The late, great Townes Van Zandt wrote a lot of lines worthy of envy. The best are wry and epigrammatic. They come to mind when you least expect it, like when reading Josh Stallings’s noir memoir, All the Wild Children. I’m thinking here of the moment in “Snowin’ on Raton” when Van Zandt sings, “You cannot count the miles until you feel them.” Josh Stallings has begun counting. Even if his memory is a little faulty – I’m not saying it is, just allowing for the possibility – All the Wild Children suggests he’s covered a lot of miles, figuratively and literally.
It takes a certain kind of life and a healthy dose of luck to reasonably conceive of writing a noir memoir. Take away the certain kind of life, and all that’s left is a pack of lies. Take away the luck and the certain kind of life will be over before the idea of a memoir ever comes to mind. Fortunately Stallings has had both. Well, maybe not fortunately on all levels. He’s done crime, been addicted to drugs, hurt people he loved. There’s nothing really fortunate about any of that, unless it’s the conclusion that he could conceivably have done more damage.
A noir memoir also takes a certain kind of sensibility, and Stallings has that down cold. He works in stark prose, with quick cuts and a deadpan delivery. He traces his childhood, in skittish fashion, through the difficulties of his parents’ marriage and his own hardships at school (dyslexia and other challenges, among them a deep reservoir of anger), punctuating a number of exchanges with memorable lines. He recalls a fight between his parents:
I am 7, and my father is yelling at my mother. She screams back. I stand between them and rage, “You told me God doesn’t want us to fight, so why are you!” Good Quaker logic I think. I’m thrown against the wall. My father’s hand on my throat. Pinned.
I am 50, and wonder why I still feel the grip of that hand.
Better still is a conversation with his father on a haphazardly conceived and executed road trip:
“Dad?” We are pulling out of the parking lot back onto the highway.
“Why don’t you love mom?” His hands go white as they grip on the wheel.
“I don’t know…It’s complicated…I love her but…” he keeps talking.
I stop listening. I know the next words will be lies.
I am 7, and I know to trust the hands. Not the mouth.
Stallings invites us along through years of rash and stupid and sometimes desperate choices, the first full slate of which we see during his teen years, in 1970’s California. I characterize them in this way, but they also made Stallings the man he is today, thoughtful and repentant and determined to make sense of those hectic, daunting years. He writes of getting in touch with an old friend he felt he betrayed years earlier, and being forgiven. “I am 50,” he writes, “I am eighteen years sober. The shame has left me. I may always be a dummy at some level, but I don’t have to be a liar a cheat or a thief.” As claims of progress go, it’s a modest one, but it’s honest.
He certainly takes a punishing and circuitous enough route to get to that moment, though. He works in the film industry, chasing something big but running into as many obstacles as you’d expect, the pure grind of the work included:
I have a reel of rock videos I cut, and a need for a steady paycheck. I get a job cutting action trailers for Cannon films. Death Wish 3, Delta Force, Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, Van Damme and all that crap. Money is good. Hours are long as ever. The days are fueled by booze, coke and fear. A week doesn’t go by I don’t have to work all night. I vowed to take care of my small family and I do. By sheer will. My workaholism beats my alcoholism and the checks keep rolling in.
Later we see him in Russia, where he flounders through an ill-fated project, eventually recalling a point in May 1991 at which he has,
Another meal of pickled herring, red caviar and greasy borsch. Erika sends me a foot locker full of oatmeal and other quick meals. I lose forty pounds on the trip.
I draw pornographic pictures to jerk off to.
I grow my beard out long.
I start to go native.
I lose it.
In an unconventional way, these are steps on the road to mellowing for Stallings. There is a family to support, and he wants to exceed his father’s efforts for his own children. His efforts may seem faltering at times, but Stallings alone isn’t always to blame when things go wrong. He notes at the end of the trip, after they are rushed from the country just ahead of the fall of the Communist regime, “I am stiffed $20,000 by the producers. I am stiffed by the trailer company I was working for, before going to Russia to the tune of $14,000. Money the owner Richard promised to pay my wife weekly so she and the boys could eat while I was in Russia. The checks stopped coming the day I left town. Erika lived on credit cards. I never bitch slapped Richard. Should have. Didn’t. Weak.” But it’s not weak. By that point, I read the remark as bluff on Stallings’ part, the sentiment of the man he was, not the man he’s become. And I read it that way because he never spares himself, never turns away from an ugly truth about his character. He writes about his son Dylan who has developmental delays, who at age 28, “has never learned to read but can write some.” Dylan mentions that having one son is enough, but Stallings responds that “’I like being father to both of you.’ It is a half-lie. Lately the long haul of fatherhood feels like it may crush me.” It’s a painful moment, a little like seeing Joseph Heller’s novel Something Happened brought to life, but Stallings doesn’t flinch. If fearlessness like that isn’t enough to recommend All the Wild Children, I can’t imagine what is.
All the Wild Children is rough in places. The verbs occasionally slip from the present tense to the past, and not for any apparent stylistic purpose. The book deserves better than that type of sloppiness. It breaks the spell he’s created in an unwelcome way. There are also moments when a more linear treatment of time would make the book stronger. I wouldn’t mind seeing a deluxe edition of the text, after one more pass by Stallings and editor, and a big-name introduction to draw in the skeptical. All that said, this is overwhelming experience, recollected as completely and accurately as the writer is capable, and brought to order, albeit an imperfect one. Understand, the book has its flaws. What is also has, is an almost limitless audacity. Chalk that up to the man who lived it, and found a way to get it down.
We started with Townes Van Zandt. Let’s end with Bob Dylan, the line from“Like a Rolling Stone” (read the book – it’s a very fitting choice) when he sings, “When you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.” Josh Stallings writes that way, like he’s not only heard those words but taken them to heart. The trouble is, they don’t apply to him anymore. He’s got something here. He just needs to keep writing like he’s got nothing to lose.