‘It’s hard to figure out if Rudolph “Rudy” Wurlitzer’s new novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder, is newfangled or old hat, a relic or a revolution. In many ways, it feels like it’s being published 40 years too late. Living large and free in the Wild West, altering one’s consciousness and finding enlightenment outside the confines of the culture, these dreams have passed us all by — haven’t they?
‘Literature in the 21st century generally seems more concerned with mapping society than with dropping off the edges of it, in making connections rather than severing them. But the thing about revolutions — as the word implies — is that they don’t just happen once, they happen over and over. Punk rock, for example, might be dead in the historical sense, but every day, kids discover the fevers of creative anarchy and the liberation of DIY. Love songs seem trite until someone figures out how to sing them like you’ve never heard them before. A novel like Drop Edge, with its gorgeously old-fashioned cover, published by the young husband-and-wife owners of Two Dollar Radio, might not take the culture by storm, but there’s a bawdy, lunatic thrill to the tale that still seems somehow radical. It’s the kind of book someone will stick in a back pocket before heading out on the trail into the unknown.
‘Wurlitzer has always been interested in what he calls “journeys to nowhere.” His 1969 debut novel, Nog, followed the aimless wanderings of a nameless character through a surreal and absurd American landscape. The 1971 cult-classic film Two-Lane Blacktop, written by Wurlitzer (and directed by maverick Monte Hellman), begins with a promising Hollywood premise: Two hot-rod fanatics race their cars cross-country, with their pink slips as the wager. But the plot soon goes sideways and never comes back. In the film’s infamous last shot, “the driver” (played by a laconic James Taylor) is drag-racing his ’55 Chevy when suddenly the sound disappears, the film blackens and cracks, and the image burns into nothingness.
‘Four novels and dozens of screenplays later, Wurlitzer still hasn’t given up on his peculiar twin obsession with constant movement and never arriving. The Drop Edge of Yonder is a psychedelic Western, a tripped-out blend of Hollywood convention and ecstatic mysticism: poker games in old saloons, shootouts, prison breaks and lynch mobs mingle with healing rituals, midget shamans, vision quests and an underlying emphasis on the Buddhist concepts of death, rebirth and the wheel of suffering. The novel’s main character, Zebulon Shook, is a rugged mountain trapper who wanders out toward San Francisco’s gold rush via the Panama Canal, chases after his Abyssinian whore lover, becomes a notorious outlaw and even dies a few times along the way. As the novel opens, Zebulon is nearly axed to death by a horse thief named Lobo Bill while he’s in flagrante with a half-breed Indian on a tabletop, and from then on, the novel is a deluge of action and movement, a parade of “bad hombres and doins.”
‘Still, despite all the adventure, love and cholera, the novel feels weirdly static, like an eerie repetitive dream. The man playing the honky-tonk piano in the first saloon is the same man playing in the last one, and when the cards in the poker hand are turned over, the result is always the same: a queen-high straight flush of hearts beating a full house. You feel two myths of freedom colliding: the Western myth of finding freedom somewhere out in “the big empty” of the frontier, and the Eastern belief that enlightenment comes only after divorcing oneself from physical reality and desire. The result is a bawdy, rambunctious, exhilarating book that is simultaneously claustrophobic and stifling. It’s fun to read, but the novel subversively suggests that a true triumph would be to stop reading altogether, to give up on your need for narrative catharsis. In the end, Zebulon goes nowhere, and the last line describes his photograph fading to nothingness, a clear throwback to Blacktop. It’s remarkable how long Wurlitzer has been dedicated to his vision of nothingness and Nirvana, and it’s more remarkable that the idea still packs a kick. Perhaps it’s a story that needs to be told again and again.’ — Nathan Ihara
RUDY WURLITZER 
The Countercultural Histories of Rudy Wurlitzer
Return of the Frontiersman: Rudy Wurlitzer in Conversation
Writer Rudy Wurlitzer’s Underappreciated Masterpieces
RW interviewed @ The AV Club
RW @ The Cult
An Interview with Rudy Wurlitzer
WILL OLDHAM & RUDY WURLITZER!
