By Julie Littman
“Spreadeagle”, by Kevin Killian, is a double header with two distinctive stories about two very different sets of characters. Part I, “Extreme Remedies,” follows the life of self-promoting and often-pompous fiction writer Daniel Isham, who is well-known for writing the “Rick and Dick” series, poppy and comical books about two gay men, which are rumored to be Isham and his lover, Kit Kramer. Isham is constantly struggling with emerging from the limelight of his now-dead father, a famous poet, and being confused by “Tales of the City” writer Armistead Maupin — while Kramer, an AIDS activist working for Operation Perform, is torn between his life with Isham and leaving behind his former man, Sam D’Allesandro, who has been slowly dying of AIDS. Isham and Kramer live in an extravagant house paid for by Isham’s family trust, complete with a staircase displaying pineapples etched into the metal framework. They live a very bourgeois lifestyle, and Isham has no problem paying to have two Finish friends he meets — on Skype — to come to his house for Thanksgiving since it would become an excellent premise for a new “Rick and Dick” book. Though Isham and Kramer are self-centered and borderline assholes, they believe their actions portray them as saints, like practically kidnapping a young black girl while her mother is down and out and later claims her. Kramer also tries to help out a starving artist, Eric Avery, but gets plenty of blow jobs out of the deal. Things later fall apart — somewhat due to Isham’s jealousy — and Avery is eventually asked to leave.
The third-person narration broadens the story scope, showing Kramer and Isham’s often disconnected understandings of the world. Killian switches between the two characters in seamless fashion. The rich dialogue emphasizes this disconnect — not only from each other but from the minor characters who surround them. Isham meets an art dealer and is so obsessed with being confused with the famous author Maupin that Isham blurts out that he didn’t write the “The Tales of the City” series — even though the art dealer never asked nor took much interest in Isham’s profession.
Part II, “Silver Springs,” begins with a gruesome scene as narrator Geoff Crane finally meets Gary Radley, a man that he had been stalking from afar. Using Crane’s vantage point, the deep introspective reveals that he has been looking for excitement in his dull town of Gavit, the bastard second cousin of Fresno and Bakersfield — and he certainly finds it. Crane runs a rather successful business selling off counterfeit paraphernalia and photographs of famous people. He has perfected Michelle Obama’s signature and compares most things in his life to Audrey Hepburn movies, as well as other classics. But there is little movie-worthy description of Radley’s trailer, which houses the skin of a man’s face, nailed above the bed — a man that Radley claims he killed in Bakersfield, for leaving a cult. But because Crane falls so fatuously in love with Radley, he overlooks violent actions leading to sexual and physical abuse — and even helps his friend cover up a murder.
While “Extreme Remedies” illustrates the selfishness of human beings, “Silver Springs” looks at the underbelly of the human soul. As Crane falls deep into a meth addiction — and later paranoia — he begins to question reality and believes the lies that Radley feeds him. As the story becomes darker, the plot twists, tying the two tales together while maintaining clarity, bringing resolution to the antiheroes in both stories — as well as redemption, which will relieve any dissuaded readers.
Killian’s characters are the strongest asset of the novel, followed by the distinctive “New Narrative” style that his book embodies. The characters have such crisp descriptions that you want to jump into the story and slap the characters when they clearly need reprimanding. Killian creates such holistic characters that they reveal so much about humanity by doing so much wrong — either through selfishness or violence or drugs, even if there are moments of hatred for these people.
“Spreadeagle” isn’t for readers looking for a happy ending — nor is it for those who like to follow do-gooders prevailing justice. It’s for those who want the truth about life — that it’s a terrible place often filled with very self-delusional people who only want to do what is best for them. This is a glimpse into the harshness of life and reality that’s not often found in mainstream fiction.
To find out more about the dynamics of Killian’s novel, Criminal Class Press staff writer, Julie Littman, sat down with the author in San Francisco.
CRIMINAL CLASS PRESS: How did you come up with the premise for “Spreadeagle”? In other words, what compelled you to write this book?
KEVIN KILLIAN: I started the book in 1990. In 1990 my propulsion was to write something about the AIDS epidemic and that had begun in the mid ’80s. 1984 is when we became aware of it. By 1990 we were all in the middle of AIDS activism groups, Queer Nation and ACT Up! When I started writing the book, it was really an ACT Up novel. All the characters were going to be on one side of the flag or the other. I have a great friend, Sara Schulman, and she is a novelist and she was in New York ACT Up! She told us all — very strictly — that history is going to judge everyone who is alive today, in terms of what they did to fight AIDS. It was a real moral imperative. So I plunged into writing it, and you can still see some traces of it today. Kit is working for an ACT UP!-like organization called Operation Perform, it’s a take on Project Inform, which is an organization that helps locate, publicize and fund new AIDS treatments. And it was also shaming pharmaceutical companies into lowering their prices. That was one of the big things for them. In 1990 there were no vaccines or drugs that did any good. Along the way, I think I just lost the thread. At a certain point I had to choose between making it a historical novel in the very early ’90s or just keep it contemporary. I decided to make it contemporary with what happens to the various characters.
