Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dennis Tafoya

Dennis Tafoya was born in Philadelphia and attended Oberlin College. He dropped out and worked a series of jobs, including housepainter, hospital orderly and EMT before starting a career in industrial sales. He began writing poetry, publishing stories in journals, and then started work on Dope Thief, his acclaimed debut novel.

Tafoya's new novel, The Wolves of Fairmount Park, releases this month.

A week or so ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently in the middle of Don DeLillo's Point Omega, which is hypnotic and strange, with little bits of beauty and lots of epistemology, the way I think of all the DeLillo I've read. I love his book Libra - it's one of the books I re-read every year. I use it to remember how to write when I'm blocked, and every time I read a few pages, it teaches me how the job of fiction writing is done, the way I want to do it.

Point Omega is about a kind of month-long lost weekend, in which a documentary filmmaker visits the desert home of a reclusive academic and risk analyst named Elster, who has been involved in Iraq war planning, and the young man is there to convince the older man to be in a documentary film project (every time the film project is discussed it's impossible not to think of Errol Morris's amazing Fog of War featuring the elder, fading Robert McNamara finally coming to terms with his own role in history).

Elster talks in strange ellipses and, preoccupied with time and perception, and he seems like a ghost of one of the dark plotters of Libra, so consumed with secrets and the implied evil of what they've been party to that they seem paralyzed, unable to discuss anything with simplicity or clarity, so that their dialogue becomes a disorienting poetry of implied meaning. All of this works beautifully in Libra, but I'm intensely curious whether the payoff in Point Omega can carry the weight.

Already I keep thinking that the Iraq war and its architects were so obtuse and morally reduced that the documentary being pursued here would be as banal and pointless and congenitally compromised as the men themselves. Would you watch an hour and a half of Rumsfeld or Cheney talking about the Iraq war? You know it would be the same opaque, willfully disconnected stream of obscurant self-justification that characterized everything they said about the war when it was their job to convince us all it was a good idea. The most you might hope for is the rare, illuminative flash of anger revealing the core of rage that seemed to drive that entire administration.

So for now, I'm enjoying where I am, sitting on a porch in the baking heat of the California desert with DeLillo, waiting to see where the arc lands. The book is short, play-like, so my expectations aren't too expansive, and DeLillo's doing his customary excellent job of delivering interestingly bent characters whose preoccupations with American culture and history match my own. And when I'm done, I'll re-read Libra.
Learn more about the author and his work at Dennis Tafoya's website.

The Page 69 Test: Dope Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue