It is with great pleasure that I present this first installment of the uncut complete version of Larry Winchester’s classic novel A Town Called Disdain, written in 1988 while the legendary film maker was recovering from two broken legs following a skiing accident near the town of Schping-Päden in the Swiss Alps. Originally published as a paperback original in 1989 by the Trolley Barn Press (Milwaukee), the book received scathing reviews where it was reviewed at all, but it has since attained a fervent and cult-like army of devotés (Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, David Byrne, David Lynch, David Bowie, Ray Davies, Larry David, David Lee Roth) who have compared it to classics such as The Sorrows of Young Werther, Moby-Dick, Slaughterhouse-Five, Blood Meridian, and (and perhaps most à propos) Harold Robbins's post-post modern classic, The Carpetbaggers. Mind-bogglingly, A Town Called Disdain has never been reprinted (although even slightly-foxed copies of that first-and-only run of 2,000 have sold on eBay for up to $150). This 1989 edition of Larry’s mammoth epic was cut by about 75,000 words -- as Larry says of those cuts: “Okay, the book ran a little long, and I needed the dough -- I had had a bad run at the faro tables in Vegas, plus I had tax problems -- so I let the editor cut it by about half.” Larry has very kindly given me permission to broadcast, in installments, his own “director’s cut” of A Town Called Disdain. Larry again: “This is the real version of A Town Called Disdain. This is the version that pulls no punches. You pays your money and you takes your ride. Don’t yell at me if you fall off the goddamn horse.” Here is our first episode. (I hope to post up new installments once or twice a week or so as I struggle to decipher and transcribe Larry's much-scribbled-over original typescript.)
-- Dan Leo, Professor of Classics and Phys. Ed., Franco Nero Community College, Philadelphia, PA.
The driver pulled the lever and it was like he’d opened the door to a furnace, hot and bright as all hell, and the thin young soldier in the rumpled dress uniform hefted his duffel bag over his shoulder and stepped down into it. Harvey was back home now, and there was the Welcome to Disdain New Mexico sign lying on its back in the weeds.
The bus took off down the highway and Harvey stood there squinting in a cloud of exhaust and dust and took it all in for a minute, the town and the scraggly hills and the sun burning down on it all.
And a funny smell, he’d never noticed it before because he’d never been away before, a mixture of hot dirt and baking rubber, of gasoline and dried garbage, and a sharp high tingle in the back of his nose with something like squashed lightning bugs and old bones in it.
There was Burt’s Hideyway right in front of him, it hadn’t changed, no, it had, the local kids had discovered spray paint, and there was graffiti all over it, in English and Spanish. The usual collection of heaps was parked in front, along with one shiny new red ‘69 Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible with a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview, and that was probably Big Jake’s.
To the right of Burt’s was the dirt lot with some gutted and wheelless cars and trucks in it, and on the other side of that was the hill of automobile tires, all heat hazy in the sunlight, and over there on the far side of Tuk’s Service was the little clapboard bungalow Harvey had grown up in. The first house you passed coming into town and the last one you passed leaving.
Nobody was out in the afternoon heat, not even a dog, and the only thing moving was a tumbleweed rolling in fits and starts down Main Street.
Well, fuck this shit, he was still wearing his dress uniform because all his civvies had got ripped off in San Francisco, and he was breaking out all over in sweat.
He headed on into Burt’s.*****
On the eve of his eighteenth birthday Harvey had shot his mother’s boyfriend in the thigh and also shot and killed the boyfriend’s dog. Old Judge Moseby had tried to be fair. On the one hand this was the fourth or fifth time the Harvey had been brought up before him, but on the other hand the boyfriend, Bennie Driscoll, had been known to beat Harvey’s mother and had in fact given her a black eye on the night in question. So the judge decided to give the boy a choice between military service or the Youth Detention Center until he reached the age of twenty-one. Harvey had “volunteered” to be drafted, and now he was back after a two-year hitch.
