Duff Brenna: The Altar of the Body

From one narrator to the next

Brenna: "I put my mother in a home, in La Mesa. She wasn’t doing too badly there, but then she started to wander."
  • Brenna: "I put my mother in a home, in La Mesa. She wasn’t doing too badly there, but then she started to wander."

The Altar of the Body: A Novel

Picador USA, 2001; 327 pages; $24

FROM THE DUST JACKET: George McLeod’s easygoing life turns to chaos when his bodybuilder cousin, Buck Root, reappears on his doorstep with his sexy girlfriend, Joy, and her mother, Livia, whose sense of reality blurs into the pages of her favorite western novel. Without protest, George takes this boisterous threesome under his roof, secretly nursing a helpless longing for Joy. But when Livia’s condition worsens, a long-dormant need for intimacy awakens in George. For the first time, George understands the rage to live life to its fullest — the rage that has consumed Joy, Buck Root, and Livia.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Author Duff Brenna was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s a high school dropout, an ex-hobo/farmer/paratrooper. On the afternoon that we talked, Brenna said, “We moved around when I was a boy. I went to school mainly in Aurora, Colorado. I’ve been on my own since I was 15.-1 worked on farms in Minnesota and traveled. My mother and sister had ended up in San Diego, and I found out about it so I came out to visit them. That was the first time I was in San Diego — that was in the ’60s -— and then I went back to Minnesota. You get tired of that weather back there, so I came out here and went to school at San Diego State in the late ’70s, got my degree.”

Brenna graduated from San Diego State University summa cum laude, and after three years on a dairy farm that went bust, Brenna received his MFA from State. Brenna’s first novel, The Book of Mamie, whose central character, Mamie, is a six-foot-tall redhead, won the 19$8 Associated Writing Programs Award for Best Novel. He is also author of The Holy Book of the Beard and Too Cool, a New York Times “notable” book. Brenna, since 1990, has taught at California State University in San Marcos, where he is now a professor of English. He lives in Poway.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: One thing I enjoyed about The Altar of the Body, I said, is the way the story moves from one narrator to the next, from George to Buck to Joy to Livia and back again to George. I asked if Brenna would talk to me about his novel’s structure.

“Faulkner,” said Brenna, “does this, the multiple-point-of-view thing, and Tolstoy does it in Anna Karenina and War and Peace. This jumping around, I’ve always been enamored of it. And then when I started writing this book, I started writing it from George’s point of view, and as I got into it, I realized that there were things that I couldn’t have about these characters by sticking with George all the time. So I ended up trying several different ways of how I would do this and ended up going to each character’s point of view. George might think one way about, say, Buck, or one way about Livia. But then you get into Livia’s point of view, and you know Buck and George were off on that one. But then you get into Joy’s point of view and you realize, ‘This guy Buck is on antidepressives all the time, or he’s not at all what he seems to be.’ So I just found it really intriguing to be able to go into those various points of view and take different slants on the same experience that these people were having. One thing I played with a lot in there was, ‘What did happen to Joy’s baby? Is there a baby or not, and did it die of crib death or not?’ ”

“Or,” I said, “did she smother the baby?”

“Right,” said Brenna, “You’re asking, ‘What did happen?’ because you’re getting it from this point of view, you’re getting it from that point of view. And then you get the thing about the three of them, drunk, and you ask, ‘Who did pull the trigger on that gun?’ Buck says Joy did it. And he’s got their whole story down pat. And then Joy says, ‘The guy’s a liar. Buck pulled the trigger on the gun.’ And I really liked it. I said, ‘To me, that’s what life is like.’ We tell stories, and maybe we come to believe our own lies, but we tell stories from the slant that we want people to understand those stories. And who knows where the truth is? That’s a theme that runs through the book. And where the hell is the truth here, even in one portion of it? George is talking, and here’s one part of the story, here’s another part of the story, and he says, ‘That’s true too.’ I mean that in the same sense that Shakespeare means it when he’s talking in King Lear, and he has Gloucester, saying, ‘No further, sir, no further, sir, I’m not going any farther with this.’ And Edgar says to him, ‘Men must endure/ Their going hence, even as their coming hither;/ Ripeness is all: come on.’ And Gloucester says, ‘And that’s true too. That’s true; too.’ And what he means by that is that there are all kinds of slants on truth. No one has truth in his hip pocket.”

