I’ve just looked at a bibliography of William Kotzwinkle & , Jeez, he was prolific. I’m not gonna check for the hows whens & whys of UK publication & how I missed some of these when I would have been looking. Kotzwinkle (crazy name, crazy guy) is one of the great hippie novelists. In the 70s if you had not read his books then you did not know what was what. There’s a lot of love for his books around the Interweb but when did you last meet someone who was raving about his books ? Like the individual beatnik/hippie stylist Richard Brautigan he is a neglected writer. Some of his novels are not the most profound. Of his later work a children’s book ,”Walter The Farting Dog” is the most well known. Between 1974 & 1979 he wrote three major satirical novels at a time when others were pissing about with zen & motorcycles or writing shitty pop philosophy about seagulls.
In the early 70s Granada, the publishers, launched Picador Books. The quality control was so good that it became like Island Records. If it was a Picador book it was worth checking out. Among the many that passed through my hands were 2 collections of short stories that made an impression & sowed seeds for some very enjoyable future reading. “Pricksongs & Descants” by Robert Coover was a dazzling, nightmarish re-telling of fairy tales which marked him as a man to watch. “Elephant Bangs Train”, William Kotzwinkle’s first adult collection was made more surreal by it’s randomness. The title track is the story of an African elephant watching the arrival of the first train in the area.. His elephant harem is very taken by this shiny, sexy new beast in town. The bull is not having this rival to his masculine dominance stealing his thunder. He strolls over to the train, flexes his muscles, tips the train over on it’s side ! The natural order re-established. “A Nurse Romance” has a stern nurse methodically obtaining a sperm sample from an adolescent boy who is, of course, regarding the episode as his first proper sexual experience & is falling in love.
In 1975 I got a brand new book from the local library. “The Fan Man” was the first Kotzwinkle novel I had seen in the UK. I snapped it up. I was hooked from page 1. It was one of those books that made other people in the room wonder how a book could be so much fun. A book that just was not long enough.
“Fan Man” is the story of Horse Badorties, a product of the new ideas of the late 60s. He is a super hippie dedicated to his own personal path to enlightenment . From the squalor of his pad through the streets of New York we read his inner dialogue. Every sentence ending in “man”. Horse’s obsession with doing it right include a hat with anti-Puerto Rican music flaps. “Dorky day” where his consciousness is cleansed by the repetition of this word. The recruitment of a choir of 15 year old girls for a concert which you know is not gonna happen. A collection of hand-held electric fans, vital to his comfort. Horse likes to be comfortable.
Horse is a comic character comparable with Ignatius O’Reilly from “Confederacy Of Dunces”. He is similarly convinced of the rightness of his own world view, dismissive of the concerns of others and similarly unsuccessful in his quest. I would add parallels with Don Quixote and the characters of Rabelais but I am not to go lit-crit on your ass.
I was busy telling anyone who would listen that they should read this book. At the end of the week the NME, the muso’s bible, ran a full page review by Mick Farren. This probably had more effect than my effusions. Anyone who read the book was not disappointed and it became quite a reference point among the folk I knew. Dorky days may only last a matter of minutes before dissolving into laughter but I still have the hand-held electric fan I was bought all those years ago.
The next novel was “Doctor Rat” & we were not gonna miss it. We were not disappointed. A wonderfully innocent, romantic fantasy is intercut with scenes from a vivisection laboratory where the eponymous rat extols the virtues of twisted scientific experiments on victims who are starting to join the worldwide revolt of animals against the brutalities of Man. WOW !
It is so imaginative, the anthropomorphization of the wild animals so convincing. My female friends, a little put off by the more base parts of Badorties’ self indulgence , were now convinced of Kotzwinkle’s ability. It is an ecological manifesto. One of humour & humanity. One in which the logic of a kinder world is simple and irrefutable. Here’s a couple of quotes..
“This is the sort of gratifying sight the taxpayers don’t usually have a chance to see–two young scientists in front of the oven, baking a trayful of cats. This is where your taxes are going, fellow Americans, contributing to a better and lasting etcetera.”
“Elephants can be an awful bore if they get to philosophizing. When they start blabbering about the unreachable fruit and the deep immutable roaring of creation, I give them a fast bite on the tail and disappear before they know what hit them.”
As I get older I am frustrated that important debates about how we live our lives in relation to each other do not seem to have moved forward. Arguments I thought we have resolved are conducted from starting points which,I thought, were settled years ago. This book simply outlines the case that we are not here to fuck about with the world. It is 35 years old. It won awards at the time and it is still a must read. I will not reveal the ending. When lovers of the book discuss it any mention of the ending just brings a joyous smile to the gathering…really’.
Initially set in 1860s Paris “Fata Morgana ” is a stylistic leap by Kotzwinkle. Inspector Picard is sent to investigate the conjuror Rick Lazare whose fortune telling machine is the craze of the city. The book moves across Europe, across time. It is about magic, illusion,delusion, temptation, debauchery. It is about the power of the story and of dreams. The novel is a detective story set in a Hammer movie, one of the good ones. It’s a masterful involving tale which again has an ending which is surprising and satisfying.
I am not gonna go into any more depth.If you have got this far then you are gonna read these books. You are aren’t you ?
By now Kotzwinkle was the favourite writer of a lot of people. He had a celebrity fan in Melissa Mathieson or Mrs Stephen Spielberg. She persuaded the director that Kotz was the man to write the “novelization” (horrible word) from the script of ” E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”. It had to be major bucks and the writer accepted. It’s actually a good effort. E.T. falls in love with Elliott’s mother and the outcome is hilarious. The gig was so ludicrous and lucrative, (I remember the incongruity of seeing his name on an annual best seller list) , his next book was a similar job on a “Superman” movie.
Kotzwinkle continued to write. There are novels that are enjoyable. That have moments that only he could have imagined and described. There did not seem though to be the ambition to extend himself that we had seen in the 3 novels. I am not accusing him of selling out though he hardly subverted the movie novelization racket. I think that the financial success just took the fire, the sense of injustice from his work. Still, those 3 great books are unchanged and, I feel, unrivalled. Check em out.