Saturday, January 06, 2018


As a toddler Bill McMullen was sitting next to his grandmother in their wagon when the team of horses began a runaway and jerked the reins out of his grandmother’s hands.  Acting quickly, she rolled the boy up in a blanket so his arms would stay at his sides, and dropped him over the front of the wagon, so that it would pass above him but no wheel would crush his limbs.  As the team broke free and the wagon came apart, she jumped to safety.  

This story is the way I choose to interpret events a year or so ago when Tim Barrus threw me under the bus at the end of a decade-long relationship writing together.  Sometimes “under the bus” is the safest place to be.  Our culture is on a runaway, a juggernaut that destroys the vulnerable.  It used to be that Tim Barrus was called a hoax, but what can that mean when the US presidency, college educations, and governmental safety nets for American citizens have all turned out to be cruel hoaxes.  Cinematheque and the Smash Street Boys have jumped into the darkness.  Their HIV clinic is attended by armed guards looking for illegal immigrants.  The pain meds are ruled illegal.  Other funding has disappeared.  I haven’t had contact for a long time.  Now that I’m under the bus, I can talk about some things.

In the meantime a new book has been added to the hoax literature, “Bunk:  The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News,” by Kevin Young  

Quoting the above review:  "'Bunk' is a brief against what Young calls 'cultural Alzheimer's': we quickly erase hoaxes once exposed, excising the monstrous palimpsest, because as with any witch hunt or obvious fake, afterward we can't quite explain why we ever believed the outrageous thing in the first place.  The resulting de-hoaxing leads to outrage.  For the hoax reminds us, uncomfortably, that the stories we tell don't just express the society of the self, they construct it."

Lethem’s  review is as enthusiastic about Young as the NYTimes review of “The Blood Runs Like a River Through my Dreams” by “Nasdijj,” the nom de plume used by Tim Barrus when he sold a short story to Esquire magazine, using first person to tell a story about a Navajo father and son and claiming the fictional man's name for himself.

A publisher/scout who specialized in controversy and racial provocation; who had engaged Alice Randall, the revisionist African-American author of “The Wind Done Gone”, and been hauled into court over it; who was the agent of Sherman Alexie in his young and reckless days, spotted the Barrus short story and believed it could be expanded into a book.  What this developer didn’t know was that Barrus was white, flat on his back in a Florida hospital, barely alive and facing a lifetime of racking pain from avascular necrosis (bone death) triggered by the meds necessary to keep him breathing during a bout of pneumonia that would recur again and again because that’s one consequence of HIV.  Barrus needed a double hip replacement and he was offered enough money — in those days as an advance — to pay for them.  Otherwise, he would be in a wheelchair for life.

Newly realizing what HIV meant in those days, not quite past the holocaust stage, he was in a special program for HIV patients when the editor caught up with him.  Barrus was in no shape to be writing a book.  Luckily, he had always written and written, sending out stories as every free-lancer does, using pseudonyms as writers have always done.  He had a trunk full of stories.  “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” is a collection from the trunk.  One specifically written for the editor was an attack on his father, who had abused him nearly to the point of death throughout his childhood.  It was an exaggeration of true things, which the editor pushed hard to make more vivid — this was his editing philosophy: extremes sell.  Many essays were from Barrus’ life on the Navajo rez while his wife taught there, but he didn’t pretend to be Navajo except for using the name Nasdijj, which he had used before several times.  Contracts, checks, passports and airplane tickets all used his real name.

The editor, evidently not registering the HIV or the clearly Scots/Irish appearance of Barrus, took the manuscript to Sherman Alexie, hoping for a blurb praising it.  Sherman told the editor the author was not NA and recommended it not be published.  He had not yet claimed that it was plagiarized, an idea that was debunked by a special panel convened by Poets and Writers after comparing works.