Brenna paused, then added, “Part of the problem with what’s happening right now is that the fanatic wing of Muslims, the terrorists, the bloody murderers, they think they have truth in their hip pocket. Using that as a metaphor in saying, ‘I’ve got the truth and nobody else has the truth, and if I’ve got the truth, I can do anything I want to anybody else.’ And one of the things that this book tries to play with in some sense is the diceyness of the truth. You don’t know what the truth is, and I don’t believe that there is a truth with a capital ‘T.’ I believe that all these truths are small ‘t’ truths that get us through life. If there is a capital-truth ‘T,’ it is in that message.

“I think it-was Pythagoras who said; ‘If you would speak to God, you’ve got to learn the language of God.’ Well, what language does God speak? He speaks mathematics because mathematics is the language of truth — it can’t lie. But other than that, there is no such thing.”

“So,” I said, “using the multiple points of view also speaks to your idea of what Truth is and is not.”

“Right. Exactly.”

“And,” I said, “what very different people your principal characters are. George, for instance, is this pot-bellied stay-at-home, stodgy fellow, while Buck is this hard-traveling, body-sculpting con artist.”

“George,” said Brenna, “doesn’t know where Buck is coming from. George’s whole life is turned upside-down. He had loved his mother very much. His mother dies, and so he’s living a nice calm life, he doesn’t want to change. He’s got his buddies down at the bar. Twenty-nine years it’s been since George and Buck have seen each other. Twenty-nine years. And here comes Buck, and it’s not the little skinny kid who got sand kicked in his face. Here comes Buck, this monstrous hormone-eating pumped-up guy, been winning all kinds of trophies as a weight-lifter.... He’s been to Los Angeles, the Baja peninsula, Philadelphia....”

“And,” I said, “Minneapolis Thighs.”

“Yes,” Brenna said, “Minneapolis Thighs. These people who come into George’s life want to have it all. And George wants to just kick back, have a beer, watch a little TV, read a book. Then this comes into his life, and he’s, like, ‘Wow, hang onto those Vitamins,’ as he says in one part of the book, ‘Everything in my life is upside down, my life has turned upside down, I don’t know where I am.’ But there’s part of him that wants them there, and especially wants Joy there. At first it’s just pure lust. But George genuinely falls in love with them.”

The Altar of the Body opens with George sitting on his porch on a hot day in Medicine Lake, Minnesota. He watches a man push a Lincoln Continental. Brenna writes, “It’s an old car, a four-door boater, champagne-colored, with rust patches showing through the wheel wells, roof dented in the center looking like a little birdbath or a holster for a cannonball.”

“So,” said Brenna, “the action starts out with Buck pushing the weighty Lincoln Continental. Joy and Livia, inside the Lincoln, represent the weight that he’s pushing. And then Joy herself, she is weighed down, I tried to get that round-shouldered image of her. And it’s psychological weight that she’s carrying. She’s actually carrying Buck and Livia as weight.”

“And,” I said, “she’s also carrying Ho Tep, that ugly little dog [described by Brenna as ‘pug-faced, black-and-white’ with ‘foggy eyes’].”

“Yes, and Ho Tep. And Livia is carrying her own weight, which, in a sense, is her entire past, which she’s trying to escape by going into this book she’s always reading, West of the Pecos. And West of the Pecos is very deliberate, too, not only because of the song about Pecos Pete, but because going west is an old Irish way of saying you’re leaving this land — you’re ‘going west.’ So Livia tries to supplant the weight of her own life and what is happening to her, by entering the book. First she is the partner of one of West of the Pecos' characters, Cody Larson, and then she starts to supplant Cody Larson, and she enters the book and takes over his role. And I think that’s fine, and it’s good for you, what she does with that book. Because what are you going to do with your mind? If it goes there, into a book, at least you’re in a world that is meaningful to you; at least you still have a life, and life comes out of this book, and you’re a hero in the book. And Livia wants to be a hero.” I asked about Ho Tep, the dog whom Livia clutches to her.

“Oh, poor little Ho Tep.

“I don't believe that there is a truth with a capital ‘T.' I believe that all these truths are small Y truths that get us through life.

"Little Ho Tep is based on my mother’s actual dog, a Shih Tzu. I took that dog over after my mother died. I didn’t really want him at first. I didn’t want the weight of the dog, the reminder of the dog, but I came just to love that little dog. He lived another three years. He was an old man.”

I asked how long ago Brenna’s mother died.

“On May 24, 1995. And it was shortly after that that I started writing this book.”

I mentioned that I’d heard that Brenna took care of his mother for the last year of her life.

