Growing up in Berkeley, my friends and I sometimes amused ourselves by creating elaborate histories for the familiar homeless people who were fixtures of the Elmwood district.
The leather-skinned man with the plastic sword and breastplate had been a warrior in Mongolia before his tribe was exiled. The guy with the red beard who spent his days in the Claremont branch of the library was actually a millionaire who’d lost his mind after seeing his family killed in a car crash.
We were well enough trained to know that we shouldn’t talk to strangers, but these people who spent their days killing time on the sidewalks (just as we did) were more fascinating than frightening.
In his new book “Punk Chicken and Other Tales,” Stephen Lestat depicts the world of Berkeley’s homeless from the inside. In a loosely connected train of short stories, Lestat lets us “normies” (as he refers to people with homes and jobs) take a peek inside the parallel universe that we are both surrounded by and inured to.
In a voice entirely free of self pity, Lestat describes his life on the streets with as much buoyant good humor as if he were writing a memoir of his days on the Broadway stage. He brings the reader into a world where shopping carts are “minivans” and people communicate with the world through their scruffy, homeless pets.
Overzealous police officers, hunger pangs, and the disdain of “normies” are merely minor inconveniences in Lestat’s basically sunny life. He and his friends pursue a joyfully insouciant alcoholism; the author happily touts the virtues of cheap wine and month-long benders with none of the opprobrium typical of the moralistic mainstream media.
At times, however, the writing is overly precious to the point of condescension. In self-conscious asides Lestat calls attention to every small joke or minor pun he makes. The tone can be exceedingly didactic, as if the readers are a bunch of children, gathered ‘round grandpappy to hear delightful yarns about the old days.
Lestat’s strength is his ability to evoke a crystal clear sense of place. His description of a southern meal at a homeless shelter leaves the mouth watering for a taste of peach cobbler, and as he describes the constant, shifting search for sun and shade, the reader can almost hear the rattling of nearby shopping carts.
The stories of his compatriots are particularly vivid, and for those of us who know Berkeley well, the descriptions of folks like the Hate Man and the Sewer Sisters will feel like meetings with old friends.
Unfortunately, this immediacy is also the book’s failing, and it is a crippling one. Lestat obstinately refuses to go beyond the most superficial layer of introspection. Perhaps it is an armor built up against the indifference of the normie world, but Lestat seems unable or unwilling to allow the reader access to his thoughts. He alludes to the fact that many homeless—the pierced and tattooed Gutter Punks in particular—live on the streets by choice, that they enjoy the freedom and camaraderie of rootlessness.
This would have been a fascinating subject to explore, but Lestat always skates across the surface, preferring instead to detail the specifics of yet another beer run, or the tiresome antics of a predictably quirky pet squirrel.
At no point does he tell us how it feels to be homeless; never does he let himself be vulnerable enough to detail the fear, the cold, and the loneliness that being homeless must doubtless entail. Instead, after the umpteenth description of the excellent bouquet from a bottle of screw-top wine, after the millionth reference to a box-camp as a “castle,” Lestat’s forced good humor wears decidedly thin.
Further preventing Lestat from providing what could be a penetrating glimpse into street life is his equivocation about what sort of narrative he has created. In a breezy “disclaimer” he states that the book is a work of “faction,” that the stories might be either fiction or memoir and that he cares little about the distinction. While imaginative digression surely has its place in memoir, it is a technique best used to help deepen the reader’s understanding of an author’s emotion or motivation. In Lestat’s hands, this fictive blend only layers apocryphal action sequences on top of real ones, to no greater effect than the accretion of narrative bulk.
“Punk Chicken” provides a shifting kaleidoscope of characters who fade in and out of frame just as they would on a typical Saturday evening stroll down Telegraph Avenue. In the end though, Lestat and his comrades are just like the homeless people I saw as a child: bright dramatic shells that left me wondering about the minds inside.