He’d gotten drunk for two weeks in Oakland and San Francisco while awaiting his discharge papers which had somehow gotten replaced, and he wound up breaking the jawbone of a marine lifer gunnery sergeant who’d called him a little army faggot. He sweated out eight days in the San Francisco jail, and then the charges were dropped on the provision that he immediately get on the bus and never set foot in San Francisco again.****
Inside the door he stood with his bag still on his shoulder as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. He could barely see the people in the bar at first, but he could tell that everybody had turned and was staring at him. And then they all took shape, all the usual crowd who weren’t dead yet. Keely and Mo and Quint were over there at the bar in their usual seats, maybe a little more greenish than he remembered them being but still alive technically, and there was old Burt behind the bar.
An Ipana commercial was on the black-and-white TV and nobody was playing the jukebox.
And he got that smell thing again, this time it was the Burt’s smell of stale beer and stale cigarette and cigar smoke and stale piss and spat-out tobacco juice ground into old linoleum with cow-shitty bootsoles. But at least the joint was air-conditioned.
He headed on over to the bar, put his bag down and took out his Tareytons.
“Well, look who the cat drug in,” said Burt.
“Hey, Burt,” said Harvey. Burt pulled out his lighter and Harvey leaned forward and took the light.
“Fuckin’ Harvey,” said Keely.
“Fuckin’ A,” said Mo.
“Fuckin’ right,” said Quint.
You get the idea. This was not the fucking Algonquin Round Table.
“Lemme buy Harvey a fuckin’ beer.” said Mo.
“Fuck you, I’m buyin’, said Keely.
“Fuck ya both --” started Quint and then Burt said, “Fuck all y’all, I’m gettin’ this one. Whatcha drinkin’ Harve?”
Harvey asked for a Rheingold and Burt pulled one out. Harvey said thanks and took a good long pull. Everyone was still staring at him. Norman Mailer was on the TV now, talking to Mike Douglas about the existential meaning of the moon landing, as if anybody gave a shit.
“Hey, Harve, you kill anybody?” asked Keely.
“Fuck no,’ said Harvey. “I was too busy tryin’ to keep my own ass alive and shittin’.”
Well, this passed for a real howler in this joint, and Mo and Quint and Keely and a few other motherfuckers who didn’t have sense enough to fall over when they were dead all started pounding the bar and guffawing.
Harvey finished his beer in about two more gulps, and one of the Three Stooges bought him another one. He got some change off of Burt, stubbed out his smoke, and took his beer over to the pinball machine. It was new, The Flash. He pulled a chair over to near the machine and put his bottle down on it. He unbuttoned his dress tunic and laid it over the chair back. He got into position in front of the machine and tried to stick a nickel in, and then he realized the fucker had gone up to a dime.
“Well, what the fuck!” she yelled. “Why didn’t someone call me?”
This was Harvey’s mother, Doris, and all the losers started roaring and thumping again. Harvey didn’t turn around. He dropped a dime in, he pressed the button, the machine clunked, and a ball popped up. He pulled the handle back and knocked the ball up the chute, but he could hear her running up behind him, and he braced himself and then she was hugging him from the back and kissing his neck.
“Harvey, why didn’t you write?” Etc., etc., crying and sniffling. Harvey tried to keep his eye on the ball with her hanging all over him. He was still a little pissed off at her. Since he wouldn’t turn around, she slid over to his side so she could look at him. She was wearing that same old polyester cowgirl waitress uniform she had on the last time he saw her. Or else one a whole lot like it.
“You outa the army now?”
Trying to do that Steve McQueen thing, feeling more like Brandon de Wilde.
“You coulda wrote.”
In fact he had written a few letters, although it had been about six months since his last one, and in fact she’d only written about three or four of her own semi-literate missives, but Harvey let it pass.
“You gonna move back in with me, Harvey? Bennie’s gone now.”
Harvey loosened up a lot when he heard that. He just never could stand that motherfucker, and except for the fact that it had got him two years in the army he had never regretted shooting him. Or his dog.
“You threw him out?”
“Naw, he passed away, unfortunately. Got drunk and fell asleep on the side of the road and got runned over by Big Jake’s compost spreader.”
His ball went down the hole. He took out his pack of smokes and shook one out.
A tiny hand held up a lit Zippo.
