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Rudolph Wurlitzer Biography

Nationality: American. Born: 1937. Awards: Atlantic Firsts award, 1966.



Nog. New York, Random House, 1969; as The Octopus, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

Flats. New York, Dutton, 1970; London, Gollancz, 1971.

Quake. New York, Dutton, 1972; London, Pan, 1985.

Slow Fade. New York, Knopf, 1984; London, Pan, 1985.

Walker (novelization of screenplay). New York, Perennial Library, 1987.

Uncollected Short Story

"Boiler Room," in Atlantic (Boston), March 1966.


Two-Lane Blacktop (screenplay), with Will Corry. New York, Award, 1971.


Two-Lane Blacktop, with Will Corry, 1971; Glen and Randa, with Lorenzo Mans and Jim McBride, 1971; Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973; Walker, 1989; Voyager, 1991.


Hard Travel to Sacred Places. Boston, Shambhala, 1994.


Critical Studies:

Rudolph Wurlitzer, American Novelist and Screenwriter by David Seed, Lewiston, New York, Mellen Press, 1991.

Theatrical Activities:

Actor: FilmsTwo-Lane Blacktop, 1971; Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973.

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Rudolph Wurlitzer's novels represent a determined attempt to escape the materials of narrative. Unwilling to suspend disbelief and create a representative world of people, places, and ideals, he discards the conventions of mimetic storytelling in favor of a flat-out style of direct address which in his later novels slowly modulates into a more naturalized manner, yet never one that attempts to counterfeit a world. Instead, Wurlitzer's later work draws upon certain artifices of conduct which by virtue of long use have a structure which appears to be naturally made. In either case, the novelist is excused from proposing an enabling structure for his work; from first to last, Wurlitzer's novels speak with their own sense of authority, pretending to be nothing other than they are.

Nog and Flats are alternately diverse and spare works which rely upon the narrator's direct address for their substance and direction. Mirror-images of the same artistic vision, these novels contrast wild geographic narrative with a Beckett-like stasis of character, mood, and location, yet each ending with the same sense of voice alone. Even coherent character yields to this presence of mere voice, since in the first work Wurlitzer's narrator sometimes talks about Nog as a distinct person ("Nog, he was apparently of Finnish extraction, was one of those semi-religious lunatics you see wandering around the Sierras on bread and tea, or gulping down peyote in Nevada with the Indians") and other times speaks as Nog himself, while the narrator of Flats proposes a similar exchange of identities with a person he has met and has been describing. The effect of such shimmering exchanges is to efface any sense of represented identity, establishing the narrative voice as a pure speaking sound which draws its sense of character from what is being described. In Nog this iridescence becomes geographical, as the narrator's voice yields to the on-running panorama of place, from the desert American southwest, through the Pacific and the Panama Canal, to the eastern seaboard and New York City. Flats presents the precise opposite of this range, but not of this tendency: the narrator sits within a small square of wasteland, vocally defending his space against all interlopers. He and they are named by their apparent home towns—"Call me Memphis," he introduces himself—but in their little square of desert they are motionless and without any identities all the same. All that exists is their voice, which is the text of Wurlitzer's novel.

Thematically, Wurlitzer argues against representation as well. Nog prizes silence and is proud not to divulge information to other characters (and therefore to the reader): "No history," he remarks, "therefore no bondage." Rather than act, he makes lists, because "Lists don't need direction." Flats elevates this theme to phenomenological proportion, refusing to grasp events lest their surface take shape. "I don't care to look around, having disappeared in all directions," the narrator admits, refusing any identity at all. "There is only my momentum," which is the text's own movement. And even this is reductive: "I want to say the same words over and over. I want just the sound. I want to fill up what space I am with one note … I want a sound that is not involved with beginning or ending." Wurlitzer's subsequent novels, Quake and Slow Fade, maintain their author's spare sense of prose, but now a textually self-conscious situation relieves the burden of flat narration. In Quake it is an earth tremor which by devastating the landscape erases any sense of conventional continuity; as the artifices of normal behavior crumble, the narrator is free to establish his own voice as the sole reality of his story. "The words around us blurred and carried no definition," and so his voice is the only anchor of authority. Yet the unreality unleashed by the earthquake is only a destruction of conventionality; what is now revealed is that "this day has given expression to what has always been latent within us." By the novel's end the narrator is reduced to guttural sounds, his own ability to articulate having been destroyed with the world around him. Yet even before this it has proven to be a talent whose time has been eclipsed.

Slow Fade is ostensibly Wurlitzer's most conventional work, as it is set securely within a recognizable world and is peopled by characters whose consistency of motive and behavior qualifies them for the most realistic fiction. But as with Quake, the author's choice of circumstance allows for purely self-conscious narrative, since here the action involves scriptwriting and filming, two undertakings which lend a textual self-appearance to the novel. As the stories of film director Wesley Hardin, his children, and his intrusive entrepreneur evolve, the narrative becomes less a document of their lives than a series of filters and indirect analyses, as events are perceived not as themselves but with references to scenes in films. This sense of intertextuality is enhanced by Wes's desire to learn the fate of his daughter, which he pursues by paying his son to write a film script which fictionalizes the details yet encodes the answer to his question. Yet as his son writes the script, he pauses to question his father about their relationship and to sort out the memory of his own wife's life and death. Soon so many layers of textuality have been sedimented upon the basic story that only text (and not any representations) remain. The climax of this layering occurs when Wes Hardin aborts his own film project and becomes the subject of a cinema-verité work encompassing his own breakdown as occasioned by his daughter's loss. In this respect the role of the entrepreneur A.D. Ballou, becomes instrumental. What happens in the world, Wurlitzer concludes, is due to direct action but by the manipulation of texts. As A.D. Ballou produces Hardin's autobiographical movie, so too does the reader produce the narrators' texts. Without either act, nothing would happen, and therefore Wurlitzer's novels place as little as possible in the way of this readerly action.

With Walker, Wurlitzer combines his novelist's role with his screenwriting activities to produce a work far different from the usual novelization of a film. The story itself is based on history, evoking the colorful career of the mid-nineteenth-century American adventurer William Walker as a way of providing not just a colorful narrative about Nicaragua during those years but a metaphoric commentary on American involvement in that country during the 1980s. Walker was a freebooting entrepreneur who made use of the business interests of Cornelius Vanderbilt in installing himself as President of Nicaragua, a position he held from 1855 through 1857. That his empire fell and he was eventually executed by a Honduran firing squad does not detract from his sense of ambition and idealism, tempered by the current reader's appreciation that such motives have often led to disasters in American foreign policy and the most unconscionable exploitation of foreign lands. In presenting this work Wurlitzer provides a fictive narrative, but supplements it with both historical and Walker's autobiographical accounts; these are then framed with shooting notes, production journals, and interviews with the filmmakers.

—Jerome Klinkowitz

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