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An Introduction to Lucius Shepard
by Katherine Dunn


    So far as I can tell, Lucius Shepard writes what he is and is what he writes. The many voices of his work--the rhythms and stances of the clinical observer, sardonically twisted wit, enraged cynic, brilliant brooding doubter, keening griever after beauty or at least dignity, humble straight talker, and of course, the thunder--are all his voice. These and all their possible permutations are ways he talks, joking or mortally serious, over a beer or the phone in a bluesy baritone that slides to whiskey bass depending on his mood.
    He has the size and general demeanor of a sophisticated Grizzly chuckling mournfully over the omen bones of his latest kill. But he does not rear up in social situations unless riled. In fact he tries to diminish the threat of his physical presence. He stays seated, hunches in and speaks softly, smiling occasionally so as not to petrify the frail bipeds.
    He's described himself as looking like a big old biker, and that's true enough, with the beard and pony-tail and the scraggy denims. But there is a calm about him that comes with being too big for anybody sane to mess with.
    There are nutcases, naturally, and fools to fray his patience. Drunks, such as the curse-spewing driver who plowed into Shepard's parked car outside a boxing arena one night and then tried to punch him, wake up in the nearest dumpster.
    Shepard will tell you he rarely gets into fights anymore--but he's a savage duelist with verbs at ten paces, or adjectival phrases in cyberspace. While these performances can be hilariously entertaining even distant noncombatants may wobble away with singed eyebrows. A large corporation once tried to hire him to flame pests off their web sites but he decided against such abuse of his gift for invective. Shepard strives to use his powers for good.
    He's a complicated guy. In a given season he may be ferally reclusive, a suavely mesmerizing raconteur, an eloquently generous teacher, and as funny a pal as ever shared a forty-ouncer in the bleachers. Then he sees some sign of the end times, some flagrant violation of his fierce sense of what's right, and he dives into grim fury.
    He's holed up writing for months on end in some musky, rubble-heaped hermitage, then suddenly he's slamming latitudes and time zones in frenetic travel.
    The word drifts in. He's on the Mexican border researching something weird and mailing macabre memorabilia to select acquaintances. He's doing readings in Manhattan. He's hopping freight trains on the track of a homicidal hobo brotherhood. Or he's somewhere in the big trees, visiting eco-radicals in their bosky bowers. He's in Montana hanging out with the elephant trainers of a one-ring circus , and freshening his fluent Spanish. He's trying to get into Honduras to find out whether old friends survived a hurricane. He's locked himself into a tiny airstream travel trailer in a backyard in Monterey and won't come out 'til his work is finished. And that's just the last year or so.
   
*****

    I first met him in the early '90s, in a dim Seattle bar where we were introduced as fellow boxing buffs. In the manner of sports fans everywhere, we immediately fell to swapping code and comparing favorites to define each others' identity.
    In my ignorance I'd vaguely heard that he was a respected writer, but it was his boxing talk that convinced me of his substance. He is a scholar, a moral historian, a shrewdly observant technical analyst, and a skilled handicapper. As I learned over the ensuing years, he brings the same voracious intellect and encyclopedic memory to team sports, movies, modern music and literature, arcane history, exotic sciences, and whatever subject he's researching for the moment.
    At the time my limit was boxing. When I asked for something of his to read, he gave me what would interest me--a tattered photocopy of one story, "Beast of the Heartland." I recognized it as sparked by the infamous case of boxer Sugar Ray Seales, who fought on for years after he was legally blind in both eyes. But Shepard's story went far beyond mere scandal. It plunged into the luminously sharp and fearful mind of the blind boxer Shepard called Bobby Mears. It explored the mystery of what he saw in the darkness, and why he fought there. The rich language conveyed piercing physicality and a precise understanding of the strange, hard life of the ring and the parasites who surround it. The history of writing about boxing stretches all the way from Homer's Iliad to Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates. In my opinion,"Beast of the Heartland" ranks with the finest.
    A few years later Shepard recruited me, among many others, to join his campaign to clean up the regulation of boxing in the state where he was living at the time. He'd discovered that boxers who were suspended for medical problems in other jurisdictions were being shipped in to fight. Ray Seales and Bobby Mears all over again. He refused to tolerate it.
    Shepard researched the laws, confronted officials, dragged the news media into blinking awareness, bombarded government agencies with phone calls and letters, and circulated a petition that bounced from coast to coast collecting support and signatures from famous names in journalism, Hollywood, and the fight game. He coaxed, browbeat and inspired his troops to action. He was genuinely furious at the cruel ineptitude that allowed desperate men to be exploited and endangered. He spent months in relentless battle, and he won.
    That state is considerably more fastidious now in its safety procedures for boxers.
    I'd talked boxing and books and movies for years with Lucius without learning the basics of his history, so in preparing to write this I asked him for a thumbnail sketch. He was swamped with serious deadlines, but he fired back several pithy paragraphs overnight by e-mail.
    Lucius Shepard was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1947. He was, he explains, "raised up hard in Daytona Beach, Florida by an old man who beat the shit out of me with considerable relish so as to make me read Thucydides, Shakespeare and such. As a result I hated him and had a pretty fair Classical education by the time I was 12, 13. He was a strange guy, an anglophile brought up in gentry Virginia, about whom I know almost nothing."
    He learned to box in a youth program without his father knowing. He ended the beatings by fighting back once, decisively, in his early teens."I got in fights quite a bit in grammar school, high school and for quite some time thereafter," he allows.
    His erudite father's insistence on classical music and literature, on all things exquisitely tasteful, Shepard suspects, may be why "I rebelled. I was drawn to rock and roll, and to all things crude, vulgar and unlovely."
    His mother was a Spanish teacher. The best part of his childhood was frequent travel to Latin America--to Cuba, where his mother had friends, and to Mexico and Guatemala.
    He enrolled at the University of South Carolina at Chapel Hill but dropped out repeatedly for long journeys to Europe and North Africa, Afghanistan, and India.
    Shepard's life is dense in incident and his experiences often serve as fuel for his fiction.
    During that period, for instance, he worked in the black market in the Khan al Khalili bazaar in Cairo for about a year. Readers will recognize the backdrop for his story, "All the Perfumes of Araby."
    Shepard explains, "I was doing stuff for a man who owned several shops in the bazaar that catered to tourists, but whose main business was the money market and smuggling. During the '60s, it was tough to get anything from the West in Egypt. Among the things my friend brought in were good quality women's stockings, hacksaw blades, electronics. He also trafficked in drugs and on occasion I saw uncut diamonds that were moved up through the Sudan. My job initially involved maneuvering wealthy tourists to Affiifi (my boss's name) so he could change their money. He was always engaged in collecting immense sums of Western currency which he then would deliver to countries without a viable currency--Red China and such. My duties never increased to the supremely illegal, but I saw lots of heavy shit and I did a vast quantity of opium."
    In 1967, when he returned to the States, he was in bad shape, "pretty much crazy," he says.
    "Best thing that could have happened to me was getting busted in NYC for drugs and weapons. I was only in jail about two months waiting for trial, but the experience brought me to my senses."
    Released on probation he returned to Chapel Hill and went back to school. He got married, dropped out, and went traveling again.
    He and his wife were heading for California when their car broke down in Detroit and they had to get jobs. They dug in and had a son. Shepard played with various rock bands around the mid-West circuit through most of he '70s.
    He had always written, but his formal beginning came in 1980. It was almost accidental that he chose fantasy and science fiction.
    "A band I had great hopes for broke up. My wife got tired of me moping about the house watching the PTL Club, so she sent half a story I'd written to this workshop (Clarion ?) and I was accepted. It was a genre workshop, so I had to write the stuff. But I like working with fantasy elements, especially in short forms--it seems to work as amplifier to whatever thing I'm trying to say."
    After the workshop came the divorce. Shepard fled to El Salvador, "As hellish a place," he says, "as I've ever seen."
    His stories started selling in the early '80s while he was based in New England and New York City.
    The grace and authority of his prose, the driving characters combined with zesty invention to demand immediate attention. The stories and novels kept rolling out. The prizes began to heap up.
    In the early '90s he moved to Seattle and has been based on the West coast since then.
    "I'd have to say that the last eight years have been a kind of healing process and also a reconfiguring of my brain as far as figuring out stuff about writing--I've been a terrible underachiever my entire life, but it's my intention to be one hell of a late-bloomer."
    Shepard uses the genre forms for his own literary purposes and he is always chasing the big fish, the central questions. The nature of good and evil, the search for meaning and significance. The Dragon Griaule stories invest grit and physical credibility in high fantasy. "The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter" is as rigorous an exploration as I've ever read of the question of free will. The novel Green Eyes begins by rattling the whole notion of individual identity. Not Cheever or Roth, Bellow or Updike have written more tenderly and acutely about the breakup of a marriage than Shepard does in "The End of Life As We Know It."
    I don't think anyone has written more devastating fiction about the human processes of war than Lucius Shepard.
    Among other praises, critics have compared Shepard to Robert Stone and called him the " rock and roll Joseph Conrad." This is understandable considering shared skills as well as war and dark hearts as subject matter. And all three writers know what they're talking about. Reality is a powerful launching pad for the imagination.
    When Shepard sets a story in a particular locale, I'd bet he's been there, or somewhere very like it. The details of color, smell, and feel are too crisp and vivid not to have solid roots.
    I get the same hit of absolute credibility from the intense psychology of his characters. In the stunningly masterful " R & R," the protagonist, Mingolla, flails as his carefully constructed system of superstitions is melted by random horrors. Long after I'd read "R & R," Shepard told me that despite his rational understanding, he himself has a spectrum of idiosyncratic superstitions ranging from obsessive throwing of the I Ching, to being compelled to leave any room where a Steven Segal film is showing on a screen. I should have suspected.
    Nobody understands the personal identity of fiction better than Shepard himself. In a piece called "God Is in the Details," he described it this way:
    "Writing fiction is like taking a rubbing of your brain. All the bulges and convolutions and fissures will show up in your work whether you want them to or not."
    The "rubbings" of Shepard's brain are Rorschach storms. His work is sometimes cruel but it is never cool. In an era when the dispassionate chill of irony is the safe stance, Shepard is fevered, enraptured, infuriated, consumed by passion.
    A 1990 Shepard column for Journal Wired was titled "Remedial Reading for the Generation of Swine." In it, Shepard began with a scorching attack on petty bickering among the genre's practitioners, and insisted that there was genuine vileness in the world worth every ounce of human will to combat. The example he chose was the recent news report of six men savagely murdered and de-brained in El Salvador. He proceeded to imagine the exact process of those murders in such emotional detail that, by the end, both reader and writer are sick and exhausted and despairing.
    " . . . I'm going to let this stand unedited, this column," Shepard writes, "with its bitter title and initial venom and its schizoid resolution, because I meant the things I said as I wrote them, because I felt intensely about them, because it's all I know how to say at the moment, because I feel so strongly that something has to be said. . . . "
    All of which, to me, seems a decent description of Lucius Shepard. He writes what he is. He is what he writes. He means it.

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