It was Cleb, the Parsons boy. He must have been about fourteen, but he was a skinny little runt. His family’s place had been just a little too close and downwind to the bomb test sites, and they all had radiation sickness. At least a few of them, including his mother, had already died from it. His skin had that same slightly greenish quality to it as Mo and Quint and Keely’s.
Harvey drew in the smoke and let it out as Cleb and his mom looked at him.
“How old you now, Harvey?” asked Cleb.
“Old enough.” Whatever the fuck that meant.
His mother got closer and ran her orange-nailed fingers along his cheek, and Harvey could feel her breasts. She smelled like Jean Naté Cactus Flower and Juicy Froot and Aquanet. She was only thirty-five years old and she had some body. Harvey felt himself getting the stirrings of an erection, so he nudged her away with his elbow and got set to play the machine again.
“Harvey, I got to work tonight, but tomorrow I’ll get off and I’ll make you all your favorite food.”
Harvey popped another ball into play.
“Don’t put yourself out on my account.”
“You kill anybody, Harve?” said Cleb.
“It ain’t puttin’ out. You’re my son.”
“I’ll see. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.”
“I’ll make chicken pot pie with peas, and chocolate mash potatoes, and Jello cake too. I’ll make Kool-Aid.”
“Who you got livin’ with you now?”
The ball shot right down into that fucking hole.
“How many guys you kill, Harve?” Cleb tugged at Harvey’s sleeve.
Harvey turned and looked at her.
“He’s a good man, Harvey.”
“He’s a fuckin’ spaz is what he is.”
“He’s got a nervous disorder ‘cause of the malaria he caught in World War II. He is not a spaz.”
Harvey reached down for his beer, tilted it up and took a long pull. One thing about his mother, she wasn’t ever going to change. Some women went for handsome men, some went for men with money, Doris went for damaged men.
“Say you’ll come to dinner, honey.”
“Hell, I’ll come. Just don’t ask me to look at old Luke while he’s eatin’.”
“You won’t have to eat with Luke, honey. He always likes to eat in front of the TV anyways, and besides all he eats is Spaghetti-O’s or Rice-a-Roni or hot dogs. And, honey?”
“I’m glad you come back.”
He set down his bottle and turned back to the machine.
“Well I’m glad somebody’s glad,” he said, and sent another ball out.
“I’m glad too, Harve,” said Cleb.
The door slammed open.
“Godamighty I’m thirsty! Doris you bring me three cold cans o’ Piels and three warm shots o’ Heaven Hill! I’ll be settin’ right chyere watchin’ Mike Douglas.”
“The word please wouldn’t kill you, Bull Thorndyke.”
“Why you makin’ time with that soldier boy well wait a minute. Do my eyes deceive me.”
“You just leave him alone. He just got back from the service.”
Harvey didn’t turn but he heard Bull Thorndyke’s heavy boots clodhopping toward him.
“Wayull skinny little Harvey -- so the judge let ya off easy, huh? Shot a man and his dog and all ya get is a hitch in the army probly doin’ nothin’ but cleanin’ out latrines for two years and me whut got five years in the joint just for accidentally killin’ a blind Injun. Hey, boy, turn around an’ let me look atcha.”
The ball dropped down toward the main flippers, he tried to time it, he pressed the right flipper button, he missed, the ball went down the hole.
“I said turn around ya little faggot. Lookin’ at your narra ass is gettin’ me all excited.”
Harvey turned around with the Tareyton hanging from the side of his mouth.
Bull was even uglier than before. He had thrown his filthy cowboy hat onto a table and he appeared to have been scalped since Harvey had gone away: there was a big jagged patch of roiled, red and moist scar tissue all over the top of his skull. Also it looked like his nose had been ripped or cut off, and he’d gained about twenty pounds of fat, too. Most of the set of false teeth he’d gotten up at the state pen seemed to be gone now and the ones that remained were as brown as the pug of pigtail tobacco they were chewing. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-eight or so but he looked about fifty-five.
“Hi, soldier boy.”
