The chaotic beauty of Tristan Egolf’s prose was nothing compared to the unrest in his head
HE IS A man in the wrong place at the wrong time, a man wearing a polka-dotted dress and a mohawk next to a bunch of kids wearing t-shirts and jeans. He is a young man who is angry about something, screaming at unsafe decibel levels, even if no one can make out the words.
In a few years, he will be mildly famous. Foreign newspapers will call him a poet of the American soul. They will compare his literary gifts to those of Faulkner, Pynchon, Céline, Bukowski, Twain. But for now, he’s just a weird-looking white dude in a dress, screaming about … what? About the amphetamine uproar. The fatted calf. He’s screaming REDRUM on a dinky music stage at the back of one of Drexel University’s outdoor quads — his lyrics getting hacked to bits by the crappy P.A. system —
And 50 Drexel kids are looking up at Tristan Egolf and his three bandmates, thinking …
He has failed.
“ALRIGHT,” he says, “THIS DEAD BULLSHIT IS GONNA STOP.”
His gaze falls on the crowd.
“I WANNA SEE YOU PEOPLE PILING OVER EACH OTHER.”
Normally he’d solve the problem of low audience energy by pulling down his pants and flapping his dick around. But he can’t do it today. A rent-a-cop is eyeing him from stage-right. So he moves to Plan B. Steps to the edge of the stage, four feet up, and dives. His six-foot-five body makes a belly-flop pose in midair. The few kids in front of the stage just barely cushion his fall, so he tumbles awkwardly to the concrete as the kids laugh and laugh and Tristan, back onstage in a flash, screams:
“ARE YOU ALL FUCKING DEAD?”
YOU CAN SUM UP HIS LIFE IN A SENTENCE. Here goes. Tristan Egolf wrote the Great American Novel when he was 25 years old. That’s it. The defining fact. Because nobody does that. Millions dream about it, millions are going to fail. It’s hard enough to write a bad novel, exponentially harder to write a good one.
And yet here was this redneck from Amish Country who didn’t just write the Great American Novel — which he called Lord of the Barnyard, an angry, heart-stoppingly gorgeous 410-page yarn about a garbage man in a small Midwestern town — when he was 25 years old. No. He did it in a way that gave all the other hopeless dreamers actual tangible hope. Tristan began his first draft of Barnyard when he was a broke, starving punk-rocker in Philly. He had dropped out of Temple University. He didn’t have an MFA or any other degree. He didn’t even have a literary agent. What he had was a pad of paper, a bottomless bag of pot, an idea, and a philosophy — sometimes expressed as “Embrace your madness” and sometimes as “All hail discordia,” his personal motto — that boiled down to an overriding love of chaos on the page. “He was always telling me, you gotta blow things up,” recalls one of his ex-girlfriends. “His whole thing was, have carnage in the book.”
But not only in the book. “I’m much more interested in a writer like Tristan, who has a vision and natural exuberance, than someone who was well-trained at a creative writing school and writes well-crafted sentences,” his American publisher, Morgan Entrekin, once said. “Tristan lives life rather than sitting around analyzing it.” If Tristan had been anything like his contemporaries, he would have shut himself away for eight hours every day, typing, Creating, leaving the rest of his waking hours to worry about his kids, his wife, his students and his brand. Tristan never worked like that. Never lived like that. Another defining fact, come to think of it — because when the publishing world got a whiff of that old stuff, the Mailer/Carver/Kerouac musk, with the drugs that Tristan smoked and shot, of course, and the boxing, the political theater he was into, the gorilla suits, the stray pets, the volatile girlfriends, the busted marriage, the abandoned kid, the carousal across two continents, and above all the refusal to erect that crucial wall between the life and the art, between the violence on the page and the violence he trailed in his wake, that made him not only a literary It Boy, but also something else, something larger, something joyous and pure … a bit of a “legend in the making,” in Entrekin’s words … well, people went a little crazy for Tristan Egolf without really wondering why he was that way, or if he had a choice in the matter.
Tristan didn’t think he did. He saw himself as a damaged person. “I’m only good for one thing” is how he always put it — and in his manic, scissory, desperate pursuit of that one thing, he generated the appearance of a life far richer and fuller than any of our lives could ever be. We saw the one life and missed the other. Even as the legend of this cornbelt kid was unspooling, something else was happening, something inside that enormous skull was misfiring, something big and blunt was going terribly wrong.
ACCORDING TO HIS MOTHER, WHO RAISED HIM, he could write as soon as he could hold a pencil. He filled notepads faster than Paula Egolf could buy them. He scribbled the overflow inside matchbook covers, on napkins and leaves.
Paula was an artist herself, a landscape painter. She watched with pride as Tristan’s room accrued layers of the art that excited him, endless grubby piles of comic books and Dylan records peeking up through the topsoil of his flannel shirts. “I treasured his creativity over his cleanliness,” Paula says. To her way of thinking, disrupting Tristan’s mess would have been a form of critical rejection, and she knew that both of her kids would get more than enough rejection just by virtue of living where they did, in suburban Lancaster, surrounded by cornfields and Amish buggies. Hardly a hotbed of the arts. Gretchen Egolf, Tristan’s younger sister, was a budding actress, a drama nerd, and she still remembers what the local kids used to call her and her brother: “Different.” Clipped, like a cough. Diff-runt. “Different means bad,” says Gretchen, who, after years of paying her dues in plays and small TV roles, recently scored a leading role on NBC’s Journeyman. “It’d be: ‘That’s diff-runt.’”
School was a whole other story, all about limits and rules. In class, Tristan slept. Then he’d write about it in his journal. Every day he sleeps through school, he wrote, comes home to read Brautigan for twenty quiet minutes. Brautigan was thrillingly weird — his lucid commitment to poverty, his thick ’stache and old-timey clothes. Tristan gushed about Brautigan to his girlfriend. Her name was Kathy Morris. He shared all his discoveries with her. “When he loved you,” says Kathy, “he loved you so completely.” She had short brown hair and a skull about half the size of his — in the pictures she took of them, her head looked like a doll’s. After school, Tristan and his girl would escape to the woods, to privacy, carrying a Black Flag tape, a boom box, and an illicit bottle of wine. One year, as teenagers, they took a vacation together to Spain. They saw the bullfights in Madrid. On another trip to Europe, he sat in a vast public square and fed the pigeons. I can hear a hundred thousand pigeons in a wave that could drown America, he wrote. Or a herd of wild elephants on acid, stomping over the Kremlin. I smile as my family, my birds, my pigeons round the corner and tear me limb from limb as their Jesus, their martyr. …
Then it was back to Lancaster, the epitome of middlebrow America. Tristan and his buddies worked hard to show their contempt for everything it stood for. One of the guys in their crew lived in a housing development next to a golf course. The course was a vandal’s dream. It was right beside a cornfield. They built a hut there out of bamboo. They hauled out a mattress, some Sex Pistols tapes, and “carved a little corncob bowl,” says Tristan’s friend Scott Fidler. The hut was the ultimate delinquents’ clubhouse. Depending on how they were feeling, they might kick back in the hut for an hour, smoking the bowl, and then, after spying some hapless foursome, sneak up and steal their golf cart, joyriding it as the poor goobers waved their putters in impotent anger. Or maybe they’d load up on acid and whack golf balls into the development, getting off on the rainbow light trails streaming off the psychedelically enhanced Titleists winging through the sky.
In moments like that, he was every bit El Oso’s son.
“THE WAY HE made it sound was, his father was killed, like, running guns or drugs or something in Central America,” says Justin Quinn, Tristan’s friend. “He really made his dad out to be a hero.”
The stories about El Oso (“The Bear”) were true, as far as they were verifiable. His real name was Brad Evans. He was a fiction writer of real talent; one of his short stories, about a slaughterhouse in Louisville, earned him a fan note from Norman Mailer. His hero was Hemingway, and like Hemingway, he had adventures, then wrote about them. He studied theology. He worked a freight barge on the Ohio River. He wrote speeches for GOP politicians and claimed to have run guns to Guatemala during its civil war. He once shoved a wooden cross into the door of an abortion clinic and got arrested for assaulting a cop; the protest, which he helped organize, made the front page of the June 7, 1970, Washington Post. He was physically enormous, a six-five brawler with a thick chest and a fine blond beard — a man of epic dimensions and mythic appetites. He was also, ultimately, an epic failure, both as a writer and as a human being — a junkie who abandoned his kids when they were little, cutting off almost all contact. He overdosed on cocaine when Tristan was 15. He never published his novel.
But Tristan didn’t like hearing that part of the story. As much as Paula and Gretchen tried to tell him that Brad was no romantic figure — “He did whatever he wanted,” says Gretchen, “and he didn’t even do that particularly well” — the mythic aspects of El Oso exerted a powerful pull on Tristan’s young imagination.
