AN EXCERPT FROM
BY LYNN CROSBIE
The Rusty Toque | Special Feature | Novel Excerpt | June 7, 2018
Excerpt from Chicken
The tuxedo, a Tom Ford Windsor with satin peak lapels, is lying on the bed.
Scattered over this limp wool-cashmere raiment is a selection of silk socks, garters, a red moiré cummerbund, and unmatched sapphire cufflinks — one the blue limbus of my eyes she serenaded, the other pink: her coarse cat’s tongue, the petunia soles of her cat’s feet.
I poke my finger through one of the Milanese button-holes, sit, and watch the night begin to souse the windows.
There is time.
This is the story of Annabel and me. Of my downfall and rise, my fall and — do I rise again?
That would be telling.
Annabel once said, prophetically, that one of us would end up killing the other.
She said it with a smile, as if it didn’t matter. As if everything was plain as sundown.
Sundown in all the gold and copper, warm earth and rosy bronze of her skin, warm and cooling when she tumbles away, wild and cat-soft is how I best remember and this is for her.
PARNELL WILDE, LOS ANGELES, 2017 I BELIEVE IN YOU AND ME
I have not shaved, or showered for that matter, in well over a week.
I do not like to leave my sofa bed, which is so laden with crumbs it feels like the beach by the Dead Sea, a rough, shadowy expanse trimming the water that once held me up like Disco Jesus — hair longish and feathered, clean-shaven and granite-jawed.
But the sickness is in charge, not me.
I manage to get up and order two bottles of Thunderbird and a carton of American Legends from Pink Dot.
“Throw in some ramen noodles and cheese puffs,” I say. “Pack of gum, a comb.”
I remember that my clothes have been decaying in the washing machine for two days, get dressed, and go to the laundry room.
A nice-looking young couple is folding bright, fluffy items as I scoop my pilly, rank-smelling load into a cardboard box.
Then the guy says, “Wait a second, wait a second.”
No, I think. Please.
“Hey, I know you,” he says, and approaches me. His girlfriend hangs back, scrutinizing the pillowcase I have slit and worn as a tank top; my shredded Hulk pants and woven plastic sandals.
“Man, I love your movies.”
“Seriously,” he says, as his girlfriend takes a genuinely horrifying picture of us.
He looks like a boy-band singer and I a conjunctivitis- eyed fiend by his side.
Expressing alarm at the lateness of the hour, I excuse myself, spilling my mini-pack of Ariel powder, and at the door I hear her say, “Are you sure that was someone famous?”
“Yes,” he says, sounding deflated.
“Damn,” he says, and spits on the floor. “I feel like I need a fucking bath.”
I shudder as I scud home, just in time for my delivery — O it’s no world for an old man any longer.
I feel dirty, yet strangely invigorated by my fan.
And I too will cauterize the bad memories in the tub: the memory of the couple; and of Barry, the superintendent, shouting as he mops up all the soap flakes and spit.
My fault my fault.
I will ritualize my ruin — holy bar of Linda soap, smelling of the blessed Filipina wrapper-girl’s abundant black ponytail, holy the rough cloth and rusted water that darkens as I descend into its embrace.
You are still a star, the orchid flecks of soap remind me as they simulate the aurora borealis, fighting through the smog to be seen. You still glimmer!
I take a long drink of the blood of the Beloved Son. I drink from alpha to omega, and the heavy sea holds me fast. It rocks me to sleep.
I dream of the éminence grise. He is a ghost who moves through me, telling me to avenge the girl so that I might purge and burn away his foul crimes.
I sit up straight, chilled, and rack my mind. Hamlet — I had dreamed of the play, with the words and meaning distorted.
I begin reciting, in a deep, orotund voice: “Swear — ”
Rabi, the child who lives alone downstairs, turns up his Shafiq Mureed records.
I hold the washcloth over my face as a muffler and climb out of the ice-cold tub.
This was no dream.
This is what happens when you fall from a great height and crash.
I stop, and stand, frozen to the spot.
There was a small white jackrabbit in the dream, with a blood-red stripe down her back.
She handed me a flask, and a mouthful of cold, clear water helped me stand up and clear o the carrion birds.
After she springs away, I see the writing on the flask. LOVE ME, it says.
I put on a pair of mephitic flannel pajamas and pat them down. The words, loose and silver, are in the breast pocket and I cling to them anxiously as I climb into bed.
They are gone in the morning but my life, my monstrous life, is the same.
Though tinged somehow, circled in faint pink, like something remotely desirable in a catalogue.
