Looking at Brad Barkley’s fictional landscape is like looking through the cracked windshield of an old Chevy. James Dean stands next to the mangled Porsche in which he perished 20 years before. Miss North Carolina is a Fighting Christian. A 16-year-old son commiserates with his father by drinking Crown Royal and visiting the Land of Oz.
Underneath all this chaos lies discovery, and in Barkley’s new novel Money, Love, James Dean and his car are really fakes, Miss North Carolina believes in the Zen of golf, and no thanks to the good intentions of his father, the 16-year-old grows up.
Money, Love centers on the wrangling between Roman and Gladys Strickland, and their son Gabe, who gets caught in the middle. Roman is a traveling salesman who thinks he can sell a romanticized past to his wife, but she isn’t buying. Instead, Gladys, an amateur poet, moves in with Roman’s brother Dutch, a successful Triad used-car salesman.
In an effort to buy back Gladys’ love, Roman concocts a series of moneymaking schemes that include a rigged poetry contest and a Southern tour of “Death Cars of Celebrities.” Roman, eccentric entrepreneur Vic Comstock, Gabe and a former Miss North Carolina take to the road, stopping at Southern fairs and carnivals to display cars that closely resemble James Dean’s mangled Porsche, Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-ridden Ford and the Buick that decapitated Jayne Mansfield. As the novel progresses, Gabe and Roman really do visit the Land of Oz, a defunct theme park in Western North Carolina, Gabe transforms into James Dean, and thanks in part to the golfing philosophy of ex-beauty queen Sandy Goforth, Gabe is able to accept the flaws of his father.
Barkley’s biographical landscape is less road-worn than his fictional one. He spent a solitary childhood in Greensboro fishing in Lake Jeanette, playing in a scooped-out mound of dirt called “The Honda Pit” and doing magic tricks. Writing fiction, Barkley says, is the greatest magic trick of them all. After graduating from UNC-Greensboro in 1984, Barkley took a job as a technical editor for an Annapolis, Md., engineering firm. The job, which Barkley describes as “deadly,” gave him the incentive to go to graduate school. He received his master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Arkansas in 1994. In 1996, SMU Press published his first collection of stories, Circle View, and Barnes & Noble recently selected Money, Love for its “Discover Great New Writers” program. Barkley lives with his wife and two children in Maryland, where he teaches creative writing at Frostburg State University.
The Independent: A significant part of Money, Love takes place on the road. How has the road impacted your life?
Brad Barkley: Only in a reverse sort of way, I guess. I mean, there is nothing Kerouacian about me. I have mostly stayed put. In recent years I have moved around a bit following teaching jobs, but growing up I spent 20-some years in Greensboro and never went anywhere beyond the occasional trip to Myrtle Beach (back when it was really Myrtle Beach). So I think I really romanticize the road and cars and the whole idea of going, simply because I never had a lot of experience with it. I still love old cars, still love to drive in the evening with the stereo on and the windows down. I want to hit the gas and go. Who doesn’t?
What interests you about America’s fascination with celebrity?
Well, lately the level of celebrity fascination has become grotesque. Do we really need to learn more about Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston? I guess what interests me most is the way some celebrities become emblematic of an entire group of people and remain so. Where I live you still see guys in their 60s who wear jeans with wide cuffs and white T-shirts with cigarettes rolled in the sleeves. They have motorcycle boots and slicked-back hair and sideburns. And they dress this way because when they were 18 or 19, James Dean and Marlon Brando dressed this way, and that style just came to mean “cool” to them, and they are grounded in that way of thinking.
So celebrity becomes this breathing, dynamic thing that lives way beyond the person who embodied it. It leaves the person behind. And it is another kind of transaction, a person-made product. We pay for the celebrity–not the human being–[but] for the right to lift these people up and make them embody some idea of ourselves. Right now Marlon Brando is just some obese guy living on an island, but don’t tell that to the guys with the jeans. They bought their tickets; they’ve seen The Wild One. They’ve owned that image for 50 years now, and they still wear it every day.
Personally, I am even more taken with the celebrities who almost made it as American icons. Jayne Mansfield was almost Marilyn Monroe, but not quite. Dean Martin was never Frank Sinatra. I find this group fascinating because they have that outer shine and glimmer of celebrity, but their failure to make it beyond that “B” level humanizes them as well, makes them not grandly tragic, but just quietly sad. The problem these days is the efficiency of everything. Celebrities, like most everything else, are homogenized, mass-produced, prepackaged.
How did you get the idea for the death cars? What actually happened to those old, tragic cars?
I went to a county fair once, it may have been the Dixie Classic, and I saw Buford Pusser’s Corvette on display. Do you remember Buford Pusser, the sheriff from all those Walking Tall movies? Buford Pusser is kind of scraping the bottom of the celebrity barrel, but the idea stayed with me all these years, and I did some research and found out they did once tour some of those cars around, especially the Bonnie and Clyde car, but the others as well. I imagine those cars now are on display in a museum somewhere or else in the hands of some lucky collector.
Two of the major characters in Money, Love are salesmen. It seems to me that selling different versions of reality is a major theme in the book. What do you find interesting about salesmen?
That’s a very good question and I wish I had a complete answer. Annie Dillard talks about indulging your own quirky obsessions, and I guess salesmen fall into that category for me, along with the American propensity for spending good money on complete crap. Have you ever watched QVC? Infomercials? The book takes that up as a kind of minor key, the way we love not so much having, but just spending. We like the transaction. But these days that transaction is mass-produced with the likes of Wal-Mart and K-Mart, and homogenized through television and the Internet. It is all so clean and efficient.
So part of my fascination with salesmen (and they were exclusively men during their heyday) is that they would take that idea of transaction in the abstract and make it into a kind of art form, or calling, or belief system. I remember hiding behind my mother’s legs and listening to the salesmen’s pitch at the front door. The free samples, the minute of your time. Every product was some sort of “miracle.” I would watch out the window and see that tan- and brown-speckled Charles Chips van pull into the neighborhood. Can you imagine that today? Someone selling chips and pretzels door-to-door? But we knew the Charlie Chip guy, and he would work up a genuine excitement when he had a new product (cheese puffs!). Now, the transaction has become too automatic, too sanitized. We’ve lost something.
An interesting aspect of Money, Love is Gabe’s parents’ attitude towards education. Gladys considers lying down by a stream and looking at the sky as an education while Roman wants his son’s learning to come on the road. As a teacher, what are your views on formal education? Did you learn more inside the classroom or outside of it?
In addition to being a long-time student and now educator, I’m also a parent. I think in many ways schools tend to squash kids’ imaginations, and in that sense I probably flourished more playing around the creek and the Honda Pit than I did in the classroom. And the prevailing wisdom seems to be that creative writing and music and art are expendable, ballast to be tossed overboard as the education system sinks. Something is obviously wrong with that thinking, and it is scary. Do we intend to raise a generation or two of Stepford wives and, I guess, husbands, devoid of soul or imagination?