El Oso was a novelistic character:
The worst catholic in America and one of the finest drinking partners this side of the cross.
Tristan wrote these words three or four years after Brad died. They appear in his first draft of Lord of the Barnyard, alongside pages and pages of hallucinogenic resurrection. There was an indistinct, fuzzy quality to the writing. As hard as Tristan tried to make his father come to life, the man on the page only receded into cliché.
Maybe it was the pot talking. Tristan was in Philly now, stoned out of his gourd. He was a freshly minted Temple dropout, living in complicated squalor. “I think he bought into that whole idea that artists had to go through a lot of pain,” says Kathy, “and it was normal.” Sharpening his misery would sharpen his writing.
So he was cold and hungry most of the time. They all were. Violet and Art, too. Violet (not her real name) was his new girlfriend. Art DiFuria was his punk band’s recording engineer. Often, Dogboy would come over — he was the guitarist in the band. And they’d all sit on couches inside a roach motel at 13th and Walnut known simply as “The Frizz”: dangling wires, dirty dishes, rat-size holes in the floor. During the winter, they’d pass around Art’s copies of As I Lay Dying and Gargantua, drinking whiskey to keep warm. And then, when it got dark, when they’d had enough of being cold, they’d burst out of The Frizz and into the city, maybe to hear Tristan scream “ALL HAIL DISCORDIA” while running down the Rocky Steps in the rain … or to watch Tristan and Dogboy perform … to see Tristan all hot and demonic, perched on the balcony at the Trocadero, 20 feet up, his naked thighs smeared with chocolate pudding … an ogre plummeting in the neon lights …
… and never suspecting, any of them, that a subconscious alarm was starting to go off in Tristan’s head, louder than Dogboy’s guitar wail, louder even than his own gargoyle voice, telling him to flee.
HIS AMBITION IS what saved him.
It wasn’t like the decision to leave Philly was logical, carefully weighed. It was primal necessity, a blunt process of elimination. Each cocaine hit, each 40-ounce, was eliminating the chance, however remote, that he would someday publish his book. The book was everything. And the draft, the one he had been working on for the past year in The Frizz, was — as he would soon write in a letter — just that much shit. He blamed the drugs and the hunger. Maybe chaos and misery didn’t lead to good writing after all: If you don’t eat, you can’t create. Simple. He had to get away, far away, and figured he might as well do it in a place where American writers had always gone to get their heads clear, a place of literary legend. Paris. Conveniently for him, Violet was already there, writing in a little flat near the Luxembourg Gardens, right down the street from Hemingway’s old place.
In the summer of 1994, Tristan moved in with Violet, who paid the rent. He and Violet sat on the Île de la Cité, smoked cigarettes, watched the boats go by and talked about the future. “He wanted his work to live on,” she says. “He used to say, people are going to look up to us for what we’ve done.”
But he wasn’t bombastic like this most of the time. He worked on a letter to Art back in Philly. I’m doing really well right now, he wrote in a tiny font. I eat big breakfasts and hang out in Luxembourg gardens till noon, then write till dinnertime, go out for a bit … I hope I will one day be able to make a living this way, far out of reach of the tastykakes. He apologized to Art for being such a fucking pot-head and for stiffing him on a phone bill. I’m sorry. I’ll settle up when I get back.
And then, on October 23, 1994, everything changed. He was wearing a black skullcap and a down coat, busking for francs on the Pont des Arts, a picturesque bridge, when a girl with long black hair stopped and smiled shyly. He strummed her a few Bob Dylan tunes. She invited him for a cup of coffee.
The girl had a secret. She was only 16. But she was smitten, and she lied. She told him she was 20. And that’s not all she hid: Marie Modiano happened to be the daughter of one of the most respected novelists in France. It took several months for Marie and Tristan to go beyond the occasional coffee — after their third rendezvous, in early 1995, Tristan flew back to America and spent the whole spring out in the tiny coal-mining town of Huntingburg, Indiana, home of the Evans clan, his surviving blood relatives, shooting squirrels and clay pigeons with his cousin and scribbling away at his book — but when he returned to Paris, he and Marie were instantly an item, inseparable.