A Beaten-up Old Scribbler
THE DROP EDGE OF YONDER: RUDY WURLITZER RIDES NOWHERE AGAIN
More on Rudy Wurlitzer
On the Road Again
How the West Was Fun
RUDY WURLITZER: TWO-LANE BLACKTOP AND BEYOND
‘Radio On’, by Rudy Wurlitzer
Scott McClanahan interviews Rudy Wurlitzer
Events, of a Sort: The Fiction of Rudolph Wurlitzer
Podcast: RW on NPR’s Bookworm
ON THE DRIFT: Rudy Wurlitzer and the Road to Nowhere
THE GENIUS OF RUDY WURLITZER
RUDY WURLITZER REGRETFULLY DECLINES THE INVITATION TO TAP DANCE ON YOUR RUBBER RAFT
rudy wurlitzer’s nog as california cult classic
Buy ‘The Drop Edge of Yonder’
Trailer: Robert Frank & Rudy Wurlitzer ‘Candy Mountain’
Walker Q&A with Alex Cox & Rudy Wurlitzer at Basilica Hudson
Excerpts: Philip Glass/Rudy Wurlitzer opera ‘Appomattox’
Films written by Rudy Wurlitzer
Jim McBride Glen and Randa (1971)
Monte Hellman Two Lane Blackstop (1971)
Sam Peckinpah Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Robert Frank Keep Busy (1973)
Robert Frank/Rudy Wurlitzer Candy Mountain (1987)
Alex Cox Walker (1987)
Volker Schlondorf Homo Faber (1991)
Bernardo Bertolucci Little Buddha (1993)
JoAnne Akalaitis In The Penal Colony (2000)
Wim Wenders, Michelangelo Antonioni Two Telegrams (2020)
L.A. WEEKLY: You’re from the Wurlitzer family — why didn’t you go into the music business?
RUDY WURLITZER: Luckily the whole Wurlitzer empire had collapsed, and my father had become a violin and cello dealer. I was the end of the line, and my father never imposed what I should do. He was always curious about how weird I was, and he wanted to see what I would do.
How did you become a writer?
One summer, when I was 17, I got a job on an oil tanker that went from Philadelphia to Spanish Morocco to Kuwait. And on that trip I started to write. Then, after a couple years at Columbia University, I took a spring vacation down to Cuba, just after Castro had arrived, and the whole thing was completely exuberant, so I stayed on, fell in love with a Cuban, uh, woman of the night, let’s say. By the time I finally got back to Columbia, my career as an academic was in real jeopardy. So I went into the Army for a few years, went up to Hudson Bay to test cold-weather equipment, and when I was there, I wrote even more because it was so isolating. Then I hung out in Paris for a long time, drifted down to Majorca, where I sort of became secretary to Robert Graves, the poet, and he taught me how to write short sentences. Then I published a story in the Paris Review,which turned out to be the first chapter of Nog, and this editor at Random House liked it a lot and signed me up. Those were the days when Random House was open to publishing literature.
Nog is a very strange book. It was praised by Thomas Pynchon (“Another sign that the novel of bullshit is dead”) but also left a lot of people bewildered.
One of the first reviews I got, the first line was: “Wurlitzer is a name that means music to millions, and literature obviously to none.” [Laughs.] Still, if it had said the opposite, it would have been worse for me, because I would have gone around with a swollen head, but instead I went around with almost no head.
Were you part of a group, people who were your comrades in arms? Did you have artist friends?
I’ve never felt that I was a comrade in arms or self-consciously part of any group, except for everyone with a sense of alienation. Which is a big group. Artist friends? Sure. One of my oldest friends is Philip Glass. [In 2000, they collaborated on an opera version of Kafka’s “The Penal Colony.”] We met back in Paris — we were lusting after the same girl.
We both lost.
How did you go from traveling the world and writing this bizarre novel to writing screenplays in Hollywood?
Monte Hellman read Nog and thought, “Wow, this guy is crazy enough to write the film I want to do.” I came out to L.A. They got me a room and hotel. I didn’t know a car from a cow, but I hung out with all these car freaks and totally rewrote the script for Two-Lane Blacktop. And it was great because, in the best sense of the word, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know the rules of writing scripts. So it became a very existential process. And it was fun. I thought, Man, what is everyone complaining about?
