A friend recently returned from Palm Springs and handed me a copy of Robert Julian’s self-published memoir Postcards From Palm Springs. The jacket summary informs that the recollection of a writer/actor’s adventures in Palm Springs “does for this California desert community what Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did for Savannah”. While I enjoyed Berendt’s tale of murder, strangeness, and antiques, I’m not sure this is a compliment to Palm Springs. It would be more appropriate to say “does to this California desert community …”.
Postcards is not without its charm. Indeed, for someone who enjoys a casual yarn about the melodrama of the resort, Hollywood, or homosexual social sets, the book delivers—or, at least, seems to. I must confess that at this moment I’m only approaching the halfway mark.
My early reflections, though, suggest that Julian has a keen eye, and regardless of the Lulu stamp on the spine, it is easy to see that the book is self-published. Theoretically, an editor at a conventional publishing house would have devoted some time to erasing the last vestiges of pretense from the tale. The book is slightly front-loaded, and the prologue is tinted with a sense of desperation, as if Julian is scrambling to put as much as he can reasonably justify in front of the reader. It’s a problem I have with my own writing, and one I try to advise others against on those occasions that I am privileged to consider their manuscripts. To his credit, Julian’s first person appears only once in the first paragraph, and that muted as the word “my”. He has, indeed, minimized the inevitable.
Subsequent chapters actually do develop a bit of flow, and the voice is only occasionally marred by some odd constructions; right now, the phrase “signs-off on” sticks in my mind, and probably because I read it fifteen minutes ago:
At the end of the day one of the people in charge reviews and signs-off on each voucher.
That’s a horrible phrase, one that instantly falls into a loathsome category first inspired by a high school composition teacher who forbade us the phrase “due to”, and merely for aesthetics. (Also on the list is “time period”, or “period of time”, which a grad assistant in my freshman year of college denounced—appropriately—as redundant.)
But, to put things in scale, it’s not the only rough phrase in the book, and the rest have already faded beyond memory even though I only started reading Postcards yesterday. In the end, it’s harmless. I hear far worse in conversation on a daily basis.
The story is simple enough: an aging gay man packs up and leaves San Francisco with his sixteen pound Lhasa Apso for Palm Springs. And, sure, right there is something to despise—a Lhasa Apso on the first page. In truth, though, he doesn’t dwell on the dog too much. “Little Bill” doesn’t appear again for another twenty-three pages or so, and that only to facilitate a story about old gay men, cock rings, and exhibitionism as a prelude to considering spandex, penis pumps, scrotal saline, fat old men masturbating in the sauna, and why gay male couples decked out in matching wardrobes are creepy. Little Bill is just a tool. Which, in the end, is his appropriate station.
In its context, Postcards From Palm Springs has thus far proven both entertaining and enlightening; indeed, the observation about gay “twin” couples is at once astute and unexpected. While it would be unfair to generalize that gay men have a better grasp on their lives than their heterosexual fellows, it’s hard to deny that one does not expect such a nuanced observation from the majority. And, frankly, if it does occur in a heterosexual context, such observation is usually offered with post-postmodern bitterness, the nihilistic cynicism of one who has accepted the full burden of Original Sin and finds no genuine hope in his fellow human beings.
True enough, not everyone aims to discover the ins and outs of anal fisting, or what to wear if you want to be urinated on, but among the merits of Julian’s memoir is that these are the criteria a reader should consider. Despite observations of the occasional pretense and amateurish phrase, the writing stands on its own merit. After all, the voice of a memoir should not be devoid of its narrator, and the world it depicts should not be polymer. Thus far, the minor faults of Postcards From Palm Springs also define its humanity. After all, the human quality is the redeeming aspect of any memoir, even more so for the recollections and observations of minor players. If you’re Robert Julian, you write book reviews for alternative and weekly press, or collaborate on a tour of Los Angeles landmarks. And you sometimes work as an extra in television pilots and first-tier movies that die at the box office. (For instance, Julian recalls working on Lee Tamahari’s Next, starring Nicholas Cage, which won a 2006 COLA for Location Professional of the Year, garnered two 2008 Razzie nominations, and a 2007 Teen Choice nomination.) And Julian? He’s an extra. So who cares?
Of course, that is the obstacle that every memoir of a minor player faces, whether Robert Julian, Marie Etienne, or even—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—Beverly Cleary.
So whether you’re a book reviewer/Hollywood extra, Mardi Gras queen, or best-selling children’s author, it is the humanity of the tale that gives it merit. And in that, many readers will find in Robert Julian echoes not of some distant, vapid celebrity, but someone they feel they already know.
Postcards From Palm Springs was published in 2007 by Lulu and distributed via Ingram Publishing Services. Robert Julian can be found occasionally in the pages of the Bay Area Reporter and other California alternative and weekly newspapers.