He did, he said, adding, “I wish I had taken care of her better. I’m no hero when it comes to all this; it scared the bejesus out of me. I didn’t know quite how to handle it. She did get a really severe case of dementia in which she couldn’t remember my sister’s name and she couldn’t remember my name. She was living in Preston, Arizona. I took a truck, I went up there, I loaded it up, I brought her down here, and I tried to care for her. And then, after a while, I felt that I just couldn’t deal with her. So I put her in a home, in La Mesa. She wasn’t doing too badly there, but then she started to wander. They told me, ‘We can’t have that. You’ve got to get your mother out of here; she’s got to be in a secure place.’

“So I put her in a secure place. And I don’t know how much you know about this, but about the worst thing you can do with these people with dementia is move them. She got all discombobulated, she was in a fog, and it was after that, just a downhill slide. She kept going down, going down, going down. I had her in this home that was all dementia people, all ladies, real nice little home.

"Really, though, if I had been a stronger person, 1 would have kept her here and gotten somebody to come in during the day, paid them money to watch her, and then I would have concentrated on her myself. I think she might have lived longer. But what happened, I think, is that she had a stroke in that home, and the woman called me and said, ‘Your mom’s had a stroke.’ So I went up there, and they wanted to bring the h’ospice. One of the words that never left my mother’s vocabulary was ‘home.’ And she kept saying, ‘Home, home.’ And I just picked her up in my arms, and she weighed like a two-year-old, and I put her in my car, and I drove her home, and I put her to bed, and that’s where she died. She would have been 75 the next day. She didn’t quite make it. She had a big life. She had a no-holds-barred kind of life.”

Had his father been dead for a long time?

“Dad died when I was four. I had a series of stepfathers. My mother’d been married six times. This woman didn’t sit around and wait for anybody. She was a pistol, lot of energy. Lot of beauty, lively. I mean, she’d come in, and a room would light up.”

“Just like you describe Livia in The Altar of the Body.”

“Just exactly that way.”

“There are a lot of very beautiful scenes in this book. I thought one such scene was the one where George watches Buck and Joy make love outside underneath a tree.” I read from the end of that scene, where Brenna describes the postcoital moment:

“ ...they stay like that, cooing in the backwash of love. Tree leaves tremble in the wind, and the garden, stretching out in half shade, half sun, is swaying, tomatoes wobbling, bean bushes shuddering, carrot tops lacily reaching for each other.”

Brenna said, “They had, been expressing their love for each other, right in nature, right in the open in nature. We’re talking themes, you know, the theme of the body. When Buck’s pumped up, he looks about as good as he’s ever looked....”

“His sweat, you wrote, was like icing or frosting?”

“Like sugar glaze. So he’s been pumping himself up and looking in the mirror, and he said, ‘I’m beautiful, you know.’ And then they express that love that they have at that moment. But then the body itself breaks down; the whole course of the book is an exploration of that, what happens to us. We go through this period in which we get this wonderful body, and we make them into whatever we can, but it’s inevitable that the body is not going to be that way forever. I wanted to explore that idea. Where do you go, then, with the body? Each one of us tries to find a place to go. Livia goes into the book. Buck realizes, ‘I can’t do this anymore, this body-building, so I’m going to write my biography.’ Well, that doesn’t work so well. He doesn’t have the discipline, he doesn’t have the will to write that biography.”

I wondered how Brenna felt, once he finished a book.

“I talked to my agent about this not too long ago. I get so depressed once a book’s out of my hands, and even when this book was coming out, I go through this period in which I get really depressed. I’m not quite sure why that is or why I shouldn’t be jumping up and down with joy. I am not quite sure why I am not saying, ‘God, I did another one, wow.’ I think it is, in a way, that part of me that says, ‘There goes my baby, movin’ on down the line,’ and there’s nothing I can do to protect my baby. People are going to be coming at it. I’ve been through this probably four times; I know what reviewers do, I know how people react, I know the insensitive, stupid things they say to you about your book and your characters. You know also that they don’t read it, and if they do read, you know that they don’t understand it. That said, there are a lot of good ones too. Very smart ones.

“But it is sad for me, somehow, when I finish a book. It’s like losing a child. These people are really alive. A lot of it, too, is based on people that I knew, like my mom, Joy, Buck. I met the couple on whom I based Joy and Buck in Alaska, just as he was going off to an Alaska competition. She was a dancer, a B-girl in a bar; she hustled guys, got them to buy her drinks, champagne. And he was always bumming money from me. His real name was not Buck. But her real name was Joy.”

I asked if he thought they’d read his new novel.

He didn’t. “They’re not readers. They were just wild-eyed people that thought somewhere, along the line, they were going to be discovered. One of these days, someone was going to want to sweep them off to Hollywood and movies.’

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