I know film buffs who feel like it’s the greatest counterculture film, above even Easy Rider.
It was a wonderful mistake, that film. The thing about Two-Lane Blacktop that is interesting for people is that it’s a journey to nowhere, it’s for its own sake. We just filmed these little autonomous moments with nonactors, so you didn’t have the clichés of acting. In fact, most of them were totally somnambulant … due to various influences. After I wrote the script, Esquire read it, and they published it on the cover, saying, “The Film of the Year,” and after the film came out, they called it “The Flop of the Year.” People didn’t get it. The mass audience was going to a film about cars, for races, for winners and losers, and in this film there are no winners or losers, there is no duality in that way.
How did the ending come about?
We didn’t know how to end it. [Laughs.] We were both, like, how are we going to end this fucking thing? And somebody said, “Let’s torch it up, burn the film.” It seemed appropriate.
Your next film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, was also a commercial flop, and has also become a cult classic. What was it like working with Sam Peckinpah?
Peckinpah was great, one of a kind. A real character of the West. He was scary. He would take out a knife and throw it at the wall behind your head. He had this whole coterie of old-time character actors that were on most of his films, and it was like this demented family. So if you’re not terrified, you love a guy like that.
I read that Bob Dylan (who wrote the film score and played a small role) loved Peckinpah, and followed him around the set like a puppy. How did Dylan get involved?
I knew Dylan a little, and he came to see me when he heard that I was doing a film on Billy the Kid, and he said, “Oh, man, you know what? I always thought I was the reincarnation of Billy the Kid.” I said, “I’m sure you are.” And he said, “Well, if there’s any way I can be in it …” So then we went down and met Sam, and he turned to Bob and said, “You know, I’m a big fan of Roger Miller.” I thought, “Oh, no, this might be it.” But Bob fell in love. He was a confrontationist too, so he understood.
It seems like Hollywood was such a different animal then.
Totally different. There was always a certain war with the powers that be, but it was fun. … It was like the outlaws against the big landowner. My connections to Hollywood in those days were all very personal and spontaneous and pretty much off the margins of the studio system. It felt very free to me. I thought, “Wow, this is a way I can have a livelihood and still write my wacky novels.” And for a while, that was true. Then it changed. Now films are worked out in a room before the shooting starts, with about five sales people and three studio people and a director terrified that he’s gonna make a flop. And the poor scribbler is just trying to survive, saying, “Yeah, whatever you want!” A lot of those old directors would have trouble getting work now — guys like Peckinpah, Hal Ashby.
Are you done with screenwriting?
I’m pretty much off the celluloid trail, I hope. But you never know. If somebody calls me up and says, “Hey, saddle up big guy …”
You talk about Two-Lane Blacktop being a journey to nowhere, and that seems to be the theme in Drop Edge, too.
I’ve always been obsessed with episodic journeys, and trying to get lost in the presence of the journey. Each time you take a journey, you separate from what you’ve left behind, and you hopefully burn out all the false attachments and beliefs about who you are, the “me.” When you’ve dissolved all the conditions that you’ve been born into, it’s often very brutal, but that’s what it means to be free.
Your novel fuses these Eastern concepts with our Western notions of freedom: the Old West, outlaws, living as an individual.
Sure, you could say the frontier is a metaphor for freedom. It’s about all these wackos who rushed out there for the gold rush, and how that fueled the whole capitalist system. It’s about greed, desire, ambition, and in this sense, Drop Edge is about how the big empty was filled up and what people did with that emptiness, and how they used and arranged it to feel safe, or make their coin or whatever.
That transition sounds similar to what you were saying about L.A.’s transition from a more wild and woolly place to —
Los Angeles went from being a frontier town to becoming a monocultural corporate town. I see that in America as a whole. I see it everywhere.
Is there still a role for your kind of writing in today’s literary world? Is there even a counterculture at all anymore?
Not like the ’60s, but I think there will be, as the noose tightens, as people become more and more stretched and afraid, and the structure becomes more dysfunctional. There will have to be some kind of alternative, or no one will survive. My heart goes out to young writers — it’s a very perilous path. Look at all the writers around who are in desperate straits, psychologically, emotionally, financially. Magazines, newspapers are going down. Film business has gone into TV land in terms of writing. Novels are on their way out.