The other thing that happened is that I had a friend, Sam D’Allesandro. He was a one of the writers in our group, The New Narrative. He died in 1988. Poor guy was only 31, and he was a brilliant writer — the best of all of us. He was a really good looking guy. I’ve met many writers, and he was the most gorgeous of all. When he was struck by AIDS, he had what was called KS (Kaposi Sarcoma), and his whole face became disfigured with this horrible facial wasting. He withdrew into his apartment for the last two years. I rarely saw any of him because, I guess, the shock to his vanity, maybe — and then he died. I seized on using this novel to keep him alive. So you see, he just lives on and on and into the ’90s and into the 2000s; and now the book is set in 2012 and that’s when he dies. Everything about him in this book is true. It had a kind of docu-feel to it. It was fun writing those parts of the book.
CCP: How did the second part come about? It’s so different and yet you connect it together by the end. How did that spin off of the first part?
KK: Would you believe that’s the part I wrote first? A chapter from it was published in an anthology in 1990. It was a chapter where the narrator, Geoff, first spies on the guy and finally makes it into the trailer and has sex with him. He sees that ghastly ribbon of skin hanging on the wall, like a poster. I wrote that long ago. It was kind of like a dream.
CCP: There were parts of it that did feel like a dream.
KK: Some people have said that I must have lived in a town like that — well, actually, no. It was from my imagination and maybe Cinemax-type movies about bad little towns — Jim Thompson novels. He’s an American noir writer who wrote “The Killer Inside Me.”
So I wanted Part One to have a “Tales of the City” feel, like a pretty light social comedy that would interpose different types of writing, middle-brow kitschy writing that Daniel Isham represents — and an avant-garde writing that Sam represents, in a way. I thought, ‘This is brilliant; I’ll make them like a triangle. These two guys would have both been in love with the same guy, Kit Kramer.’
Part Two would be a slim-down, lean novel — and the crime would be omnipresent. As the decades wore on I saw more of my friends — especially young people — addicted to meth. I said, ‘This is so dramatic. I could easily use this in a novel.’ It wasn’t exactly dramatic. It seemed — at least with my friends — that you start on that road and you pretty much are going right to hell. I had a struggle with that as you can probably tell. How are you going to get someone out of that jam that they are in?
These are all technical problems that I had. I just kept writing and writing, but I would be so dissatisfied with it. Every time I had another 10 pages written, I would read the book again, and I would realize this doesn’t fit in with the first 10 pages — and I would tear those out, so the book never got longer than, say, 80 pages. It kept losing a beginning. You know the story of Ulysses and Penelope — and she was the queen of Ithaca. The suitors would say, ‘He’s dead; come marry me, or have sex with me.’ And she would say, ‘Oh, okay, as soon as I finish my tapestry.’ She would be weaving this tapestry everyday, and at night she would tear apart the tapestry — so she could stay faithful to Ulysses. I never really understood the tapestry customs of Ancient Greece, but that’s how I felt like Penelope; I kept tearing it apart at the end.
Pretty much all the ACT UP stuff got taken out, well, basically because the drug cocktails were created. You can see how the plot about phony AIDS drugs was really potent then, and people were being constantly convicted of drug use. And it is still going on because, unfortunately, some people are still very sick. They lose their minds and lose their hopes, and they’ll often spend their money on these New Age things. Like in my book, they’ve invented the Kona Spray — you just spray it on and you become immune to AIDS. I thought that was a pretty good invention. Those two factors remained, I suppose, from the original idea.
It took that long to finish. I didn’t really know where I was going and how I was going to end the story. I had two stories to finish. It was really like writing two novels — in a way. And, yet, one had to lead into the other. I just couldn’t figure out how they are going to have the wealthy characters of the first part to come back at the end.
CCP: How did the book become a part of your publisher’s Fellow Traveler’s Series?
