It’s a tale lip-synched by a drag queen. So the ending’s happy, sort of. Torch songs forever. It’s all drag.
For those who know the distinctive prose of Tom Spanbauer, his new book, In the City of Shy Hunters, tears the roof off the English language all over again, as he did in his previous book, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon.
Spanbauer’s avoidance of quotation marks and frequent use of “incomplete” sentences should clue the reader in to the fact that he is up to something different. Rather than attempt to fit his ideas and stories into the conventional framework of prose, Spanbauer shape-shifts his language into a form worthy of his content. He is a word collector and a wordsmith, making the language his own, turning it back into what it most importantly is: communication, healing, the expression of inner truth.
And he gets away with it. Because, not only is the prose heart-melting like butter, but the content is deep as the bottom of the ocean. Spanbauer resides in a double-wide penthouse on the roof of the house of archetypes, sharing secrets with Joseph Campbell, James Joyce, Sophocles, and the like.
Thirty-one year old William of Heaven departs his homeland in Idaho and travels to New York City in search of his boyhood friend, Charlie 2Moons. William of Heaven scrubs the cat piss out of his new apartment on 205 East Fifth Street, and begins exploring Wolf Swamp, a.k.a. Manhattan, with his heart open wide as Hell’s Canyon.
William of Heaven’s honesty and charming vulnerability win him an eclectic fellowship of friends that only New York City can offer. Fiona, a frizzy, dark-haired angel of a performing artist with a cleft palate from the suburbs of Connecticut. Ruby Prestagiacomo, a red-haired Italian junkie who gives people their real names. True Shot, a would-be Sioux Indian who drives the Door of the Dead van. Rose, a Shakespearean actor and drag queen, best friends with Elizabeth Taylor. Rose’s charismatic brand of tough love wisdom bends the world around him.
The following is from the moment William of Heaven, a waiter, first sees Rose, a customer at his restaurant being seated by the maitre d’.
Rose’s head was shaved, his beard partially gray. The earrings were rhinestones and holograms and big gold loops. Bracelets up both arms, gold, copper, brass, Bakelite, costume jewels. Capris, I guess you’d call the pants. Avocado Capris, mid-calf, tight, big basket, big butt. The largest red Converse tennis shoes I’d ever seen. A leather bag from the shoulder. A T-shirt with something written on the T-shirt, the neck scooped out, cut to expose Buddha belly and two ropes of muscles up his back. Two strands of pearls, matinee length.
At table thirty-six, a Wall Street-type in a business suit, and just as Daniel passed by the table with Rose, the suit leaned over and whispered to a woman in a suit just like his. The suits laughed. Rose stopped walking, took a deep breath, tucked his chin, raised his shoulders, and turned toward the table, bracelets clack-clack.
Colorful nigger, ain’t he? Rose said to the suits, loud enough for the whole town.
Quiet that only New York can get that fast.
Language, according to William of Heaven, is his second language. Neither that, nor his mother’s nerves, nor his stutter can get in the way of him always telling the truth, no matter how dark. And the dark truth told by William of Heaven is dark. Incest, blood, betrayal; all sorts of other stuff you wouldn’t want to track in the house. But with Spanbauer’s gentle words, and William of Heaven’s gentle heart, you can go there and feel safe, and see some things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Even the sweaty ass-crack smells...almost... like a rose.
Spanbauer’s few words about the World Trade Center are hauntingly prophetic:
True Shot said, What better place for an entrance to the underworld than under the World Trade Center?
As I lit the cigarette, the World Trade Center was in the rearview mirror, and I turned around to look. The World Trade Center buildings were so beyond human they’d disappeared.
You have to wonder what else about the book is prophetic. The war of Dog Shit Park? A cure for AIDS in a Tylenol bottle carried around by a Stranded Being Searching For God? The death of Officer White Supremacy?
In a town such as ours, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a nature writer, a book about the ecosystem known as New York might have refreshing appeal. Moreover, some of the backstory flashbacks to Idaho would make Edward Abbey dab his eyes.
We tied the horses up where there was some grass, and Bobbie and Charlie and I took off our shoes and rolled up our pant legs and waded through the water, on the rocks the clear water was running over. The sound of the water rolling over the rocks was nice in our ears. There was a wind, too, Idaho gusts that whipped around. The water was so cold I had to keep getting out to stand on the side of the creek in a sunny spot.
For a guided tour through the wilderness of the human heart, visit the City of Shy Hunters.