Your book is being published by Two Dollar Radio, a small start-up printing press.
They have purity, they love books, they have no idea what they’re doing [laughs], and I’ve never had so much fun! I didn’t need a big advance, and the thought of going up to 57th Street and having one of these publishing lunches — I couldn’t do it anymore. I just thought, Fuck it, I’ll try something different. It’s like the old Grove Press or the Barney Rosset days in Paris. Like-minded common-ground people, and they’re not talking about sales, they’re talking about books. How strange. How radical. It’s like this little secret cabal of book lovers. Soon they’ll have us all arrested.
What was your writing process with Drop Edge?
Well, you write because you’re exploring, you’re trying to figure out what you think, you’re trying to articulate where your shadow world lives, and what your journey is. Life is not a conceptual arrangement, life is movement. Writing is a kind of ritual for me, and you don’t know where it’s going to go, or if anyone’s going to read it, or even if it’s going to get published. You gotta give yourself permission to get lost. If you’re not lost, you can’t be found. If you don’t have a wound, you can’t transcend the wound with a healing.
Cycles of injury and health, loss and discovery are themes in Drop Edge.
Yeah, be grateful for your wounds. They’re a catalyst toward something further. Unless you get dead.
There’s a particularly intense healing ceremony in the novel: “The medicine roared through their bodies in noxious waves until they sank on all fours, vomiting and heaving … [they] wept and wept, haunted by the … approaching shadow of … death.” It reminded me of a description of that Amazonian drug Yage.
Ah, yes. Yage. Yeah, you should try that. You’ll like it. William Burroughs liked Yage a lot. I recommend it. If you’re lucky, it takes you to the edge of yourself. But it’s been a long time since I’ve been on that journey.
I was talking to a friend of mine about Yage, and he said, “Yeah, you can get that on eBay.”
Well, that’s the new world.
Rudolph Wurlitzer The Drop Edge of Yonder
Two Dollar Radio
‘Rudolph Wurlitzer’s first novel in nearly 25 years is an epic adventure that explores the truth and temptations of the American myth.
‘Beginning in the savage wilds of Colorado in the waning days of the fur trade, the story follows Zebulon Shook, a mountain man who has a curse placed on him by a mysterious Native American woman whose lover he murdered, to “drift like a blind man between the worlds, not knowing if you’re dead or alive, of if the unseen world exists, or if you’re dreaming.” Zebulon sets out on the trail from Colorado, venturing to the remote reaches of the Northwest, a journey that traverses the Gulf of Mexico to Panama, and up the coast of California to San Francisco and the gold fields, bringing him face-to-face with mystics and outlaws, politically-minded prison wardens and Russian Counts, each hungry to stake their claim on the American dream.
‘A novel of breathtaking scope and beauty, The Drop Edge of Yonder reveals one of America’s most transcendant writers at the top of his form.’ — Two Dollar Radio
THE WINTER THAT ZEBULON SET HIS TRAPS ALONG THE Gila River had been colder and longer than any he had experienced, leaving him with two frostbitten toes, an arrow wound in his shoulder from a Crow war party, and, to top it all off, the unexpected arrival of two frozen figures stumbling more dead than alive into his cabin in the middle of a spring blizzard.
Rather than waking him, the cold blast of wind from the open door became part of a recurrent dream: a long endless fall through an empty sky towards a storm-tossed sea…. Come closer, the towering waves howled….
He opened his eyes, not sure for a moment if the man and woman staring back at him weren’t hungry ghosts. Frost clung to their eyebrows and nostrils, and their swollen faces were raw and crimson from the tree-cracking cold. The man wore a hard-brimmed top hat tied under his bearded chin with a long red scarf, along with a buffalo robe coated with slivers of ice. The woman appeared to be a Shoshoni half-breed. She was wrapped inside a huge army overcoat distinguished by sergeant stripes at the shoulders and, at the chest, two bullet holes, one over the other.