KK: The series is homage to the ’50s French series called “Traveler’s Companion.” The design is exactly the same as the French books — except they were an ugly shade of bile green, where the current books are red. They were issued by Maurice Girodias, who published Olympia Press books in Paris. He published not only porn, but he printed stories that were considered in the restrictive class at that time. He published “Lolita,” “Naked Lunch.” They found their first publisher in Paris. He also printed Samuel Becket, who has a no sex interest at all. It was strictly erotica. The Olympia Press books were smuggled into the U.S. You couldn’t bring them into the U.S. Customs would throw it off the ocean liner if they found them.
So with my book, the publisher thought this combined both. They have another book that goes with it. They were issued in tandem. People like the format — even people who haven’t seen the original books. They put it next to their copies of Naked Lunch and Lolita.
CCP: Which topic or theme most stands out to you in this book and your writing?
KK: I find myself — and all writers in the New Narrative — interested in community and the other is, for me especially, embarrassment, shame and guilt. The most embarrassing things I can think of are what I write about. The characters in part on are shameless. They are just publicity whores. Even they have things where they think, ‘Oh my God; I can’t believe they did that!’ Or ‘Why did this happen to me?’
In part two, it was the narrator, Geoff, who was like, ‘Life is so dull; you need to do something exciting.’ He was living in a little town where nothing ever happens. He just goes off the deep end.
CCP: Why set your book in San Francisco and later, Gavit, Calif.?
KK: Do you know the writer Ronald Firbank? He lived about 100 years ago. He had a very fanciful modernist thinking of anti-realism. That would be: If you were going to write a novel about the Pyramids, don’t go to Egypt, Haiti or Hawaii. Go somewhere that’s the opposite, and you will have better success. I said I should just write about someplace I will never be and will never go. So I wrote about this little town that I made up. It was supposed to be kind of like Bakersfield or Fresno, but like the poor cousin of the both of them. I had it all in my head of what it looks like.
It wasn’t just the social failures of the last five years — since “The Great Recession” began — that impacted the story. But over the last 25 years, you can see society falling apart — mostly based on the economy. I wanted to do one where the road of what was called the “A-gay” society, in San Francisco, was interposed with the life of an ordinary person whose world was just falling apart. I thought it was clever in how he loses everything — basically because of the drug addiction. It was going to happen anyhow. It had happened to everyone in the town because of the economy.
CCP: He was letting go of everything he had — it was of his own doing because his business seemed to be well off.
KK: By doing those forged autographs. I had that idea from the very beginning.
CCP: I loved that. How people were suckered into believing those forged autographs of famous people, were legitimate.
KK: You can see that happening all the time. I was an early eBay addict. I would buy autographed pictures. I don’t have any idea if these are real or not. I collect autographs myself, from famous people. I would carry around an autograph book. I am a lot like that character, Geoff.
CCP: Speaking of characters, which was your most favorite character to write about?
KK: I love all of them. I think you have to. One critic wrote, about this book, that he couldn’t even stand any of the characters in part one; but in part two he loved them — even the most reprehensible evil ones. I didn’t exactly plan for it to come out like that. I was experimenting with how unlikable can you make a character and have the readers still care about them. At first, when I wrote part two, Geoff was much more sympathetic than he is today. You were supposed to feel for him like he was the hero. You saw the whole thing through his eyes. Now you can see he has been blinded by a lot of things. One of them is that he is just not a nice person. He is very hateful toward his mother, his brother, his father, to his employees. He is just awful. That was an experiment to see how far you could go without the reader just slamming the book shut — which I bet some people will do.
CCP: It seems like he was almost hatful because of the meth that he was on. He got more selfish as he got further addicted.
KK: But he was selfish to begin with — in his drive for pleasure. I could sympathize with that, because I came not from a town like Gavit, but the suburbs of New York. Nothing can be duller and more frustrating than living 50 miles outside the center of excitement — and yet there was really no way in.
But let me see…who was my favorite character? I would say Sam. It was hard to write those scenes because I still remember him very vividly. At a particular part of the plot, it was very painful to write.
Sometimes, it’s also your minor characters you wind up loving. I like that woman who was that Bourgeoisie art dealer. She was the art merchant of Showplace Square. She was so pushy and would do anything to get her artists noticed. She was always fun to write about. I tried to put her in as often as I could — or the ones that were trying to sell Tim Lincecum’s jock straps. Were they a mother and son? Or these two strangers — they are so obviously fake. There was nothing that I couldn’t have them do — as part of their character — that would be unbelievable because that was their lifestyle, and they had an answer for everything.
CCP: What did you learn most after writing this book?