He met her parents soon enough, at the family’s dinner table. Dominique Modiano was a jewelry-maker, elegant and down-to-earth, with large eyes and fine black hair pulled back into a bun. She spoke both English and French, unlike Patrick Modiano. Patrick was shy. He was also famous. At the age of 23, he’d had his first novel championed by Éditions Gallimard, the most prestigious house in France, publisher of Marcel Proust and translator of Hemingway. At age 49, he lived comfortably, but not extravagantly, in a large, tasteful apartment fit for a cabinet minister, writing every day and walking his dog, a gray poodle. Patrick was largely female-surrounded and melodrama-free — until Tristan. Until this huge American dude showed up at his dinner table, bursting with exotic stories about Middle America and the people who lived there: “river rats” and “hill scrubs,” inbred folk, dumb and fearful, shotguns under their pillows, pointing fat shaky fingers to UFOs in the sky.
Strangest thing. On his way back to Paris just now, Tristan had swung through Lancaster, spending two months hacking away at Paula’s computer, word-processing his manuscript, then mailing 70-some copies to New York publishing houses; it was still early, but as far as he could tell, every manuscript had landed with a thud (and soon he’d have the sheaf of rejection letters to prove it). But now, in Paris, he owned all of these tales. In English and bits of broken French, he told the Modianos about his misadventures in New York publishing. He told them stories about the Evans men — about Warren, his grandfather, the dashing Army Ranger captured by the Nazis during World War II … and about Colin, his cousin, who had grown up with cystic fibrosis and resented it so completely that he went to work in coal mines, sucking coal dust into his bad lungs. He talked about El Oso, of course. There at the dinner table, he reeled off an epic about an America they had never known existed — and which seemed to have expelled Tristan into exile. “He reminded me of the Lost Generation writers,” says Patrick, through a translator, adding, “Il avait la force de ça génération.”
He carried the force of that generation.
The Modianos became his family away from home. They worried about him as if he was their own blood. “He always spoke a lot of how Christ died at 33,” says Dominique. “He spoke of St. Francis, suicide … gallows humor. Le mort. He did suffer. He did suffer a lot, a lot, a lot.” Eventually, in September 1995, he moved into their home. He slept with Marie in her room in the basement. Every day Marie woke up at 7:30 and went to high school, and Tristan woke up and went to a one-room flat that was little more than a desk, and a chair, and a stove for coffee. Patrick paid the rent. Tristan scrapped his prior draft of Barnyard and started over, almost from scratch. He wrote all day in the flat. Around 8 p.m., he came back for dinner.
One night in the winter of 1995, Patrick walked into his daughter’s room to close a window. There on a table, he saw Tristan’s new manuscript spread out in messy stacks. He couldn’t resist a peek. He leaned in closer. He saw page after page of words so small they slid into static. It reminded him of Robert Walser, a Swiss author whose script was so microscopic that his final novel was long mistaken for a coded diary — or the private scribblings of a madman.
ONCE TRISTAN FELT he was done with the new draft, he gave it to Dominique. She cracked into it, went page by page. Every third word was a dynamite stick she had to defuse with a slang dictionary. When she was done, she told Patrick that it was a work of genius.
Patrick put the manuscript under his arm. He walked to a four-story building a few blocks from the Seine, proceeded through a lobby full of black-and-white photographs of authors, and set the book on the desk of the head of Éditions Gallimard, his publisher.
“This may be something interesting,” Patrick said.
Patrick had never recommended a book. Not once in 30 years.
The manuscript quickly moved to the desk of Christine Jordis, who edits the English-language fiction at Gallimard. The manuscript sat there looking “quite heavy,” she remembers. “A mass. A pile.” She handed it to a man named Serge Chauvin, with instructions to read it fast and tell her if it was any good.
Was it likely to be good? Serge, a genially scruffy college professor who looks like a shorter John Lennon, didn’t think so. Every year, he read hundreds of English manuscripts, candidates for publication, and graded each one on a scale from masterpiece to dud (Marley & Me). Almost always, the manuscripts had been submitted by agents on behalf of published authors. Proper channels. This book’s channel was … “unusual.”
But a job was a job, so Serge peeled back the title page and started reading:
There was a point at which, after the Baker/Pottville melee had wound down with the last twenty or thirty handcuffed Sodderbrook poultry-plant wetbacks, Buzzard’s-Roost Hessians, Dowler Street trolls, and east-side Baker factory rats being crammed into Sheriff Tom Dippold’s departmental paddywagons …
The sentence went on for another 168 words.
Now Serge was grinning, albeit profoundly confused. What was a Buzzard’s-Roost Hessian?
