Tomorrow night in Houston, Hank Hancock reads from the his serial novel Broke as part of the Poison Pen Series. I initially started seeing Broke some years ago (around 2006?) as Hank passed out each chapbook-like entry of the series (in true guerrilla fashion) not to his extended network of friends and acquaintances, but rather direct to the wider community in small stacks around town. I understand the urban, random approach: everyone has a right to his work and it is out there on the street, the same streets where his characters are wandering around. Hank wanted everyone and anyone to stumble on his text, including his characters: Carla and Mica and Vernon and Janine. But for me, it was frustrating. I wanted to collect-the-whole-series like I collected Garbage Pail Kids when I was younger. I had a capitalist need for the whole set. Or a collector's dream of possessing them all. But Hank didn't make that possible. At first.
Now, thankfully, the whole series is up and on-line on a gorgeous website at broke-houston.com. All of the entries are there, or at least all of the ones that have been released so far. Right now, that's three chapters with each one divided into four smaller sections. This week Hank presents the fourth chapter (or entry or section).
And what is Broke all about?
A hurricane is sweeping into Houston. Actually, it's Hurricane Rita. The local denizens of the central city, the adjunct professors and art workers and retail shop clerks and waiters, are all deciding what to do. Hurricane party or traffic jam in the Piney Woods? Fleeing or wandering through the empty landscape of the depopulated city? At the same time, police are pulling a body out of the bayou downtown. All around the trees are growing and swaying and building canyons and structures; Hank names most of the trees, chinaberries and crepe myrtles and more, and a ton of the plants, saw palmettos among them. The street is alive and the city is tense and on-edge as routines are broken and everyone prepares for the expected onslaught with its totally unpredictable effects. The highways are crowded and stopped and suddenly the city can see "how the earth had been moved to shape a roadbed that rose above culverts and gullies, and that cut angles into inclines ... how velocity shapes the world, and how inhospitable that world became once the imperative of velocity had been compromised."
One of the enjoyable things about the text is that it is still very much in the process of being made. It's not perfect or always primly polished, and it doesn't purport to be so. In one installment, in the middle of the page, is the message: I'm going to read this as intentional. As just another kind of footnote. There's a panoply of footnotes, as the offstage narrator tells us where we can read more about a particular item of interest in a novel from 1974 or a Le Tigre song we should listen to from 2004 or a store in Massachusetts that sells the same T-shirt a character is wearing. Everything is in the process of being made in collaboration with the reader. And often what is in the story is drawn from other, obscure-to-me novels, like John Hawkes’ 1964 Second Skin or 1951’s Beetle Leg.
There's a lot of strangeness in the situation, this clearing out of an entire city, and there are moments of humor sprinkled around: "Jacob could not seem to keep his finger out of his nose. It was not the cool nose-wiping of the cocaine user, but honest-to-goodness, mouth-agape, index finger pointed straight up and in. He seemed to be trying to get at his own brain." Sometimes the characters and the situations feel like those moments from the movie Slacker, people walking, talking, smoking cigarrettes, going to house parties, playing chess at a café, extremely educated people asking questions and interviewing, making political speeches. But it's a slacker who is preparing for the impending Rita doom.
Broke is gentle with its (anti-)heroes, always kind with their quirky eccentricities and their often belabored emotional engagement with the world. There's not a lot of irony here or mocking. The characters are cared for, looked after by their all-knowing narrator. And since many of the characters are often cruel to themselves, it's nice to feel like someone is looking out for them.
I'm happy someone is writing this story about this Gulf Coast in this way, in public and in installments. Serial fiction has a long and "storied" history, stretching all the way back to the One Thousand and One Nights; Broke a sweet blend of nineteenth-century publication strategy and zine culture and chapbook arts. But I will say I'm too thrilled that I don't have to wander Montrose looking for a copy in random stacks anymore, since it's all on the Interweb. But I still want a copy of this fourth installment tomorrow night. And I want the book when it finally (hopefully) comes out in all its broken-chinaberry wasteland glory.