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It took more than a decade, but Will Clarke is back with his third (brilliant) novel

August 14, 2017

Here 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.

First, 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.

It’s 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 gut-punch.

But here’s the other thing you should about "The Neon Palm of Madame Melançon": It was, as originally written, not a book at all.

It 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.

"The 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."

Clarke’s 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 gritty thrillers.

But 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 paragraph.

It 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.

"They 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.

In 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.

But 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 "spray-before-you-go" product.

"L.A., 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 book?’"

As 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."

He 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.

"I could always say, ‘Well, I was in Rolling Stone back in 2006,’" he said, grinning.

Instead, 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.

"Dallas 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."

"Harry’s 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 friendship."

To 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 life.

"I 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."

Clarke 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.

And he’s finishing that fourth book, about the boy who doesn’t sleep, which is set in Deep Ellum in the 1980s. Finally.

"I didn’t want to be the guy who takes a decade between books," Clarke said. "That was never me. But then life happens."

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