KK: I learned not to force it, because I think that a lot of my books take me years and year s to write. This book was maybe the longest. I have stories that are waiting to be finished. I just can’t think of the ending. I depend on a kind of magical practice that all writers know, that something comes to you and it’s, ‘Oh my God, that’s it!’ But you may have to wait years, literally years. I can take out the manuscript and try to write more, but it was kind of like spinning my wheels.
It also took me a long time to write this book because it was about changes in technology. The whole plot about that I started out with Geoff in this little town of Gavit; and this tall, dark stranger comes and no one in the town knows who it was. It could have been solved so easily by just looking on Google. They didn’t have Google when I started it. Google has changed all the plots of all the stories that were written before 1995. You can find anything about anybody, and that’s half the fun of most novels — when the characters interact and discover each other. Another thing was that I picked up after several years and I was like, ‘Oh my god why didn’t they just call them on the cell phone?’ That was the other thing: You could be in touch with anyone at any time. So you never have a question about someone not getting to the phone and telling another person about something. I had to tear apart these two separate plots, to account for these new technological inventions. I switched to a new publisher at the last minute. Literally I signed up with them at Christmas time. They could put it together really quickly because it’s print on demand. I said, ‘Just give me one more time to look over my story in case there was some technological thing that happened.’ I had left it alone for two years. None of the characters were on Facebook. I might have been able to get away with not including Facebook, but my characters were self-promoting people who would have to be on Facebook. So I spent two weeks, putting in Facebook. During that time, Whitney Houston died, and they had been listening to her music. Anyhow, so it was easy to put in the late Whitney Houston. I haven’t had many reviews of it, but two of the reviewers were questioning how they could put this information in there; it just happened. I am sure it will look ridiculous in five years, when there is no more Facebook.
CCP: Which authors have had the most influence on your writing?
KK: My favorites are Dickens, as you can see it’s very Dickensian, with all its twists and turns — and its mixture of high, middle and low societies all coexisting at the same time and giving them that dynamic. Marcel Proust: he was one of my favorites for many, many years — I liked him for some of the same reasons. William Faulkner is another of my favorites. There’s a British writer, John Cowper Powys, who was always kind of responsible for my over the top. He was one of those forgotten novelists. We, who love him, can recognize each other across a stadium. And, also, Agatha Christie — she is probably the one I read the most. Because of her, there’s kind of a detective element in the story. There are twists and turns that I accredit to my constantly reading Agatha Christie. Writers I like today are just my peers, I suppose: Dennis Cooper, Robert Glück and Dodie Bellamy — I even married her out of admiration.
CCP: What do you hope readers will gain after reading your work?
KK: I feel like I have a lot of social commentary in it. In a way, I wanted it to be a revolutionary document — that’s why I love the way it looks, like a little red Communist book. It is really like an extended poem. It has these two things that are warring with each other: a lyric element and then it has a call to action. ‘Life is really horrible.’ is what the book is saying. It’s like an embroidery on the front is all pretty but in the back you can see all the knots and the misjudgments. This will show both of them at the same time.
CCP: What’s the most criminal or grotesque thing that you have done?
KK: When Sam died, his boyfriend had the ashes for a long time. He had a bench built — at the AIDS memorial in Golden Gate Park — in Sam’s memory. He invited me to come and spread the ashes. I wanted to eat those ashes as a kind of magical way of preserving him further and to gain something of his genius. So he was like, “Whatever.” I also ate the ashes of Kathy Acker, another novelist that died. She died of cancer, in the late ’90s. They had a ceremony where they invited you to say something in front of her ashes. I just ate them. And people there were pretty appalled — well, some were. I had my eye on other ashes, but I couldn’t get to them. I guess that’s pretty grotesque, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it from the inside. I think it worked; I took a little bit of them inside of me and my writing got better.
CCP: What are you working on now?
KK: I have a new artist book. It’s called “Nude” — with an artist named Ugo Rondinone. He did the pictures, and I did the poems for it. But my next book will come out at the end of the year — it’s a book of my photographs, called “Tagged.” I have a new publisher for that book, called Gravity and Trajectory.
CCP: Is there a theme attached to those photographs?
KK: Yes, all-male poets, filmmakers, magicians and artists — all of them naked, except their junk is covered by a drawing, a life-sized drawing of genitalia — it’s very convincing. It was made for me with Raymond Pettibon. I’ve been taking these pictures for a number of years. It has a very theoretical introduction by Robert Halpern. He explains what I am doing is an interrogation of masculinity. It’s very informed by theory, but it serves the purpose of deflecting accusations that I’m just a pervert. It gives the book intellectual respectability.
CCP: Well, I guess that’s it. Thank you.
KK: This has been great.