It has taken Barry Gifford more than 20 years and nearly as many books to achieve a big reputation, and now that he nally has one, it's mostly wrong. Gifford's most recent novel is Wild at Heart, the story of an ex-con and his girlfriend on a wild ride across the South that David Lynch has turned into an acetylene torch of a movie. The controversial film has placed its author in the front ranks of contemporary tough-guy novelists. Gifford's life and career support the image. His father was a small-time Chicago racketeer, and Gifford himself tools around Berkeley, Calif., in a white 1975 Cadillac El Dorado that he calls the Pimpmobile. Moreover, before Wild at Heart, Gifford was best known for having revived (while an editor at Berkeley's Black Lizard Press) the reputations of several great American tough-guy writers: Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and David Goodis, to name just three.
Yet Gifford, 43, doesn't see himself as a member of that hard-boiled fraternity or, in fact, of any literary school at all. ''I'm not what the French call a noir writer,'' he insists. ''I've always written about what interested me at a particular time, and I've always been interested in a lot of things.'' That's clearly true. Of his published volumes, eight are poetry, six are fiction, and the others include biographies of William Saroyan and Jack Kerouac and a nostalgic history of the Chicago Cubs. His fiction is just as hard to categorize: He has written about a gay former Navy officer (Landscape With Traveler), a small-town mobster's widow (An Unfortunate Woman), and an ineffectual American over his head in the intrigues of Caribbean smuggling (Port Tropique). How does one writer enter so many worlds?
''You spend a lot of time observing,'' says Gifford. ''Then you make it up.''
Gifford has been making it up for nearly two decades with persistent critical success, and he says Wild at Heart is not about to change him or his ways. ''Thanks to David Lynch I can finally buy a house,'' he says, but he has no plans to move his writing studio from a loft on the fringe of Berkeley's rough section. ''There's gangs around there, but they tend to leave me alone. They see the Pimpmobile, they back off.''
If Gifford isn't tough, he is certainly resilient. He has worked since his teens at a wide variety of jobs, from merchant seaman to rock musician. He went to the University of Missouri on a baseball scholarship but didn't do well in its conservative environment ''I didn't have any friends except for the six beatniks on campus, and two of them were from New York.'' After a year at Missouri he hit the road for Manhattan and just kept going all the way to London. Gifford enrolled on a nondegree basis at Cambridge, and his few months there proved to him once and for all ''that I'd never be a scholar.''
Gifford's introduction to literature came through the crime-thriller writers whose books he would later revive. ''Theirs were some of the first serious books I remember reading,'' he recalls. ''That is, I thought they were serious books. Everyone else thought they were trash. I read them on the racks at a drugstore in Tampa, Florida, when I was a kid. The characters in them were like the people I'd see around me, the people respectable people weren't supposed to notice were there. In other words, the people my father hung out with. In America, writers like Thompson and Goodis were thought of as pulp, but the French saw their books as 'literature'; in France, their stuff has always been in print and they're considered among the greatest American stylists.''
Noir or not, Gifford himself has been more popular in France than in his native country, largely, he feels, ''because the French are more willing to judge you one book at a time. They become interested in you if they're interested in your work. Americans are different. We're more interested in personality than in literature. We judge the books only after we've formed a picture of the author, and we do that only after he's written a best-seller.'' Now, after two decades of near-cult status, Wild at Heart has accomplished that for Gifford.
Sailor Ripley and Lula began to take shape in his mind two years ago, in a hotel in Southport, N.C., where he overheard part of a conversation in the next room. He started recording the conversation and that was the genesis of a road novel about two young people fleeing across the South. The story of Sailor and Lula Pace Fortune was to be told almost entirely in dialogue, not the undernourished dialogue of most thrillers but a rich, evocative speech ! that uses the characters' inarticulateness to express their yearnings. ''I'm out [of prison] now,'' says Sailor, ''and I don't know what to think about yet…'' To Lula, ''the world is wild at heart and weird on top.''
The author's own world got weird when he was two thirds of the way through his novel. Monty Montgomery, a producer and friend of Gifford's, dropped by to visit on the way to joining David Lynch in Seattle, where the director was preparing Twin Peaks. ''Got anything for me to read?'' he asked. ''Well,'' Gifford replied, ''I've got this kind of love story about these two kids down south, the guy's an ex-con, they're fleeing from a private detective hired by the girl's parents.'' ''Give it to me,'' Montgomery said. Gifford told him, ''Okay, you can have the manuscript, but it's not finished, so don't show it to anyone.'' Montgomery promised; he lied.
Three weeks later Gifford got a call from Lynch, who had read the unfinished manuscript and had already decided to film it. In a move that may be unprecedented, Wild at Heart was in production as a lm before it saw print as a book.
Gifford already has four sequels to the Sailor and Lula story in the works, due out in one volume from Random House early in 1991, and he is now planning his next novel, A Good Man to Know, about a Chicago racketeer. Based on his father's life?
''Let's say inspired,'' the newly famous author says. ''I spent a lot of time observing him. Now I'm going to make him up.''