The plot seemed to focus on the lavish degradation of a garbage man named John Kaltenbrunner. John, after being kicked, spat on, beaten, arrested, and literally raped by the citizenry of his town, exacts his revenge by convincing his fellow garbage men to go on strike. The town’s trash piles up, uncollected. Vultures descend, rats, coyotes, woodchucks. A strange plot, then — but not half as strange as the author’s other devices. For one thing, the book had no dialogue. Instead, it was narrated, in a distant, almost biblical style, by a nameless brethren of garbage men. Also strange was the author’s decision to make every female character either a whore or a crone. The book — it began to dawn on Serge — was “practically unlike anything in contemporary American writing,” he recalls. Serge’s initial distrust gave way to a giddy disbelief. Who was this guy, Tristan Egolf? Why hadn’t anyone noticed him before?
Serge gave the book a perfect grade of 1.0. Masterpiece. Christine was the next to read it, and she agreed: “So violent … a kind of revolution.” And then Anne-Solange Noble read it, the birdlike director of foreign rights, and she began to tremble in a way that even Christine thought was “a bit frightening,” swept up in that prose, which Anne-Solange likens to an ouragan, a hurricane, kids and wife to the storm cellar. This character, Kaltenbrunner, the forgotten garbage man scorned by the bourgeoisie — he’s “going to be given back his dignity!” says Anne-Solange. Whereas the Americans had looked at Tristan and seen a rube, an unserious kid who couldn’t be bothered to find an agent in a city dripping with agents, the French saw the exact opposite. They saw a martyr to his art. “Powerful beyond his years,” Patrick Modiano puts it. “Too mature, too powerful, too long, too extreme a book for someone so young.”
A man like that was worth fighting for. Gallimard pulled out all the stops for Tristan. The text was translated by Rémy Lambrechts, who also translated Bellow’s Ravelstein and Franzen’s The Corrections. Anne-Solange hit the phones and called everybody she knew in Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Sweden and Turkey, begging them to buy the rights to a book that even today, years later, she still can’t read out loud to visitors without clutching it to her breast.
And wouldn’t you know: After the book came out in 1998, after it racked up improbable reviews (“A work of substance, significance and originality,” wrote the Times Literary Supplement in London) and sales of about 15,000 copies, after the ink was dry on translation deals in 10 languages … well, after all that, one of the New York houses that had rejected the draft of Barnyard suddenly changed its mind.
“A very American energy” was the first reaction of Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic — the same house that released John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces — upon reading Tristan’s book. “Just kind of a wild Hunter Thompson, Jack Kerouac feel.”
Before long, Grove would be buying ads hawking two books, Barnyard and Dunces, under the banner FICTION WITH A SHELF LIFE. Before long, Publishers Weekly would be announcing “the sort of author discovery story of which legends are made” to the whole of New York publishing (“A Startling American Heartland Novel”), and Gadfly would be photoshopping Tristan’s mug into a field of tall corn (“The Cornbelt Kid”), and Interview magazine would be asking whether Tristan Egolf was “the next Faulkner,” featuring a long conversation with Tristan titled “Rejection Turns Gold” and a photo of the author sitting in a window frame, glaring at the reader:
“The writer wears a cotton shirt and relaxed khakis by Dockers.”
HE SHOULD HAVE been the happiest guy in the world. The book. His life’s dream. It was something concrete now, it was taking shape. The money wasn’t bad, either: 3,000 euros from Gallimard, another 15,000 or so from Picador in the U.K. And yet, while his success made him relieved, thankful and proud, it didn’t transform him. Even when he was making his final edits on the book, in fact, he was rolling cigarettes like crazy, waking up from violent nightmares and clomping out of bed to work on the book some more, pacing. “I thought he would be very happy,” says Marie, “and everything would be very lighter [sic], but it wasn’t.”
He left Marie. He began to move frantically. Between February 1997, when Gallimard accepted his manuscript, and the summer of 1999, when the American reviews of Barnyard began to peter out, Tristan jumped from place to place and woman to woman, declaring his love at full volume in public places, drunk, before abruptly panicking, fleeing. None of it stuck. He met an exotic language teacher, Sandra, with dark curly hair and ginsu cheekbones; promptly knocked her up; filled her Paris duplex with empty beer bottles; decided he wanted to be a dad, then changed his mind; abandoned Sandra, abandoned his unborn daughter; stopped returning phone messages; escaped to New York City; met a proud tall blonde, Hannah, and proposed marriage eight days after their first kiss; filled her apartment with angry stacks of paper, dirty dishes. It was a confusing period for anyone trying to keep track. “He was completely indifferent to mundane reality,” says Dominique, who remembers how Tristan grinned the day he told her about Sandra’s pregnancy. “He was quite laughing about it, as a child who has made something wrong.”