I first read the second book of the “Nasdijj” trilogy, “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” which really was an expansion of that fateful short story.  Journalists intent on exposing the “truth” went searching for the real “Tommy Nothing Fancy” but only found one of them.  Over time there were several individual dying boys but usually there was a group of boys whom he taught to help each other, among other survival skills.  Barrus’ most propelling inner truth was the abuse from his father, whom he loved and idolized in spite of everything.  In this sequence of boys he loved (not sexually) and tried to save from death, he was trying to show his own father what a father ought to be like.

Former English teacher that I am, I ransacked the used book online stores for Barrus books and read them all, even “Mineshaft.”  (Eeeuuugggh.)  Then I read books by Jack Fritscher, for whom Barrus had edited Drummer, a magazine celebrating men described in stories that Barrus called “Leather Lit,” meant to break up the stereotype of Nancy-boys, limp-wristed and effete.  Motorcycles were at the heart of Leather Lit, one step away from Hell’s Angels.  Barrus edited “Some Dance to Remember”, a novel by Fritscher and was much influenced by Fritscher’s academic and religious background. 

Geoff Mains, who had a doctoral degree in biochemistry, was the most eloquent spokesperson for this concept.  I’ve gone back to“Urban Aboriginals” repeatedly when thinking about addiction, serotonin, and the mixture of pain and pleasure.  While the editor at Knights Press, Barrus managed to get a finished copy of Geoff Mains’ 1989 novel, “Gentle Warriors”, into Geoff’s hands just before he died of AIDS.  (Barrus’ assistant was in the next room, also near death from AIDS.)  

Knights Press published two of Barrus' own books, “Genocide” which is another anthology, the book Barrus thought was his best.  The other was “Anywhere, Anywhere” which has been presented off-Broadway as a play.  It’s about two veterans, one paraplegic, and was suggested by two men Barrus knew.  They are not father and son, but caretaking was key.  Barrus was never in the military and couldn’t be, never claimed to be, but had the claim projected onto him by critics who love to see hoaxes everywhere, thinking this makes them more perceptive.  Kevin Young has got it right: we love to be fooled and then for the trick to be revealed.  We ARE the tricks.

The critic that the NYTimes hired to review “The Blood Runs through my Dreams” was a man who specialized in going to live in man-centered environments like prisons, trucking, train-hopping — then writing them up as exposés.  I've never read the books so don’t know whether he wrote about the opportunities for MSM.  His review of Barrus' book was a little over-familiar.  Barrus, whose strategy in life is confrontation, wrote a rebuke.  The reviewer, evidently the last person in New York City publishing circles who didn’t know Barrus, encouraged a recent graduate of his journalism classes to investigate and promote the idea of a hoax, which was shaping up as a cluster at the time, keying into “misery lit.”´  The idea was to use the hoax label to slap Barrus down.

As journalism goes, Fleischner’s article was pretty lazy.  He mentioned none of the above specifics and never talked to Barrus, only to a hostile former brother-in-law.  But he discovered Sherman Alexie, who was in LA making “Smoke Signals,” still affronted that Barrus was awarded the Poets and Writer’s “Beyond Margins” prize.  Alexie had thought he would win and had the idea that it was specifically for Native Americans.

Legal notions of “intellectual property” and the exploitation of stories and concepts taken from tribal people were just taking hold.  No longer could one talk about Mickey Mouse without paying Disney.  This idea has appealed greatly to all the displaced people who have been thrown out of both their place and time.  Sympathy for them is deserved.  But there is no reason why they can’t write their own stories.  There is no quota.  Nor is it sensible for one demographic group to forbid another category of people to write about them, so long as it is real.  If it’s not, call it fiction.  Or bunk.

Barrus writes on sensational topics: HIV/AIDS, gayness, prostitution, porn, boys at risk, drugs, S/M, and more.  But the subject that caused outrage was supposedly claiming to be Navajo, when in fact he simply failed to prevent others from assuming he was Navajo — then condemning him for NOT being Navajo.  In America all indigenous peoples are sacred.  In a split way.  Ambiguously.  Hoaxes everywhere from the first moment the bird-like European ships arrived.

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