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.
“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.”
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.
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).