He stood a few inches away from Harvey, his big old gut almost touching Harvey’s shirt and his shitty-smelling hot breath billowing down into Harvey’s face. “Hey, how you like that barracks life, Harvey? Men sleepin’ with men. No women. No smelly women with they stinkin’ diseased conts. How you like that, boy? That sweet sensation of some big ol’ nigger’s pecker rammin’ up yer narrow butt-hole like a Roto-Rooter? Good huh? Just like takin’ a good long beershit in reverse. I gotta say I developed me a little taste fer that brown eye when I was upstate, so what say you ‘n’ me just retire to the men’s room fer a quick one? I promise I’ll be gentle-like. Less’n of course you don’t like it gentle-like.”
Doris took a step toward Bull and he put his enormous left hand on her chest and pushed her back as if she wasn’t even there. Everybody in the bar was quiet and still and watching.
“Bull,” said Harvey, “there’s one thing I hate that’s to see a good cold beer get warm. ‘Scuse me just a second.”
Harvey took the cigarette out of his mouth, took up the Rheingold, tilted it up, drank deep, and emptied it. He looked at the bottle and then at Bull and then he belched.
“Damn that was good. Whoah, look who’s on Mike Douglas. Fuckin’ Charo.”
Bull turned to look at the TV and Harvey whipped the bottle hard across Bull’s open mouth, the bottle shattered and Bull staggered back then down to his knees and onto his side and a great strangled deep roar came out from between his hands over his mouth as tobacco-stained blood streamed through his fingers and over his shirt and onto the floor.
“Cool,” said Cleb.
“Hey Bull,” said Quint, I think you gonna need a brand new set o’ them fake choppers.”
“Gonna haveta go in the joint again he wants a new set,” said Keely.
“Just spit ‘em all out,” said Mo. “you don’t wanta be sawllowin’ them thangs.”
Bull got up on his hands and knees and spat out the blood-gobbety mess of what was left of his dentures and then he tried to say something.
“What he say,” said Keely.
“Speak up, Bull,” said Quint.
Bull shook his head, just like a bull, and blood-sputtered something else.
“What he say,” said Mo.
“Said he gonna kill Harvey,” said Keely.
Bull heaved himself up, weaving just a little, then pulled a switchblade out of his back pocket and clicked it open.
He said something again, more blood blurting out.
“Speak up, Bull,” said Harvey. “Can’t understand a jackshit word you say.”
Harvey was leaning back against the pinball machine, he held the broken neck of the beer bottle behind his back. He could smell Bull’s fresh pouring blood and he was ready as he was ever going to be; Bull came forward and then an incredibly loud shot rang out, Bull stopped, and there was a big skidded bullet hole in the grey linoleum a few inches from Bull’s left foot.
Sheriff Dooley stood in the doorway holding his long-barreled Smith & Wesson Model 629 at arm’s length and now that familiar cordite smell mixed in with all those other smells.
“One more step and that’s your kneecap blown out, Bull,” said the Sheriff.
Bull turned around and said something.
“Bull, I don’t know what the hell you’re sayin’ an’ I ain’t so all-fired sure I wanta hear it. Now drop that pig-sticker right now.”
Bull held still, a big blood bubble forming in his open mouth, and the Sheriff turned so his big gut was in profile against the doorway; he straightened out his gun arm, thumbed back the hammer on the pistol and looked down the sight.
Bull sucked in the blood bubble and dropped the knife.
Harvey discreetly laid the broken bottleneck on the pinball machine.
The Sheriff uncocked the hammer on his pistol.
“Burt, now who started this ruckus?”
“Well, Sheriff, I wasn’t really payin’ no nevermind. Y’see, they had that there Charo up on Mike Douglas there, an’ --”
“How about you boys holdin’ up the bar there.”
“We was watchin’ Charo too, Sheriff.”
“Pair o’ bazoomers on that gal.”
“She can use my face for a bar seat anytime.”
“Sheriff,” said Cleb. “Sheriff, Sheriff -- I seen it all --”
“You hush up now, sonny. Doris, what happened?”
“Bull started it, Sheriff. He -- he was raggin’ my boy.”
“That’s right, Sheriff,” said Cleb. “He was raggin’ on Harvey.”
Bull made a movement toward Cleb and the boy ducked behind Doris’s hips.
The Sheriff twirled that enormous fucking pistol and slipped it smoothly into his worn black holster.
