The Laws of Depravity

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

Indiana doesn't like to discuss his working-class New Hampshire upbringing, dismissing it with a vague swish of the hand: "I had a turbulent and strange life." So he skips ahead to his mid twenties, when he changed his name from Hoisington to Indiana and moved to L.A., where he wrote for punk zines. By the early '80s he had plunged himself into Manhattan's arts scene. Today everything's fragmented by niche marketing, but in that not-so-distant past someone with talent and fearlessness and energy—someone like Indiana—could move easily between writing, theater, music, and art.

"Part of the reason for that," he nods, "is that people weren't particularly fixated on getting rich, because you could rent a cheap apartment and make things without an eye to how you were going to sell and market them. I could do a play in the backyard of Bill Rice's house on 3rd Street and very famous people would come to see it. Everybody had odd jobs to pay the rent—in my case I used to hit up rich artists for money, or sometimes I'd get into these ludicrous situations of becoming the scriptwriter for debutantes who wanted to be filmmakers and had extra cash to throw around." When I raise my eyebrow suspiciously, Indiana protests, "I worked for them, I wasn't just lounging around! I never got into being a sex slave anyway—I don't know that I was ever good-looking enough to be decoration."

He wrote, directed, and acted in plays (including The Roman Polanski Story, his first attempt at fictionalizing a true story), performed with the Wooster Group, dreamed up "weird events" for the Mudd Club, even fronted a band called the Boners. He took parts in low-budget European movies and honed his critical acumen at Artforum and Art in America. That led to Indiana's three-year tenure as the Voice's art critic in the '80s, where he took every opportunity to poke holes in the gaseous balloon that was the art boom.

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

He winces a little as he says, "People thought I was gratuitously vicious, but I was just trying to be honest. It gave me the opportunity to introduce a note of dissonance into the march of folly. . . . People think that you're self-destructive if you're willing to make gestures against power that insure the making of enemies. But if your only concern in life is your success and viability among the people who wield power, then you might as well just start taking a lot of Klonopin every day."

Several years after he'd cemented his reputation as a troublemaking critic, Indiana published his debut novel. Horse Crazy is a beautiful sliver of obsession, narrated by an art critic who falls for a manipulative young junkie. The two novels that followed—Gone Tomorrow, which depicted brutal hedonism among a European movie crew, and Rent Boy, a black comedy about a savvy hustler—led critics to stereotype Indiana as a transgressive writer. It's true that there's plenty of drugs, gay sex, and violence in his early fiction, but the moniker always seemed too narrow. Transgressive fiction is mostly, as he bitchily puts it, "people writing dirty things about themselves, with varying degrees of skill," and though he admits that Horse Crazy is semiautobiographical, it's also clear that Indiana spends as much energy presenting social context as he does sketching a narrator in his books.

We have now moved from Indiana's apartment to an empty bistro in Chelsea, where the sous-chef stands behind the bar relentlessly chopping some unseen foodstuffs. The topic on the table is Indiana's ambivalent relationship with the literary world. Although critics lavished Resentment with praise, he doesn't seem confident that this breakthrough will hold. "We don't have a very expansive or welcoming literary culture—anything that looks remotely experimental is consigned to the margin of the margin of the margin," he says, shoveling foie gras around his plate. "I'm still not in the club, but I don't want to be in the club. I came from basically a working-class background and these people don't mean shit to me." His expression suggests equal parts disgust and distress. "I would like a little recognition as a writer from places that refuse to give me any—for reasons that I guess have everything to do with the fact that I haven't kissed enough asses in my life."

This is not a man afraid of risks—social or physical. "There were times when I placed myself in situations of unbelievable danger," Indiana admits. "When I was 18 I was living in California and I used to go round in drag a lot at that time and I would to go to the hospital to steal syringes for some junkie friends. One day I went to visit a woman in the hospital—and also partly to steal needles—and she said to me, 'You could go through anything and come out without a scratch.' I guess I always believed it."

He insists his behavior has mellowed with age, particularly since his mother's devastating death several years ago. But then he says coyly, "Of course, I still do things you're not supposed to do. . . . I grew up in a very provincial background where nobody had been much of anywhere. I wanted very much to have experiences, to know what I was talking about if I was writing about the world and about human beings." He continues, "It's not necessary to travel—Kafka never did—and I suppose if you come to know the horror inside yourself enough, you don't really have to know the horror of the outside world. I definitely know the horror inside me well enough now that I don't need to go anywhere to have it validated."

"Extinction" is at American Fine Arts at P.H.A.G. Inc. (530 West 22nd Street) Saturday through March 2. Indiana reads from Depraved Indifference February 12, 7 p.m., at Cohan Leslie and Brown (138 Tenth Avenue).

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