Lars Eighner, dumpster diver, was quick to come aboard the attack because he was still angry that Tim had rejected one of his articles when Tim was editing gay mags. (Tim was also the editor of Knights’ Press.)
Admiring of the Nasdijj books in spite of the controversy, I recognized James Mackay, who had been on Native American lit bulletin boards I also frequented in the late Nineties. Mackay, operating as “VizJim” because he was an admirer of Gerald Vizenor, had wormed his way into being the editor of the entire Native American lit section of Wikipedia. He used this to legitimate a correspondence course Ph.D. by citing himself when writing a thesis in which he damned Barrus as well as Ruth Hill (whom I have known personally for decades through my fifty year connection to the Blackfeet), and a couple of others. Wikipedia hangs on to the idea that Barrus cannot even be listed by his real name. Pressure from gays forced Barrus’ early novels to be added.
I’m a former English teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister. I am not afraid of the printed word. Therefore I ordered, read and reviewed all of Tim’s “porn” novels on my blog. They are mostly love stories between an older male and a younger male and barely qualify as erotica these days. They moved me -- even more now that I know where they came from in Tim’s life.
What I didn’t know at first was the impact on his family of the original “unmasking” and then my reviews. Far from being a “white middle-class suburban” conventional family, these people have been struggling with violence, madness, suicide and economic hardship mixed with times of prosperity that would dislocate anyone. They have the usual magic belief that secrecy will make troubles go away. While Tim was recovering from his hip surgery, his father died. More recently his mother died. That gives him a little more freedom. His daughter teaches overseas. He does not want to explore all this.
I called the writer of the second Esquire “follow-up” article on Barrus. He kindly talked to me, confessing that Barrus just overwhelmed him. Painfully thin and anxious, Tim had cleared the house for what he had hoped would be a persuasive transparency. It didn’t work. In fact, showing the writer the family photos of his adopted son who had to be returned to institutional care (but was never disowned) backfired by sending the journalism hounds in pursuit of the boy, badly frightening him. (He’s adult now.)
This hoax about hoaxes shut off any prospects of Tim’s future publishing as well as shutting off his alternative vocation, which had always been the education of disadvantaged, handicapped and troubled boys. (His wife is an autism expert, which is how they met.) For a while he couldn’t figure out what to do. Two things came together: a gay artist friend died, leaving him enough money to start an art school for “at risk” boys -- meaning at the very least HIV/AIDS infected and at most victims of sex slave trafficking -- and a demonstration in Paris about homelessness put him in contact with some boy whores and a quiet network of people who helped children.
The result was “Cinematheque:” maybe thirty boys in their teens working in a loft and traveling all over the planet on projects. They are dancers, painters, writers, but especially videographers. Always wired, unless they can find a wireless hotspot, they trust Tim because to them he is the baddest of the bad, he’s been there, he knows all about it, and he earns their trust by closely monitoring their meds and nursing them through their drug withdrawals and suicide attempts. He calls on his experience with Fritz Perls to jolt them back into life. He cooks lunch and buys shoes and sits with them in the hospital, holding their hands. Then he “orbitlogs” about it. (A blog with vids.) They also post.
Since 2007 when Barrus picked up on a comment I made on a blog, we’ve been exchanging emails daily. Finally he asked me to be his “co-writer,” which he had done with others before. He is an intuitive writer coming from his unconscious -- revision results in a new piece, just as intense but different. I solved the mercurial Tim problem by simply writing around his posts, surrounding them with contexts. The result is “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs,” a circulating manuscript. The window is actually a wall of photos over Tim’s desk: pictures of all the boys, past and present.
Both the virtue and the difficulty of this genre -- or whatever it is -- is in the contrast between the two of us. I’m in a tiny village next to the Blackfeet reservation that they can’t picture, and though they’ve read everything all along, they find me baffling. I find them seductive, enchanting, and tragic. I’ve tried to explain why I don’t find them sexually attractive, which they think is kind of insulting.
Tim’s modus operandi is always confrontation. A worse problem is that he and the boys feel that they are kept safe only by secrecy and the appearance of being dangerous. There’s truth to that. Barrus preserves their anonymity by changing facts, mixing real boys with imaginary ones, and moving all the time. By now the older ones are also able to be protective. When Tim’s shoulders finally collapsed last winter and had to be replaced, they were able to operate the group without him, which had been Tim’s goal all along.
Somehow the world’s cultures find it easy to abuse, discard, and oppress boys, which explains how some men turn out very badly. War, excessive wealth, the breakdown of families, intense emphasis on sex, availability of prohibited drugs in the face of unavailability of pharmaceutical drugs -- are all obvious factors. But we know that social action doesn’t happen without compelling stories. “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs” is that narrative, tracing the story of Cinematheque over a year. At its heart is truth. Backing that is friendship.