All this time, he was trying to write his second book — Skirt and the Fiddle, a slapstick satire inspired by his youth in Philly and his life as a tramp in Paris. But something was different; the alchemy that had created Barnyard, the long years of discordia followed by the brief window of discipline, had vanished. The effort had “exhausted him,” says Patrick Modiano. He was out of material. Skirt was his attempt to find his way back to writing. It was “really a letting, a bleeding,” says Hannah MacKenna, his ex-wife. “It was what was left over.”
But now, he had to produce. He wasn’t some kid. He had editors, deadlines, a literary agent. He was an almost-30-year-old husband with new responsibilities, new pressures, both internal and external. The pressure, for instance, of proving himself to the American critics, many of whom found Barnyard “interesting and exciting,” wrote Laura Miller in the New York Times, “without quite managing to be good.” The pressure of teaching himself, on the fly, how to “develop different aspects of the craft,” as he told W magazine — the very aspects he was self-conscious about never having learned at school, like writing dialogue and creating “characters who aren’t wretched and insane.” The pressure of having to do all this while still making time for his wife, and for odd jobs.
The Barnyard money was long gone. He took a job walking Gay Talese’s dog.
He Scotch-taped a sign in Chelsea that said, TED HESTON. SINGING APE. FLOWERS, FUR AND FEAR. GOOD FOR BIRTHDAYS, HOSPITALS, PARTIES AND RANDOM ATTACKS. In 2000, if you wanted The Next Faulkner to sing you “Happy Birthday” in a gorilla suit, you could make it happen for $80. “He was miserable,” says Hannah. She couldn’t reach him. Even when she took him on vacation, to a waterfront town in Massachusetts where she and some friends liked to relax, boil lobsters and hang out at the beach, Tristan would wander off with a notebook, kicking up sand with his lug-soled boots, writing and rewriting a single sentence he’d been obsessing over for weeks.
He begged Gallimard for extensions, then finally shipped a draft of Skirt in 2001. The publisher reacted exactly as he’d feared. “You call it a cartoon?” remembers Christine Jordis. “It was very immature, in a way. … He was stuck in certain ruts.”
He moved back to Lancaster. Hannah came along, then changed her mind, left for good. She couldn’t take it anymore. The day she went back to their apartment to pick up her things, the place was unrecognizable, scattered with clothes, unopened mail, the toilet bowl coated with a layer of scum so thick that someone had been able to write the word “MEGADETH” in it with a finger.
What pulled him out of the spiral, this time, was an image, an idea. He began to envision a new character, a mythic creature tear-assing across the dogbane and jimsonweed and plasticine tarpaulin domiciles of Lancaster County. An Amish werewolf. The werewolf would be the protagonist for his third book, his return to form — his next Great American Novel. By the time Skirt and the Fiddle was released in the U.S., in 2002, Tristan had already written it off. “It’s a piece of shit,” he told his friends. “Wait until the next one comes out.” And pretty soon, he had more than an idea. He had a whole new family, a new life. He had a second chance to get everything right.
THE NEW GIRL’S name was Kara. She was a barista at Square One, a coffee shop in Lancaster. Short brunette hair, skinny hips. She wasn’t old enough to drink.
The first time he saw her, he was sitting in Square One. He put his hand over his mouth and said to a friend, “I think I love her.”
He took her to New Orleans, just to show her a good time, and when they came back, she was pregnant.
Orla Story Dimitris-Egolf was born on October 12, 2003.
This time, he stuck around. The three of them got a little place on Lemon Street, a few blocks from the main drag. Kara waitressed. Tristan washed dishes at a small café called Wish You Were Here.
Money was tight, granted. That was nothing new. But Tristan looked for all the world like a happy man. He kept his new family close, even when he seemed to stray off into new passions; on the day in 2004 that he got arrested — the day he stripped down to a skimpy thong and re-created the Abu Ghraib “torture pyramid” along with six similarly bethonged buddies, all for the edification of George W. Bush’s passing motorcade — Kara was standing next to the pyramid, pointing at the men’s butt cheeks, acting the part of Lynndie England.
