Lucy and Todd

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The Up-Down–Barry Gifford

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 6, 2015 at 6:30 pm

“In ancient times,” writes Barry Gifford, “various societies, including the Irish, Chinese and Indo-European cultures, believed there were five directions: North, South, East, West and the Up-Down, which represented the navel or center.  … The center of things is where Pace decided to go.” This is the road map for The Up-Down. It’s the story of the later, but hardly declining, years of Pace Roscoe Ripley: a sizzlingly elegiac, almost nauseatingly picaresque ‘spiritual quest’ made not only tolerable but extremely entertaining by vast infusions of the violence and stupidity that characterize modern American life.

Pace is the son of Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune, about whom Gifford has written many books – seven, in fact. To be fair, I have never read them, or heard of them, or even heard of Mr Gifford: I am, literally, a dunce as regards all this – but a happy dunce, because the world into which he plunged me is one that I have definitely been missing.

Pace is in his sixties when we encounter him in New Orleans. Having inherited a little money and property he decides to close his business, and heads north. On the train he meets the mysterious Dr Furbo, who runs a wacko clinic treating ‘caterwauling’ that sounds like something you’d hear about on Fox News, and not in a good way. The locales then range all to hell and gone, from Chicago to Wyoming to North Carolina, where Pace fathers a child with one of his tenants.

In Philadelphia he has an affair with Siempre Desalmado (‘Always Cruel’), a homeless young Hispanic woman. He falls easily into bed with almost every female in the book, which can get a little old, but these people all like each other so much you end up rooting for their love affairs. “After all,” as Gifford says of the saga of Sailor and Lula,  “it was a genuine true-love story, and there never could be too many of those.”

Pace goes back to North Carolina and is seduced by the dangerously chaotic sister of the woman who’s having his child. This now leads to serious mayhem and murder, out from under which Pace, and the novel, cannot entirely crawl. “He was truly amazed that without any bad intentions on his part, life could suddenly spin so dangerously and bizarrely out of control.” He finds love again with Perfume James, an ex-child prostitute, now a pastor (self-invented religion infests this landscape). Their romance is short-lived due to a tremendous natural disaster of the kind only America can generate. This is fiction just wild, weird and quotidian enough to be exactly like reality.

Genuinely frightening violence and sorrowful deaths play a major role in a novel which, almost inexplicably, fills you with warmth, or at least a kind of optimism. It seems at times inaccurate and paranoid, but that suits it. The Up-Down is also littered with allusions to music, art and literature; some of the little tales embedded in the story are from so far out in left field that at first you wonder what they can possibly be doing here. But then they start to make sense.

It is not so usual for the main character in a novel to die before it ends. But as you read The Up-Down you become convinced that Pace is going to perish. The frame of the story, the long accounts of the lives of Sailor and Lulu that Pace has spent years writing (constituting, one assumes, the actual novels about them by Gifford) fall into the care of Angelina, one of the last women to befriend Pace. Since Sailor and Lula are dead, Pace’s story properly ends here, too.

Late in the novel, Pace encounters in Mexico a pub bore, who stuns him with hours of jabber about people he knew in the movie business. “Hugo Gresca’s monologue, fuelled by Cinco Estrellas and Negra Modelos, Pace and Terry realized, would not cease until he collapsed or died. They never did find out how Hugo had ended up in Matamoros because just as he started to tell them about a night he and Sean Connery and [John] Huston spent in a Kabul whorehouse called The Den of Forbidden Fruit during the filming of The Man Who Would be King, a very large, purple-black man wearing a crocodile-skin vest over his bare chest, entered the bar and lifted Gresca out of his chair and without saying a word carried him away.” If life were only like that.


(This review first appeared in the Herald on April 12, 2015)