Motels of burning madness
by Tom Bradley
[ bookreviews ]
Huey DuBois, the protagonist of this novel, is a male stripper. Accordingly, he starts off wearing nothing but a G-string. By the end, he's covered head-to-toe: sheathed in a clown costume with wig and full greasepaint, on top of which has been thickly layered muck from a swamp he's just slogged through. The bare bone, as it were, of this entertainer's presentation-self, the very tool of his trade, each square centimeter of his epidermis, has gone from total exposure to utter concealment.
Huey DuBois has come to this condition via a trajectory which, in the world of show biz, must be the very definition of downward: from the relatively sanitary ecdysiast scene, to the porno industry, to delivering nudie telegrams, to mud wrestling, and bottoming out as the Bozo we've just seen - or, rather not seen. This is damnation outright for a man formerly so conscientious about his own physical presentability, obsessed with being cologned, pomaded and waxed, as one would expect of a stripper.
As his body gets coated like an ill tongue, his sensorium undergoes a parallel obfuscation. In his terminal clown condition, Huey winds up in a jail cell, peering at the ever-dimming world through a screen of bars, squinting into the smudged glass of a jailhouse television at the further reality filter of videotape. Yet, only now, through such a multiplicity of shades, can our shrouded hero begin to see clearly.
On that videotape he recognizes a person of central importance, to put it mildly. Even though they've been having furtive public semi-sex for weeks, only now does Huey DuBois grasp the ambiguity of this person's gender: a transsexual-in-the-making with breasts, but procreative organ yet unremoved. Lo and behold, he/she happens to be the murderer we've been seeking for most of the book. That blurred videotape exposes the perpetrator of the capital crime our hero's been framed and jailed for.
One of the many amazing things about Motels of Burning Madness is the complete believability of this moment of recognition. Of course, we suddenly realize, it must be mere routine, in Huey DuBois' world, to be naked in and out of bed with someone for weeks on end, and yet fail to notice that he/she just happens to be a her/him. In the series of demimondes and fringe umbras Huey inhabits, the denizens are constantly changing their appearance, wigs, whiskers, piercings, makeup, hair color, disguises, aliases. It's hardly a wise allocation of time to look too closely at such motley protean types. But once he's clapped in Hell with Satan and his minions, Lethe and the Slough of Despond belching their miasma on the periphery, Huey can see through the glass darkly.
Whom else do we know who must go down to Hades before he's permitted to see the truth? John-Ivan Palmer's protagonist is Odysseus, and that makes this novel a heroic epic. If, in these latter days, it's still permitted to wax Jungian, one might point out that Motels of Burning Madness has all the archetypal elements of the epos: the young man lost in a hostile world filled with shape-shifters, horny-making witches and thoroughly malevolent king-types. Leslie Fiedler famously decreed that, as a literary nation, America's function has been to return narrative fiction to its Homeric roots. Even in our present state of utter decline and liquefying rot, we remain the New Adam, and our books reflect this, especially Motels of Burning Madness.
A somewhat later tradition springs also to mind, rather more Roman than Greek. In another context, John-Ivan Palmer has revealed that he got expelled from a Catholic high school for doing a term paper on Nero's 'Arbiter of Elegance'. This is fitting, as Petronius was the Huey DuBois of the first century AD: completely debauched, but possessed of a heart of gold, loyal to his friends as only debauchees can be, straight to the death, and charming and funny right till the last drop of blood is allowed to slip, elegantly, from his veins.
The dinner scene at the home of Trimalchio could have been placed in Motels of Burning Madness, as could the rest of the Satyricon. These low-lifes are presented in the most garish and depraved detail, but through it all shines compassion for everyone - except the mean jerks and power-driven sadists. The poor clown who wants to be awarded with the nose, and gets done out of it, could be waiting table at the freedman's orgy.
John-Ivan Palmer is himself a professional performer before live audiences. The top stage hypnotist in America today, he will make you bark like a dog. He'll suspend you between two chairs and sledge-hammer a cinder brick on your tummy. Simultaneously he memorizes a complete issue of TIME Magazine at a glance, and is quizzed on specific pages by awestruck folks in the audience. So it comes as no surprise that he should possess in spades the uncanny skill of putting his reader-subjects inside his characters' bodies, at wonderful moments and horrible, with intensity and verisimilitude.
John-Ivan Palmer has performed in all kinds of venues, touring Mexico with a low-budget troupe of female impersonators and huffing rubber cement while dodging death squads with Guatemalan street children. He has sojourned in the world’s largest Yugoslavian nudist camp and tracked down the decapitator of Yukio Mishima. He has interviewed and written with unparalleled penetration about such figures as Annie Sprinkle and Richard 'Scumbag' Kern. Our author is clearly no physical coward, but is a man of action, as they say. And that informs every word he writes. The pacing of this novel, the chases and fights and fuck scenes in malls -these are clearly the products not only of literary craft, but personal experience (filtered through, and enhanced by, the eye of fiction, of course).
John-Ivan Palmer is unique in Anglophone letters: a fearless professional spelunker of the human psyche who possesses the talent to climb back out of that fathomless cave and give us a brilliant account of his findings. Motels of Burning Madness is his masterpiece. Jim Chaffee's magisterial Drill Press is to be congratulated and envied for publishing it.