“It was good times over there,” says Dave Stauffer, a longtime friend. Of course, it helped that Kornwolf was coming together beautifully. Tristan loved his Amish werewolf. He loved how the character churned up the social rot of the honky tundra in his wake. He loved smoking pot with Dave and driving all around Lancaster, taking notes on the landscape, trying to find the bars where the rebel Amish kids drank. Kornwolf was more than just a book. It was proof that he could write well without ditching his loved ones or going insane, the vessel for everything he cared about most — his wordplay, his thoughts on Amish puppy mills and Blonde on Blonde, on religious hypocrisy, on chaos — and also a way for him to enjoy the town he thought he hated, to turn his new life, his more balanced life, into art. He liked the book so much that he told his friend Frank Heibert, the man who had translated both of his prior books into German, that he wanted to write a cycle of five werewolf books, each one exposing a different slice of American sin. His next 10 or 15 years, work-wise, were all plotted out. Kornwolf was everything he could have hoped for as a fiction writer.
In the fall of 2004, Tristan shipped his first draft to New York.
He wrote a song for Paula, “Better Days”:
Everything fell apart with dad on the rails, leaving mom at home in tinsel town …
I’m glad he stayed gone, I’m glad he stayed gone …
Mom and we to better days and dad to the sacred chao …
Finally, Tristan heard from his agent, Andrew Wylie. Grove had made an offer. Wylie apparently told him it was a low offer. (This is according to Frank Heibert; Wylie isn’t talking.) The fact that Grove contacted his agent, not Tristan directly, suggested that they didn’t merely dislike the book. They believed it was beyond saving. Kornwolf, to Tristan, was almost a 12-step rehab program in prose form, the fruit of a difficult and personal journey, the blueprint for a new life — and now his editors weren’t even going to tell him why they thought it sucked. “He hoped for something promising there so that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Heibert. “And then they made the lousy offer, and he said, oh my god … he said, I don’t know what to do.”
Entrekin disputes Heibert’s interpretation. He agrees that he read part of an initial draft “and realized it needed some work,” but denies that Grove wrote Kornwolf off. Far from it. Grove asked for revisions, which Tristan made. “He was excited about Kornwolf,” says Entrekin. “We were, too. That book had more of a hook.”
Come to think of it, Grove could have rejected Kornwolf entirely. It didn’t. Entrekin had an investment in Tristan. He had already put out two books by a guy with a funny name and not-great sales, and now he was going to put out a third, and probably a fourth and a fifth too.
Entrekin is not the bad guy here. “I fully intended to keep publishing him,” he says. “He would build an audience over time, and sometime he would get lucky.” This is how it works. Writing is hard. Building a career takes time.
Almost any other writer would have recognized the Kornwolf affair for what it was — not a tragic failure, not a wrenching event, but the exact opposite: a fairly minor and common setback, all things considered. Pretty banal in the grand scheme.
So to understand what happened next, you have to remember that banality is what always freaked Tristan out the most; not the big passionate plot twists, the infidelities, the ER visits, the dried vomit on the floor, but the gaps between them. The relative calm, the domestic peace. The little grainy adjustments it takes to maintain that peace. The decades of interesting prose and decent reviews that threatened to stretch out before him.
Tristan may have been capable of a lot of things. If so, he was a man capable of a lot of things who told himself for 33 years that he was capable of only one.
“It’s all I can do,” he said once, on French TV, smiling slightly, “in the world.”
And if Tristan wasn’t good at that one thing …
EVERYTHING IS ARBITRARY, everything is explosively unfair. Everything is not going to be okay. The rent check bounces. The book doesn’t sell. The egg implants in defiance of the Pill. Banana peel, bonk, crash, the audience roars, you marine-crawl to a new mark and do the whole routine over again. It takes courage to embrace this vision of life — Tristan’s vision — as what he called, in one of his books, a perpetual slapstick cliffhanger.
And yet even the slapstick hero has to sit back and pay the bills and scoop the dog shit from the walkway.
It takes courage to be boring, too.
So he was out one night. Friday night. That coming Sunday was Mother’s Day, 2005. He was drinking, according to the story his friends heard later. He and Kara had been fighting. He drank into the night and into the early morning. When he came back to the house, a little rowhome on Charlotte Street, he was carrying a shotgun. He walked into the bedroom. Woke up Kara, so she could see. Put the shotgun into his mouth. Nine-one-one. Sirens, police. An obituary in the Times: “Tristan Egolf, a young novelist whose lavish prose was dismissed by some critics as callow … ”
And that was it. Exit novelist.
