Attracted to Oblivion

“I had the idea of an average San Diego guy, with a baseball cap, you know, and flannel shirt and Levi’s and burritos. He watches the Padres, and he’s a bouncer at a topless bar.” John Brizzolara was telling me about Nathaniel York, the central character in his novels Wirecutter and Thunder Moon. “He’s a kind of marginal slob. He’s smart, fast, burned out. He was in the Vietnam War. Very cynical. He really doesn’t give a damn about anybody or anything, except — here’s where you find him — he’s got a streak of sentiment, a streak of humanity, a streak of ‘this is not right, this is wrong, and I’ve got to do something about it.’ He’s the kind of guy that wants to get through life with the least amount of trouble, yet gravitates toward trouble.”

Nathaniel York would probably expect to end his days in a room like John Brizzolara’s. It’s in a clean, attractive residential hotel around the corner from the Little Italy sign. But walking down the hallway of the Villa Caterina doesn’t prepare you for what’s inside: the decor is one Smirnoff bottle away from Contemporary American Skid Row. The bed — a bare mattress with a couple of disheveled blankets — commands most of the space; a laptop computer and TV contend for space against the rubble of a small desk; piles of clothes and papers and empty food cartons obscure the rug, which may be a mercy. Paperback novels, an exception to the disorder, sit tidily on their shelves, a kind of protest against the surrounding chaos.

Brizzolara cleaned off a chair and motioned for me to sit on it. As he reclined on the bed he said, “You be the psychiatrist, I’ll be the patient.” He had had plenty of experience as a patient, judging from the array of medications on the nightstand. On the floor, within easy reach from the bed, were a giant bottle of Beck’s and a tumbler of clear liquid. I hoped it was water. It was 11 o’clock in the morning.

He is a large man, with long black hair and a beard so handsome it made me wonder if I should grow one. Khaki shorts exposed a long scar on his leg, the site where surgeons had extracted a vein for his heart. Dirty white socks covered most of his toes, allowing only two to roam free in open air.

On the bed next to him was a manuscript of Thunder Moon. He started talking about it before I had time to turn on my tape recorder. I had planned to begin with questions about his background — family, hometown, education, literary influences, the usual stuff of interviews — but what mattered to him was the work, the story, the Thing Itself: “Not bad, you know. Better than I thought it was. The pacing, the action, the dialogue. But it is, fundamentally, pulp writing. I’m puzzled by reading this — like, like why was I screwed out of this?”

In Wirecutter, published by Doubleday in 1987, Nathaniel York falls for a topless dancer, a beautiful young woman from Mexico. York’s “streak of sentiment” sends him to Tijuana in search of her missing brother. While there, he stumbles upon a scheme for smuggling migrants across the border, some to become laborers and some to become prey for well-to-do hunters on a North County estate. York manages to destroy this nefarious business, but its chief, Eugene Walters, escapes into an unknown future.

That ending left the door open for a sequel, but Brizzolara’s next project was a comic novel about Italian-Americans. His editors at Doubleday weren’t interested in it. They wanted him to write, instead, another story about Nathaniel York. Brizzolara said, “So I thought, ‘Okay. I’m a novelist. I can do this.’ ”

He was living in Mexico at the time. In 1980, after playing rock music for 15 years — 10 in New York — Brizzolara and his wife and young son had moved to San Diego. They found a fixer-upper in Mission Hills. “Got it cheap,” he said. “Now it’s a nice house, but we refurbished it, redid everything. We called it ‘the edifice complex.’ ” Almost as soon as it was done, they divorced. He had just finished Wirecutter and had had an affair with a woman who accompanied him to Mexico for two weeks. “I was balancing, you know, my wife, my son, the woman I loved — or was enamored with — and I made a choice. I left my marriage. To this day, I don’t know which would have been the better choice or decision. It’s one of those deals, like, no matter what you do, you’re going to regret it. But we’re still good friends.”

To begin his new life, he’d moved to Mexico. He had not only gone through a divorce but, after many months of chemotherapy and radiation, had survived Hodgkin’s disease. He felt liberated: “I was free! I was cured! I had a multiple-book contract! I had this big house, right on the cliffs overlooking the sea — seals and pelicans, you know, dolphins — a really nice Mexican hacienda. I got it pretty cheap. It was surrounded by trailers and surfers — Mexicans, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders. People from all over the world came because that was a particularly cool surf spot. I knew nothing about this world. I grew up in Chicago, and it’s, like, ‘Surf, what?’ But I got to know some of these guys, and they were fascinating. What we’d do is build a fire at night. They tried to teach me how to surf. I wasn’t very good.” As he told me this, he rubbed his shoulders and groaned, “Oh, like Ben-Gay.”

He drew on what he learned for his novel. He had originally titled it K-38-1/2, the exquisitely unimaginative name of the town he was living in, exactly 38 1/2 kilometers from the border. But Doubleday didn’t like the title, thought it sounded like a pistol. “So I came up with a really pulpy title, which I like a lot — Thunder Moon. You know it’s not literature, not Faulkner.”

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