“Findin’ out the meanin’ of life and all is fine, far as it goes, but dead’s dead, you know what I mean?”Barry Gifford doesn’t waste words. WILD AT HEART – THE STORY OF SAILOR AND LULA (1990) is a novel written by an author who is also a prize-winning poet, which partially explains his ability to pack 44 chapters into 156 pages and also goes some way towards explaining the impressionistic, imagistic style he employs. Each chapter is a short, punchy vignette in which Sailor and Lula outline their philosophy on life while striving to stay one step ahead of the law and the potential killer Lula’s Mama has set on their trail. A seamless blend of ’30s hard-boiled brevity and the on-the-road Beat tradition of the ’50s, WILD AT HEART comes on like the deranged offspring of Horace McCoy and Jack Kerouac as he struggles to draw breath in the sultry atmosphere of a William Faulkner short story.
Barry Gifford, WILD AT HEART
On his release from prison after serving a term for manslaughter, Sailor Ripley breaks parole and takes to the road with Lula Pace Fortune in order to escape the oppressive grasp of Lula’s disproving mother, Marietta. The plot doesn’t get any more convoluted than that; what sustains WILD AT HEART’s narrative is the colourful cast of characters the couple encounter on their flight west towards California. By turns intriguing, bizarre, grotesque and lethal, the collection of misfits only serves to confirm Lula’s heartfelt conviction that the world is indeed ‘wild at heart and weird on top.’
Imbued with Southern gentility and decorum, Gifford’s style has been described by critic Patrick Beach as ‘chicken-fried noir’ and – as per the rules of hard-boiled fiction – a happy ending is never on the cards for the star-crossed lovers. “Safe?” exclaims Marietta’s friend, Dal. “Safe? Ain’t that a stitch. Ain’t nobody nowhere never been safe a second of their life.” The frisson generated by a blend of uncertain direction and inevitable danger crackles from the back seat of Lula’s white ’75 Bonneville convertible. A distraught Lula can force Sailor to dump a crazy hitchhiker when the kid gets a little too weird for her liking, but she remains all too aware of the overwhelming forces – not least of which is that of Fate – ranged against the pair:
Sailor stroked Lula’s head.
“It ain’t gonna be forever, peanut.”
Lula closed her eyes.
“I know, Sailor. Nothin’ is.”