“Harvey I’d a thought two years in the service woulda taught you not to get so damn excited what some two-bit redneck peckerwood said.”
“I wasn’t excited, Sheriff. I just didn’t wanna hear it.”
The Sheriff ran a finger across his nostrils to hide his grin.
“Well, Bull, I think you better get on over to Doc Goldwasser’s now.”
Bull said something; the blood trickled down his chin. He put his hand over his mouth. The whole front of his filthy old overalls was covered with blood.
“Bull, ain’t nobody can understand a damn fool word you’re sayin’ so get on outa here, and I see you two fellers tusslin’ again I’m throwin’ ya both in the hoosegow with nothin’ to eat but piss-on-a-biscuit for a month. Now git.”
Bull took his hand away from his face and more blood came out; he looked at Harvey, then turned and headed for the open door. He went out without closing the door, a trail of blood spots marked his path. His raggedy old hat still sat on the table right where he’d left it.
You could smell the air getting cleaner already.
“Burt,” said the Sheriff, “long as I’m here you’d better open me up a nice cold can o’ Schaefer’s for me.”
“Sure thang, Sheriff.”
The Sheriff rubbed his great belly with his great big sunblotched hand.
“And whatever Harvey here’s drinkin’.”
Harvey saw that little rat boy Cleb pick up Bull’s switchblade and stick it in his back pocket.
“Harvey Harvey Harvey,” said the Sheriff. He took a pouch of Bull Durham out of his shirt pocket and some papers and started fixing a smoke. “Same ol’ Harvey. How old you now, boy?”
“Old enough,” piped in little Cleb.
“I guess he is, Cleb. I reckon he is.”
The Sheriff put his tongue to the paper.
“You kill you any Commies, boy?”
“Ah’m go-na keel he-um.”
It was Bull again.
Looking over the Sheriff’s shoulder Harvey saw Bull in the doorway with a shotgun and it was aimed at the Sheriff’s back.
“Ah got me a 12-gauge Remington pump-action loaded up with double-ought buck aimed right atcha, Sheriff, so you best just turn around real slow.”
His voice still sounded awful mushy but you could hear what he was saying all right.
The Sheriff turned around real slow, all the while smoothing out his cigarette.
“Now you raise up yo’ hands now Sheriff and step out away from that deadmeat motherfucker.”
The Sheriff put the cigarette all the way into his mouth and gently licked it one more time.
“Now you know I cain’t do that, Bull. If I move you just liable to shoot young Harvey, and then where we gonna be?”
“If’n you don’t move I’m gonna keel you too.”
A tall young woman came into the doorway behind Bull. She carried a large canvas shoulder bag and wore a tan pith helmet, sunglasses, a white shirt and khaki shorts. She tapped Bull on the shoulder. She looked like a movie star.
“Excuse me,” said the woman. I’d like to come in?”
Bull turned his head and the Sheriff dropped his cigarette and his pistol was halfway out of the holster before the cigarette even hit the floor when Bull turned back again and said, “Don’t do it, Sheriff.”
The Sheriff let the pistol slip back into the holster.
“Excuse me?” said the woman.
“Raise yer hands, Sheriff.”
The Sheriff slowly raised his hands chest-high.
“Now step aside.”
“Excuse me,” said the woman. “What is going on?”
“What’s the hold-up, sweety?”
And in came a tall handsome man in sunglasses, an Australian bush hat, and a bright white shirt worn with the tails out over paisley bermuda shorts; Bull turned his head for just a fraction of a second, Harvey pulled the Sheriff’s pistol out of its holster, raised it with both hands over the Sheriff’s shoulder, aimed at Bull’s gut and squeezed the trigger just as Bull turned back to see him do it, the pistol bucked up and roared and Bull caught the slug square in the heart, he staggered back in between the man and the woman with blood pumping out of his chest and fell down backwards into the sunlight as his shotgun blasted a load straight up into the sky, and the last things he saw were the unlit neon sign saying BURT’S HIDEYWAY and the young woman looking out at him with cool beauty better than anything he had ever seen, and he regretted his life, his whole miserable life, he wanted to live, and as the buckshot rained back down on him like black hail out of that bright blue sky he died.****
(Go here for our next blood-spattered episode.)