Bindlestiff by Wayne Holloway
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Bindlestiff by Wayne Holloway (Review)

A crumpled boot, a worn-down heel, a sole with a hole where the sun pours through when Frank holds it up for inspection. It is with this rather ordinary image that Wayne Holloway begins Bindlestiff. Frank proceeds to fix the hole with a knife, some rubber, and glue. The only piece of almost throwaway information that clues us in to this being anything but ordinary is the date. 2036.

Frank is Marine Corp vet Frank Dubois, a forty-something black man journeying from Los Angeles to Detroit seeking redemption, and 2036 is a derailed, dystopian version of the future of the American dream. Meanwhile, in present-day L.A., a British film director is trying his best to get the Hollywood green-light for his movie, Bindlestiff, which stars Frank, a ‘black Charlie Chaplin figure cast adrift in post-federal America.’

Holloway’s debut offering, published by Influx Press in 2019, is part-screenplay, part-novel, part sanitised-screenplay, all satire (broiling satire, according to the synopsis on the publisher’s website). And very, very meta. There’s nothing throwaway or accidental, building up this picture of a meticulous writer even before I have a chance to talk to him.

The dictionary definition of bindlestiff is ‘a tramp or a hobo, especially one carrying a bundle containing a bedroll and other gear.’ In short, a kind of travelling itinerant. The word, however, was a product of the depression when, as Holloway points out, the poverty not only spread up into the middle class, but also symbolised the only time that modern America, outside of its native cultures, had a genuine counter-culture not beholden to nascent neo-liberalism. Bindlestiff, then, stands not just for Frank Dubois on his journey, but also for everything it connotes, which, according to Holloway is two-fold.

“On the one hand, how the ownership of the means of production in Hollywood dictates stereotype, genre, casting, and an addictive form of story that it has been peddling since the 20s–the three-act structure, the man with a 1000 faces. Bindlestiff gets under the skin of these tropes and fucks with them.

“[I’ve] been reading Blaise Cendrars for the first time this summer, and his take on Hollywood and cinema and its attempts at creating a language that is authentic yet constructed out of means of production is exactly my approach to it.

“On the other hand, and what I’m really about as a writer is to understand issues such as race and class, of colonialism, global trade, neo-liberalism, war, money, and our addiction to violence not as ‘news’ which we get way too much of, but in the service of story, as lived realities in which stories happen that we enjoy…[Bindlestiff] is both story and more than story, [with many of its parts] elements of a political discourse.”

But, how do you even begin to introduce something as complex as this multiform narrative? With the simple act of a man fixing his boot, of course. “Everything complicated starts with something simple,” Holloway says. “The ‘if it’s broke, fix it’ ideology that works equally well for stories and in life! (A theme that will recur throughout Bindlestiff, in forms recognisable–Frank pays his passage by fixing things that others, brought up in a “use and throw” culture, can’t–and otherwise.)

“That image (of the boot) is timeless, like a man or woman digging a hole…everybody can attach meaning to it; it transcends cultural differences, except maybe for some tribes who don’t wear shoes, but still…” he trails off, before referring to another question I’ve asked him about the challenge of writing fiction that appeals to a broader readership. “For me, this simple image works as a universal hook into the story.”

Wayne Holloway knows all about the power of images, visual or those conjured up with words. He shot his first movie, Snakes and Mongoose in L.A. in 2013. His second, The Canal, based on Lee Rourke’s prize-winning novel, shoots in London this year. He is also no stranger to the written word, being the author of critically-lauded short-story collection, Land of Hunger (Zero, 2015). Not only that, but his insights into Hollywood are based on experience and years of observing his surroundings, and hence, the scenes in present-day Los Angeles go beyond the general cliches about the City of Angels, just like the author hoped they would.

“The trick is to know which bits of Hollywood to use, which to adapt, and which to blow off. Sunset Boulevard does it all. Also, when to move on. My next novel isn’t set in Hollywood at all!”

Hollywood, apart from just being the setting, also directly inspired Bindlestiff, the novel. It started out as a screenplay that he wrote around 15 years ago (incidentally titled Land of Hunger) for Forrest Whittaker. His agent loved it–’best screenplay he’s ever been sent’–but it never materialised into a film. Even though Holloway moved onto other screenplays, Frank’s character stayed with him, and now he finally has his chance to tell a story that has since gone way beyond the confines of that screenplay into a more experimental, hybrid format that elevates the material.