FOR MONTHS AFTERWARD, Paula refused visitors. She retreated to her easels, immersing herself in color and shape. The few times she ventured out of the house, people would inevitably walk up and start telling her how much Tristan had meant to them.
Eventually, there was a memorial service. His friends came, told stories. Jason Clouser, a.k.a. Dogboy, told the one about how Tristan used to piss in empty 40-ounce bottles back in Philly. It was that kind of service. Afterward, in a sunny field on the campus of Lancaster’s Franklin & Marshall College, Paula planted a tree in Tristan’s memory. A plaque beneath the tree says, “This story never ends … Tristan Egolf, 1971-2005. ”
… Which it didn’t, of course, because the only person to get closure from Tristan’s death was Tristan himself. He’d made sure of that. There were exposed power lines everywhere. Orla, half-orphaned. Kara traumatized. Gretchen cut in half. There were global reverberations. Over in France, Tristan’s daughter, Sashka, was six years old now, and talkative. Her physical resemblance to Tristan was eerie: same treelike nose, same canopy of a brow. She’d begun to beg her mother to take her to America. She had gotten it into her head that Tristan was waiting for her in one of those big American buildings with the millions of shiny windows. Sandra didn’t have anything of Tristan to give her daughter, so she went to court to claim the right to the next best thing. His name. Egolf. Sandra’s paternity suit generated a legal notice. And this notice then traveled overseas, to Lancaster … where a startled Paula, who had honored Tristan’s wish that she never contact Sandra or the baby, opened the envelope and saw a sea of French that she couldn’t read, and that she could only interpret, once she’d gotten over her confusion and shock, as a money grab by Tristan’s ex … the whole thing, just generally, making Paula grateful for the lessons she has recently been learning from her Buddhist guru — lessons about impermanence, and flux, and how to let go of need.
Her thin, cellophane voice on the phone: “And this is a gift that Tristan has given me.”
If only Colin Evans had seen it that way. When Colin heard the news out in Indiana, he immediately started drinking. He took it hard. In the days and weeks that followed Tristan’s death, Colin’s lungs deteriorated. He began to take long walks in the woods with his dog and a small revolver. On the afternoon of May 9, 2006, almost a year to the day after Tristan’s suicide, Colin shot himself in the head. He was 31. His family believes he died playing Russian roulette.
AS FOR TRISTAN’S final book, it fared a little better. Paula worked with Grove Press to tie up the loose ends and get it out the door, seven months after Tristan’s death. Kornwolf has so far sold north of 4,000 copies — four times as many as Skirt, but hardly enough for a best-seller. Nor did his other books benefit from a “death bump,” perhaps because his death generated almost zero interest outside of his family and friends; the only people who tracked his obituaries were obscure webloggers. Lord of the Barnyard plugs along at about 500 to 800 copies sold in the U.S. per year. Kornwolf has yet to be released in France; it may sell faster there.
At Gallimard, the book is being handled by Christine Jordis. Christine is brilliant and formidable. She has a Kathleen Turner voice and hair the color of a new nickel. Last year, on a quiet weekday afternoon in Paris, she sat in her dark office at Gallimard HQ, telling stories about Tristan. A few times, at Gallimard events, he drank so much that Christine had to carry him home — insofar as a wispy Frenchwoman can carry an American man-child — and place him as gently as possible onto the doorstep of his hotel.
“He had no gift for living,” Christine said. “He was so ill at ease with himself. He was so unhappy. He told me he literally couldn’t live without writing. And that was true. A lot of writers say this. But with him, it was true. He was either drinking, writing or dying. And certainly no joy in him. Great torment.”
After some more reflection, she added, “The pity is that he couldn’t make writing out of it, in the end.”
That afternoon, Christine, as usual, was having a busy week. Her wooden desk was piled with stacks of new manuscripts waiting to be read. On the wall behind her, a dry-erase whiteboard listed the foreign books that Gallimard would be publishing in 2007. Jack Kerouac’s name was on the board, as well as Philip Roth’s, Zadie Smith’s and Marisha Pessl’s.
Pessl was an interesting one. Thirty years old. Luminous skin. Super-talented. She’s the newest lit-world discovery and Times best-seller: went to Barnard, worked on Wall Street, did some acting, scored a jackpot six-figure advance for a debut novel — Special Topics in Calamity Physics — full of tightrope sentences and bright colors. Youthful exuberance without the torturedness. No misery, no pain. No Discordia. Nothing to keep Tristan from spinning happily in his grave