Like the sun breaking over the desert before it begins to boil and burn, it is strained cherries, it is new flesh, it is a perfume called Sugared Grace the girl I was sweet on in my youth once sprayed over her wrists, her throat, and the soft, downy insides of her tenderly open knees.
Once woken, I cannot sleep.
I pour myself a cup of the noxious wine and pull out my fancy new Mead notebook. Its hard cover is orange, covered with what appear to be four chorus lines of limber maggots.
With each passing day, with each fresh injury, fall, and abject humiliation, I am more and more certain that the God I pray to, near-constantly, is more on side with, say, the sadistic rapists in Straw Dogs than the innocent mathematician and his wife. Yes, He will put the bad men in bear traps in Hell, but that’s not soon enough and I cannot shake the feeling He enjoys the brute elegance of the conquerors, while agitating their victims as if salting a pig’s ear.
Later, I will run a line through these words, afraid of what He plans to do to me next. Write, “SORRY, YOUR MAJESTY,” in block letters.
Crawl back into bed and think: I cannot shake Him, however I rant and rave.
He loved me once.
Loved me like a hurricane, the twelve-string guitar avows before a murder of drums.
When Ultraviolence, directed by the legendary Lamont Kray, was released in 1976, I awoke and found myself famous.
The film is quite a bit like A Clockwork Orange. Kray was furious to have lost the book rights to Stanley Kubrick years earlier, and is said to have muscled Anthony Burgess into permitting him to borrow freely from the novel at no cost.
But, to his credit, the film is not an imitation of Kubrick’s. Rather, as the critic Torrence Walker observed in the Evening Standard, “Ultraviolence is an aesthetic sequel of sorts, which provides an even closer look at crime’s luscious perversity, qualities the filmmaker joins in brute isogamy.”
On top of this, Kray was given to brag, his young star had six inches on McDowell — and a better, stronger body and a sculptural Greek nose.
I had to plead with Kray to remove the tag line “More Blood, Less Ugly” from the posters, but was secretly delighted in assuming, and changing, Alex DeLarge’s role, giving it more élan, more allure — and far more cruelty.
My life opens on a hinge. Before and after Kray, I mean. After: I was too notorious to breathe, and often found myself pressed against walls, thinking, like an abused animal, I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel safe. I became a dragnet for love, the love of shadows and darkness, from all corners; love that I courted, craved, and, of course, detested for its obvious inconstancy.
I have a contact sheet of photographs from that year, photographs that still show up online, accompanied by shattering new remarks.
“He used to be so gorgeous,” or, devastatingly, “My God, what happened?”
In these shots, taken by Richard Avedon, I am wearing milk-white jeans, a heavy leather belt with a big brass buckle, and nothing else.
I smile. I frown. I say, with my large, heavy-lidded eyes, Come hither.
Women tell me often that they fell asleep staring at these pictures, wishing, convulsively, they were the daisy Avedon had me hold and pull apart from shot to shot.
The photographs are published in Esquire and mean, according to my new manager, that I have arrived.
He is a barracuda who has scripts sent over in the trembling hands of toothsome young girls.
I have a sybarite decorate my Kensington apartment and hire a realtor to start scouting homes in Los Angeles with my girlfriend, a deliciously fat-assed and very serious actress.
I drop the girlfriend the day after we arrive. She threatens to throw herself off the HOLLYWOOD sign and I am thrilled by my fatal allure.
My nights become what I can only remember as a montage, set to “Will It Go Round in Circles,” of sexual misconduct, pyramids of cocaine, tumblers of potent tequila, and badly executed conga lines.
My reviewers proclaim that I possess “luminosity,” “astonishing grace,” and “sly, intelligent malevolence.”
Yet everything reverts to my beauty. My dishevelled, pekoe-colored hair, tall, tawny body, and saucer-sized, jade- green eyes are pored and slavered over. One female interviewer meets me at my home, seizes the cuff of my shirt, and puts it into her mouth, her eyes closed and weeping.
I am poised to become a huge star, an American star — and, for a short time, it looks like I will be.
Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, states: “Parnell Wilde’s Sid is a devastating icon and image of modern sexuality. More bestial than Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, but just as alluring, he informs us, in a few feline strokes, that Plath’s Fascist wants more adoration — and so fatally charming, so hotly charged is his performance, we are compelled to give the damned creature what he wants.”
I clip this review carelessly, thinking it is the first of many more to come.
A new wave of prominent directors, including Scorsese, Coppola, and Friedkin — all enfants terribles — rushes me, wanting to work with an actor as lethal as their films.
My agent and I sort through offers, foolishly rejecting all but the highest paying.
In a short piece in Time, I appear in a glossy shag and beige turtleneck, and am cited as saying, “It’s good to be on top.” I am looking at this rimpled bit of arrogance now, which is sitting beneath my can of Colt 45.