“Writing for me is a jigsaw where you also colour in the pieces. So, as well as laying out a structure or letting pieces fall together naturally, I love to go back and forth between the pieces…Scripts are technical delivery devices and not for entertainment, like you would read a play, for example, but there is something pure about their communication, something pared back that I love, and [I] wanted some of that to spill over into the prose sections.”

Is it possible, however, to tell a good story while simultaneously making a story of ‘the process of telling a good story without being too arch, satirical, or distant from character and plot?’ Holloway has thought a lot about the process. “Good storytelling has to have emotional truth, everything else can be made up. Ursula Le Guin is the master of [these] moments of pure clarity that connect us to her fictions/fantasies…the best Die Hard films (oddly) have this!”

He, then, aimed to write those struggles, to inscribe those philosophies into the story of all of his characters and put them on an equal footing, as a kind of ‘deranged realism’ while continuing to maintain enough emotional integrity within the story and its characters so readers would want to stick with it and them to the end.

Which is an even more important sentiment to an indie author whose work is so difficult to cleanly categorise. “More voices are being satisfied [with independent publishing], but who is listening?” Holloway continues, “Maybe all books are pebbles in the sea, somebody will feel a ripple, riff off it, take it forward…” Even so, Bindlestiff is a great example of the kind of challenging, complex, and wholly experimental work (coming from a place of what Wayne Holloway likes to call ‘radical empathy’ where he is writing beyond himself and all he knows into other worlds) that indies like Influx Press allow to be born and go out into the world, into that void existing beyond us and our little circles. The words ‘inventive’ and ‘fresh’ only do so much in painting a picture about the reality of this book’s reading experience.

It was the kind of transitional New England day where the bright, blinding sun gave way to furious summer showers and you could listen to the insistent patter on the roof as you sat and typed, trying to extract from thoughts that pull you in a dozen different directions, impatient to be heard now, right this instant, others be damned. Reading Bindlestiff is kind of like that, though not in a negative way. But, I’ll admit that I had been struggling to coherently frame my overall impressions about it.

And then, in one of those very quirks of fate that Andy Martin refers to in his upcoming book, With Child, I finished that book half an hour before I was going to sit down and attempt to write this, and it gave me not only the vocabulary for expression, but also crystallised the chaotic nature of my thoughts about the content of this piece.

Both books, despite being born of very different genres and writing styles and even content, talk about storytelling–the ways in which we tell stories, the responsibility and power that comes with creation as well as the agency of the consumer. Both discuss the obsession with the small, more contemplative moments and things, the random observations, behavioural patterns, and stories that get repurposed, or not, for the stories we tell. Both are extremely meta and discuss, among myriad other things, the nature of the relationship between characters and the author, the author and the reader. Holloway, in an interview with the Civilian Reader, talked about how one of the major narrative threads in Bindlestiff focuses on the escape act made by the characters in an unmade screenplay into prose; textual constructs that benefit from the death of the author.

I don’t claim to have gotten all the references–there are so many hidden layers that it’s impossible to fathom them all in one read even if you do ‘get’ it. What I did do was let the prose, the narrative rhythm, and the strangely hypnotic voice roll over me in waves, lifting me up, pulling me under, completely obliterating me and my conscious mind. Yet, in the midst of all the destruction and devastation and greed and brokenness of this dark dark satire, there is potential for friendship and love, and an unexpected hopeful tinge leaving you even more disoriented (in a way that is hard to put into words).

Bindlestiff is unlike anything I’ve ever read and I’m excited to see what Wayne Holloway does with his next novel, Our Struggle, which is ‘a mediation of nation states’ idealism and cynicism, a father’s relationship with his daughter who redeems his middle-aged nihilism fighting for the YPK.’ There is also a good chance that we might see Bindlestiff on TV or the silver screen, in the sort of ironic coming full circle that Hollywood in particular loves. What better medium to explore even more facets of this story (and of storytelling, audience, and creators in general) than the one that birthed it and lends itself to some powerful visuals of its own?

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