are a couple of things you should know about Dallas
author Will Clarke’s new book — his third novel,
long overdue, though not the third novel he imagined
before his extended hiatus from bookshelves.
it is titled "The Neon Palm of Madame Melançon"
and is set in New Orleans in May 2010, where oil-company
lawyer Duke Melançon has returned to grapple with twin
tragedies: an oil-rig explosion that killed 50 and
poisoned the Gulf Coast, and the disappearance of his
fortune-telling mother, who went chasing after a calico
cat and never returned from the swampy darkness. It’s
as straightforward as a five-shots-of-absinthe hangover,
a brilliant novel about screwed-up families,
cold-blooded corporations, magical necklaces made of
gold coins and, among other strange things, a homeless
man who might be the late Kurt Vonnegut. There might
also be some time-traveling.
a heck of a book. You think it’s about one thing, read
300 pages in the blink of an eye, then realize it’s
about something else, something unexpected, something
magical, something hilarious, something heartbreaking.
The Neon Palm, which tastes of cold Dixie and smells of
smoldering dope, is the slap that turns into a
here’s the other thing you should about "The Neon
Palm of Madame Melançon": It was, as originally
written, not a book at all.
was, in fact, pitched as a TV series for CBS, the parent
company of Simon & Schuster, which, another lifetime
ago, picked up Clarke’s novels "The Worthy"
and "Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles," written in
the 1990s and both originally self-published and
reissued with hard covers and rave reviews.
Neon Palm" was initially about a man beckoned back
to the family business — in this case, fortune-telling
and the attendant hurricanes and hoodoo that comes with
any tale set in New Orleans. That was in in 2009 or
thereabouts, back when Clarke, fresh off having been
christened a Hot Pop Prophet by Rolling Stone, was still
flirting with Hollywood about turning his first two
novels into movies. Those would-be big-screen
adaptations had screenwriters and producers and
directors and everything — among them the guy who
helped finance "Sideways," some writing
buddies of Judd Apatow’s, and Dallas’ own David
Gordon Green, the acclaimed maker of art-house movies
best known, perhaps, for "Pineapple Express."
absence has been deeply felt by those of us who fell in
love with his early works. He also felt a bit like a
sideline observer, missing out as Dallas’ literary
scene began to grow up in the last decade. As he slipped
into the shadows, others took his place in the
spotlight, among them Merritt Tierce, author of
"Love Me Back"; Sarah Hepola, the memoirist
behind the rightly acclaimed "Blackout"; Ben
Fountain, whose "Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime
Walk" went from page to screen in a scant four
years; and his friend Harry Hunsicker, famous for his
Clarke, now 47, has always been, even in his absence, a
deeply special part of the Dallas’ literary life. He’s
a visionary who tells breezy, comic tales about madness
and anguish. A 2006 New York Times review of "Lord
Vishnu" — about a psychic, alcoholic Lakewood
dot-com millionaire, which doesn’t even begin to
scratch the plot’s berserk surface — compared him to
"a kid cannonballing off the high-dive" and
"a man who thinks like Will Ferrell and dreams like
Samuel Taylor Coleridge." In just the first
was little wonder he was romanced by the
entertainment-industrial complex, which, every few
months back in 2006 and ’07, teased us with news of
his ascension to the ranks of the Hot Commodity. But the
projects exist now only as never-made screenplays,
broken promises. Clarke was even asked to take a swipe
at adapting "The Worthy," his first tome,
about a murdered Louisiana State University frat boy who
haunts his killers.
wanted it to be a buddy movie about how the ghost
teaches them how to party," Clarke said over
dinner. Which just confirms every horror story you’ve
ever heard about the movie business.
the end, he said, the Writers Guild strike of 2007 and
the economic crash the following year sank his Hollywood
prospects — and put on hold his third novel, about a
child who never sleeps, which, if all things go
according to plan, will become his fourth novel.
as Clarke has discovered, things seldom go according to
plan. That’s why it’s been well more than a decade
between novels. And how, in the interim, he left his
life in Dallas’ ad world and wound up as a senior
marketing veep at Poo-Pourri, the beloved, locally made
it was terrible," he said, hastening to add that he’s
got nothing to complain about. "It just, everything
at that point … " Long pause. "I thought
about it, ‘What the hell took me so long to write this
he tells it, "Basically, life happened. My mom got
sick, and at that point, my dad had passed away. So it’s
just, you know, a lot."
could have abandoned "The Neon Palm" at any
time; he was told, repeatedly, to move on. And it was
tempting, because he’s got the good life now — wife
and kids, swell gig at a thriving company. And he could
go out with the echoes of hosannas ringing in his ears.
could always say, ‘Well, I was in Rolling Stone back
in 2006,’" he said, grinning.
he enrolled at the University of British Columbia in
Vancouver, where he fleshed out a 150-page idea into the
finished novel. And seeing the success of the Dallas
writers with whom he workshopped his first novels
spurred him on, too; he wanted to once again be part of
a thriving scene that hadn’t yet taken shape back when
he was being wooed by Hollywood.
has a small but mighty writer’s community, and it
supports my work in big and unseen ways," he said
via email, a few days after our interview. He had
especially kind words for Hunsicker, with whom he edited
a collection of short stories in 2004 called "Don’t
Abuse the Muse."
kind of the grand poobah of this secret society,"
Clarke said. "He works really hard to create this
literary community around him, and I have benefited
greatly from this largesse. He’s helped a lot of us
normalize this really … [screwed]-up thing that we do:
making up imaginary people and talking to them all day,
and it’s also helped keep my focus on the craft. So,
yeah, I don’t think I would have finished my third
book without Harry’s encouragement and
Hunsicker, Clarke’s absence was just the stuff of
everyday life. The absence was palpable, but explicable.
Clarke was off raising a family, working a job, having a
missed having Will Clarke books out there,"
Hunsicker said by phone. "He’s got so much to say
and is so insightful about so many things. He’s the
shining light of the Dallas literary scene, in my
opinion. It’s good to have him back."
is back to the zero, in some regards: He’s publishing
"The Neon Palm" via his resurrected Middle
Finger Press because Simon & Schuster, which had
first-look rights, took a pass. He designed the book
jacket. He’s setting up his own interviews and
scheduling his own book-signings.
he’s finishing that fourth book, about the boy who
doesn’t sleep, which is set in Deep Ellum in the
didn’t want to be the guy who takes a decade between
books," Clarke said. "That was never me. But
then life happens."