The man sank to his knees, swearing and choking from the smoke pouring out of the cabin’s leaky fireplace and the overpowering stench of a nearby slop bucket. He spoke in a rasping whisper, as if his larynx had been smashed.
“I figured we be dead meat until the breed told me you was camped on the Gila. She knows things that ain’t available to other mortals.”
The man was Lobo Bill, an old trapper and horse thief, known for his wide range of windy tales and maniacal rages, that Zebulon had run into and away from in various saloons and hideouts from Tularosa to Cheyenne. When he removed his top hat, he exposed a face sliced on one side from cheek to jawbone, as if neatly quartered by a butcher’s knife.
Lobo Bill nodded towards the breed, who was standing with her back to the wall, staring at Zebulon with huge empty eyes. “She ain’t one for words, but when she does open her flap, she packs a punch you don’t want to know about. Even so, I owe her. She saved my bacon when a wolverine took after me. Axed it into quarters and sliced me up as well. I won her in Alamosa from a horse trader. A straight flush to his full house. A hand for the ages. She’s half Shoshoni, half Irish. ‘Not Here Not There’ is what I call her, and I’m favored to have her, things bein’ what they is these days, or ain’t, depending on which way the wind blows, and even if it don’t.”
Lobo Bill and Not Here Not There took off their clothes. After their bodies thawed out, they collapsed on a pile of bearskins near the fireplace.
Zebulon spent the rest of the night stoking the fire and drinking from one of his last bottles of Taos White Lightning, pondering memories of Lobo Bill and all the other mountain lunatics he had known, and what he and they used to be, or not, and what he was meant to do, or be, depending on his view from the valley or mountaintop. It wasn’t so much that the old mountain ways were played out, although that day was surely coming. There was something else that Lobo Bill and his breed had brought in with them, a mysterious presence or shadow that he was unable to define. Or maybe it was just the sight of two strange and lost figures snoring on his bed.
It was dawn when the wind died, along with most of his premonitions, enough anyway, to let him pass out next to his guests.
WHEN HE WOKE, A HARD BRITTLE LIGHT WAS SPLATTERING against the cabin walls. There was no sign of Lobo Bill. When he questioned Not Here Not There, she shook her head and rolled her eyes back and forth, which made him think that Lobo Bill had either gone off to find his mules and traps, or he had decided to skip out altogether. Around him the cabin had been swept clean. The slop bucket had been emptied, his stock of flour, tobacco, whiskey, coffee, and dried jerky were stacked neatly in one corner, and split logs were piled up on either side of the fireplace.
The extreme tidiness of the cabin, together with Not Here Not There’s sullen silence, made him uneasy, as if she were harboring secret thoughts or maybe, god help him, some ill-intentioned plan. Never mind, he thought. Whatever was meant to come would come, ready or not.
While they both waited for Lobo Bill to appear, Zebulon hunted for small game and prepared for the annual spring rendezvous by taking down and sorting the hundreds of muskrat and beaver pelts he had stashed in the crooks of several trees.
After three days Lobo Bill still hadn’t returned. Most of the time, Not Here Not There sat on the bench outside the cabin, staring at the river and the dark blue ice that had begun to splinter into large moving cracks. In the evening she avoided looking at him as she cooked one of the rabbits he had shot. After they ate dinner, instead of retreating to the corner she had chosen to sleep in, she joined him near the fire. Looking at him with a sly grin, she took his bottle of Taos White Lightning from him and drained the rest of it, then swayed back to her place across the room.
That night he was woken by her long nails scratching lines of blood down his stomach and across his groin, a violent gesture which she repeated even as she pulled him inside her, locking her legs around his waist as if she wanted to break him in two.
For the rest of the night, she dictated their furious passion on her own insatiable terms. In the morning she left the cabin without looking at him or saying a word.
Two days later she returned in the middle of a thunderstorm. Standing before him, she looked into his eyes as he removed her clothes and positioned her over the table, pinning her arms above her head.
When the door opened, he was plunging on inside her as if they had never been apart. When he became aware that Lobo Bill was standing above them with a raised hatchet, he decided that he might as well go out in the same way that he had been conceived. Part of him enjoyed the prospect, and he was damned if he was going to give Lobo Bill the satisfaction of an apology. He continued to thrust himself inside her with even more abandon, letting out a long mountain yell: “Waaaaaaaaagh!”
