The cursed union that birthed Max G. Morton began at a Blue Cheer show. His mother, drawn by the flyer, showed up to see a proto-metal band so heavy “they made cottage cheese out of thin air.” There, she met Morton’s “junked-out, chopper, Nazi father,” who came looking for a fight and ended up instead with a son. “That was one of the first three bands I ever listened to,” Morton says evenly from across the table in a dim East Village restaurant. “So it explains a lot.”
In 2007, a shadowy book appeared: Indestructible Wolves of the Apocalypse Junkyard, the first volume of Morton’s memoirs, issued by a small Philadelphia press, Heartworm, and passed like contraband up and down the East Coast. Marbled with toothless hookers, step-sibling incest, highway gunfights, and Fear and Loathing–type run-ins with Hawaiian-shirted undercover cops, the book depicted the bitter, sometimes hilarious wages of a decade’s worth of addiction. Next came 23, a 2008 compilation of more of Morton’s hallucinatory, violent misadventures, accompanied by equally toxic contributions from others, among them Heartworm proprietor Wes Eisold and Howie Pyro, the man who saw Sid Vicious die.
“When you’re in your late thirties and just starting to write,” says Morton, who has yet to hit 40, “you have to start somewhere.” Somewhere, in Morton’s case, was his own childhood: a tumultuous early go of it in Tampa, Florida, ground zero for “suburban, ’80s white rage.” His house was an unstable one; at times, Morton and his mother would flee north to New York, where she was born. Morton left home while still in his teens and spent the next years bouncing around New York, where he had a “bad, bad run” with heroin. Then Florida again, Oregon, New York, L.A., Arizona. In the desert, he got clean. Shortly after, Morton landed in Philadelphia, where he remains. In Wolves, “I’m basically talking about a person who’s dead,” Morton says, inked-on tears crowding his eyes.
Writing was an unlikely turn. In Tampa, books were around—Genet, Céline, Brautigan—but their world felt far away. “You’d get a book by Hubert Selby Jr. or Henry Miller or someone like that. Who am I to compete with them? I’m a 13-year-old fuck-up from Florida who’s sniffing glue in my room,” says Morton, laughing. But it’s precisely that kid—”a septic teen living in a low rent duplex on aggravation place, sleeping on a third generation bed with high end zebra sheets,” as he describes himself in Wolves—who gave Morton a second life as a writer.
When a friend convinced him to publish the journals he’d always kept, a stylist emerged. Bikers and skinheads cavort in flickering arcades. Naked rich girls on acid “with loaded handguns in their manicured hands” provide Morton’s coming-of-age. On birthdays, Morton and his mother watch B movies, the scenes set in lurid, Selby-esque prose: “The Aryan poster girl Matilda the Hun, the corpse paint baseball bat wielding New York City foot soldiers, and life in the twenty third century where nobody lives past thirty years old possessed my brain,” Morton writes, “while I washed down my junk food with my suicide flavored big gulp, waiting for the sci-fi future to arrive.” On the page, visions and magical-thinking compete with reality—narrowly vérité history this is not.
Looking for the Magic, the next installment of Morton’s sprawling autobiography, comes out in May. After that, there are plans to turn the whole series into a single book, ideally destined for a house larger than Heartworm. “It’s an exorcism so I can move on in life,” admits Morton, explaining his compulsion to visit a world he no longer lives in. “But it’s also a fan letter to all the things that kept me alive.”
Shortly after Kline, the detective protagonist of Brian Evenson’s new novel, Last Days, has his right hand cut off by an assailant, he makes a shopping list with the left one: esgs, he writes down, then dread, and nelk. While recovering in bed, Kline plots his future: “Perfect a game of one-handed golf. Purchase a drawerful of prosthetics for all occasions. Buy some cigars.”
“Laugh,” as Evenson puts it on the phone from Providence, where he’s director of Brown’s Literary Arts Program, “or be horrified.” 2002’s Dark Property—the writer’s phenomenally apocalyptic experiment with antique language and modern, Cormac McCarthy–esque violence—was visceral, even nauseating. 2006’s darkly comic The Open Curtain traced a murderous Mormon teenager’s descent into madness via his increasingly bizarre internal monologues. Neither lacked for humor or dread.
Last Days, expanded from a 2003 novella, The Brotherhood of Mutilation, is yet another version of the same ingredients—this time, hardboiled. In the tradition of many a Paul Auster protagonist, Kline is a kind of phenomenological detective, investigating a murder among a shadowy cult of amputees. A rival group of fanatics—worshippers of both the apostle Paul and Paul Wittgenstein, Ludwig’s one-handed, piano-playing brother—may be involved. As the two cults collide, the book careens past biblical satire into full-on, blood-soaked, Beckettian absurdity. The book dead-ends at an unanswerable, existential question: “How do you know the moment when you cease to be human?”
Evenson—whose spare, measured prose style belies his often gruesome subject matter—was inspired to write Last Days while reading pre-Chandler noir by Dashiell Hammett. Rather than the classic “tough guy, who’s soft on the inside,” Hammett’s early heroes were “a little more brutal, a little more confused,” says Evenson, who recognized something of his own work in books like 1929’s Red Harvest. “Things that are happening go just a little more over the edge.”
Evenson’s edge, of course, is a bit further out than Hammett’s. In Kline’s room at the Brotherhood’s compound, a gory pin-up hangs, her body “little more than a torso,” wearing a banner that reads “Miss Less Is More.” A stripper at a Brotherhood amputation party sheds not clothes but body parts, egged on by “a dull thumping, the sound of stumps beating against one another.”
“There’s something about people or characters in extreme situations,” Evenson says, “where they start to reveal things about themselves and about what it means to be human.” Readers of his work are not exempt to this sort of trial. Ideally, he says, “You experience a book in the same way you’d experience an event in life.” He pauses, then adds grudgingly: “With limitations, obviously.”
Brian Evenson will read from Last Days at Solas, 232 East 9th Street, February 19, at 7:30 p.m.