The Laws of Depravity

Gary Indiana Talks About Crime, Career, and the Culture of Indifference

Gary Indiana has a reputation, a slippery kind of notoriety that mutates depending on whom you talk to. Sometimes he's the novelist known for his tales of Lower East Side perversity, the former enfant terrible art critic for the Voice, the elfin character actor in dozens of obscure European art flicks. But mostly these days he's the chronicler of America's long dark slide into sleaze. He's just published the third book in his "American crime trilogy," Depraved Indifference (HarperCollins, $24.95), a sinister romp loosely based on the real mother-son grifter team Sante and Kenneth Kimes.

Indiana is a peculiar-looking man. His heavy-lidded eyes give him a slightly louche look and, in combination with his tiny stature, suggest someone who's walked straight out of a Fellini or David Lynch film. Today his hair is bleached blond with mossy brown patches that resemble leopard spots. For several minutes after he opens the door of his East Village apartment, his voice is drowned out by the hissing of steam pipes and gangsta rap. Hardly anything hangs on the walls of this railroad flat, just the Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of Gary looking fragile and fawnlike, hands primly clasped. I've known Indiana for a while, having edited the handful of pieces he's written for the Voice in recent years, but I've never pictured this choirboy persona. "I guess Robert saw something in me that no one else saw," he shrugs.

Indiana has been taking other people's photographs for more than 20 years. "Extinction," his first-ever exhibition, opens this week in Manhattan. It offers a peek at his life and preoccupations: portraits of friends from bygone days (the late writer Cookie Mueller; William Burroughs who, in beige polyester with gun cocked, looks a lot like Junior Soprano) and lovely traces of wanderlust (Cuba, India, the Sahara). There's a solarized image that, on closer inspection, turns out to be pubic hair and balls, and elegiac b&w images (leg mannequins emanating from the debris near the World Trade Center). Indiana had selected photos before September 11, but says he felt compelled to rethink the show, along with a lot of other things in his life.

Smoke and mirrors: Gary Indiana chronicles America's sinister side.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Smoke and mirrors: Gary Indiana chronicles America's sinister side.

"I went all summer without caffeine, nicotine, meat, fish, everything. I eliminated all these bad things and on September 11 the first thing I reached for was a cigarette and the second thing was a bottle of vodka. I never went back to drinking after that day, but the whole setup was blown. Reality developed a fissure that would throw anyone over the edge," he says woefully, swapping his coffee cup for a full bottle of Pepsi.

Fissures in reality are Indiana's stock in trade. His last two books, Resentment and Three Month Fever, ingeniously explored the gap between violent crimes and the way they are contorted by the scandal-starved mass media. Resentment (1997)—a novel that used as its backbone the lurid trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, rich kids from L.A. charged with murdering their abusive parents—was the decade's most biting and hilarious satire of hypermediatized American life. Three Month Fever (1999) came from the other direction: It was a heavily researched nonfiction account of Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer branded as a gay demon after he slayed designer Gianni Versace.

Depraved Indifference is the title of Indiana's new novel, but it's also a running theme in his work. His books suggest that the American romance with mobility (geographic and class) has resulted in a society where nobody's looking out for anyone else, where murderers and leeches, not to mention terrorists, can adopt and shed identities at will. There's no heavy-handed moralizing; Indiana just steps back and lets his reader absorb the ugliness. In Depraved Indifference, he says, he wanted to "shift emphasis from pathological forces that mold people into monsters and focus more on the lack of personal responsibility that these particular monsters feel about what they do."

The book riffs on Sante and Kenneth Kimes—here rechristened Evangeline and Devin Slote—who were convicted for the 1998 murder of their wealthy Upper East Side landlady. After observing their trial, Indiana decided he didn't want to write "an 'Isn't this a terrible scandal' thing." He explains in his nasal drawl, "I wanted to show how rampant things like identity theft and petty fraud and real estate shenanigans are—there's this whole substratum of American life that's basically grifters and con men. As the great American writer Patricia Highsmith said, 'Criminals are more interesting than other people.' "

Like Resentment, Depraved Indifference is a delightfully sordid and propulsive read. Evangeline is an old-school villainess with a face like Liz Taylor and a talent for sucking secrets out of strangers; her son Devin is equally warped. Evangeline's husband, Warren, is the only sane Slote, but he surrenders to his wife's increasingly violent subterfuge. The pair scheme their way up the political food chain as far as a photo op with Pat Nixon (as did Sante Kimes and hubby). But as Indiana says with a chuckle, "They were just too tacky. These people wormed their way up, but because of some class differences they weren't able to stay there."

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