His fury broke the table, sending them both to the floor. Lobo Bill’s hatchet missed Zebulon’s skull by an inch and sliced a large hole in the middle of Not Here Not There’s stomach.
Before Lobo Bill could react, Zebulon reached for a pistol inside Lobo Bill’s belt and shot him between the eyes.
Unable to move or speak, he sat on the floor, watching Not Here Not There stagger through the door.
When he finally went after her, she was standing naked on a slab of ice halfway into the river, her hands trying to hold back the blood oozing from her stomach.
“You killed the only man that ever cared for me,” she said. “And now you’ve killed me.”
They were the first words that he had heard her speak.
As the ice sank lower, carrying her downstream, and the black freezing water rose over her legs and hips, she called out to him again: “From now on, you will drift like a blind man between the worlds, not knowing if you’re dead or alive, or if the unseen world exists, or if you’re dreaming. Three times you will disappear to yourself and all that you know, and three times you will -”
She said something more, but he was unable to hear the words as she slowly sank beneath the ice.
p.s. Hey. ** Armando, Hi. You know, I haven’t watched ‘The Silence’ literally since I was a teenager, so I don’t know. You’ve made me want to retry it. I’ll find a way. I’ve seen another email from you, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I had to spend all day yesterday filling out a very exhausting grant application. Well, very happy birthday, although you don’t seem like you’re expecting it to be a happy occasion. But still, what the heck, happy birthday! ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. No, he seems to be pretty remembered to the degree that films like his can retain cultural currency. The post’s traffic was unexpectedly sky-high for instance. Everyone, Mr. Ehrenstein’s now legendary Emergency Sale is still extent. David: ‘My Big Emergency Sale of CDs, DVDs and Books is ongoing and more Emergency than ever. New items have been added. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be glad to send you an updated list.’ Pick up some awesome stuff and help a maestro out at the same time, why don’t you? ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, Corey. Glad you’re a fan of his, of course. Not me, re: your query, but … Everyone, Question from Corey Heiferman: ‘Have you or somebody else here come across (or inside, hehe) an orgone accumulator in real life?’ New with me? Getting the new GIF novel ready for Kiddiepunk. Film fundraising. Awaiting publisher news. Working on this and that but, yes, thankfully not the TV project thing until ARTE makes its big decision in mid-March. I’m down with go-getter-ism as long as it stays this side of pest. Hope that promising job ponies up. Ah, yes, Paris awaits. I have very mixed feelings about making appearances. I’m not hugely into doing readings, but I do them, and when my novel eventually comes out, I’ll have to. I like hosting film screenings better, probably because I can share the anxiety with Zac. So, yeah, mixed feelings. Kind of depends on my mood, I guess. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. Entire films usually don’t last too long on youtube, so it’s always a good idea and jump at them. Very good that your piece got a very good reaction! Best of luck with X-ray. Great idea! Keep the momentum going, my man. ** Misanthrope, Thank you about the gallery. I’ll pass your liking on to curator Jane. I know virtually squat, but can’t high glucose levels arise from eating non-sweet stuff too? I’m vaguely remembering that from friends’ tests? Most of the predictions in my FB feed are based in hysteria, not to mention that they change 100% by the day. Do people actually enjoy outputting and inputting all that shit? I guess so. No Twitter for me. The urge to be there seems pretty much self-destructive in too many cases. ** Steve Erickson, How cool that you got to see a Q&A with him. Yeah, the later films are quite disappointing. Probably for the reason you suggest. Kind of the same thing as with Nemec, strangely. I’m curious about the new Kelly Reichardt. Her films have never quite convinced me, but I feel like I’m always ready to get what her big deal is. I’ll see it when it gets here. Thanks! I have seen Yves Tumor’s new video. Fascinating. ** Right. Today the blog celebrates one of my very favorite novels from the 00 decade and beyond, i.e. the most recent novel by the sublime American wordsmith Rudy Wurlitzer. If you haven’t read it, or other of his novels, you are very strongly encouraged to do so by me. See you tomorrow.