I am sixty-seven years old today.
I am paunchy and balding; bloated, with crazed eyebrows and a nose that looks part radish, part road map.
And I am, incidentally, losing my mind.
Asphyxiation, bullets, choking, Drano, exsanguination — these are the ways I may kill myself. The alphabet game keeps my brain in some sort of shape.
My new manager, a bottom-feeder called Krishna, has sent me a card and a box of Little Debbie Pecan Spinwheels: I am eating them in bed and chasing them with the booze I gave up ten years ago.
As I drink and swallow golden paste, I look at the letter again.
Dear Mr. Wilde,
We are ZIP, a small yet thriving advertising agency. And we would like you — a classic badass — to appear as the Chickman Chicken mascot in a cool and hilarious commercial, introducing their new line of spicy chicken breasts. The pirate-chicken costume is a lot of fun, and the pay, we are afraid, is more of an honorarium. (Sorry, man, we tried to get you more.)
Krishna has forwarded the chicken suit as well, a massive, beaked horror loaded with bile-yellow feathers.
I step into it and take a few steps around my apartment, an outright dump in Koreatown near the Line Hotel.
The music below starts thumping. I had been pecking and dancing: I had no idea.
I stand stock-still, then slowly return to bed. Drink from my sippy cup of Dewar’s and shake, disgorging fluff.
Things are going to get better, I tell myself faintly, just as my lights and power surge off. The landlord knocks at the door for what feels like hours, and then leaves an ominous- looking envelope.
I am, to come clean, at broke. Together, my pension check and residuals (for an ancient Old Spice ad that occasionally airs in Peru) barely cover the occasional shockingly vile prostitute, let alone the rent on a bachelor apartment in Hollywood.
I will get up and shower, I decide, then go see Krishna.
I see myself walking briskly along Sunset, drinking a black coffee and feeling the old magic move through my veins like drain cleaner.
I will reclaim my life, I vow, deep into the belly of the sweat-soaked pillow, lashed by the rope-twisted brown polyester sheet.
There, I reread the letter slipped under my London apartment’s door back in 1976. The pink paper has scalloped edges, soaked impressively in Baccarat’s Les Larmes Sacrées de Thebes.
“Parnell, my darling,” it begins, in perfect rotund cursive.
I am writing you from my office on Lombard Street, where I work for a Very Important Man, who pinches me black and blue each day.
And I am slipping my Budding Pink–painted fingers into my pink slit, thinking of you, in that movie.
You are divinely cruel.
You have dark animal’s eyes and a luscious, feral mouth I can imagine tearing into my flesh and leaving beautiful rouge-red wounds.
I feel handfuls of your long, fleecy hair in my hands as you, as you.
My fat, hateful boss just called for me and I rejoiced in telling him, “I’m coming!”
Perhaps we will meet.
Perhaps you will loosen your heavy belt and, as my tongue travels the line of hair below your belly, strike me until I am your bleeding bride.
There is a signature I am still unable to interpret.
by Lynn Crosbie
House of Anansi Press, 2018
Description from House of Anansi Press
Set in disparate parts of Los Angeles, Chicken uproariously, grievously, relates the collision and inevitably ruinous paths of two incendiary figures. One is the once beautiful and very famous Parnell Wilde, a maverick actor arrogant in his disastrous fall. The other is Annabel Wrath, a much younger, idiosyncratic cult filmmaker with contradictory motives for seeking the older man out.
The two are profoundly altered by their meeting and its harrowing denouement and manage to save each other from their paths of torment and dizzying spirals of decline. But when Parnell is offered the chance to perform in Ultraviolence, the sequel to the feature film that made him famous—and to work again with its brilliant but merciless director —he and Annabel are forced to wrestle with their fractured pasts as the extreme, fleeting, and dangerous world of fame threatens to divide them.
Excerpted from Chicken, copyright © 2018 by Lynn Crosbie.
Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com
Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com
Poet, author, and novelist LYNN CROSBIE was born and raised in Montreal. An award-winning journalist and cultural critic, she has written about fashion, sports, art, and celebrity. She has a Ph.D. in English literature and a background in visual studies; she teaches at the University of Toronto and the Ontario College of Art and Design. Her volumes of poetry and prose include Queen Rat, Dorothy L’Amour, and Liar. She is the author of the controversial book Paul’s Case, about the Paul Bernardo–Karla Homolka murders, as well as the novels Life Is About Losing Everything and Where Did You Sleep Last Night, a Trillium Book Award finalist. Her most recent book is a collection of poems about her father, entitled The Corpses of the Future.