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February 6th, 2001 Kevin Sampsell | Books
 

LIT PICKING

A New Unsung Hero: Mark Jude Poirier quietly squeezes his way into Portland's literary

     
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KEVIN SAMPSELL: AN EDITOR'S NOTE
Sampsell is the author of the recently released Etiquette for Evil, (Kapow! Books) and publisher of Future Tense Books. He's also Powell's Books' events czar, a position that allows him to press the flesh of the world's writers. (SS)
GEORGE ELIOT
Mark Jude Poirier, perhaps Portland's best lesser-known author, is a bit frazzled as we get ready to order lunch at the Roxy. "I'm teaching a literature class at Pacific University, and I wanted to read Middlemarch before the class starts," he tells me. His plan is to drive out to the coast immediately after our interview and spend the next four days locked in with George Eliot. "I want to cover a wide array of stuff in the class, starting with Middlemarch and, eventually, ending the class with Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

MADISON SMARTT BELL
Poirier's first novel, Goats, has just been published by Talk Miramax, and his debut collection of short stories, Naked Pueblo, recently came out in paperback. Whereas Naked Pueblo displays a dark, Southern-fried gonzo approach, Goats takes a slower, more contemplative stroll alongside its young protagonist, Ellis Whitman, whose growing disenchantment with his divorced parents, and his flourishing love of pot, is carefully rendered by the author.

Goats, Poirier admits, was mostly written in 1993 under the close supervision of Madison Smartt Bell, his writing professor at Johns Hopkins. "He told me to write 10 pages a week and he'd go over them," say Poirier. "The first draft was done in one semester." Prior to that, Poirier had gone to Stanford to study medicine, only dabbling with writing on the side.

LARRY MCMURTRY AS FATE
After Stanford, a fateful meeting with Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry helped steer him onto the literary path. "My brother dated McMurtry's goddaughter for years," Poirier says. "We saw a lot of him when he was living in Tucson [where Poirier grew up]. When I came home from school he asked if he could see my stories. He liked my writing and encouraged me to apply to the graduate program at Hopkins. I polished my two books while living on his ranch in north Texas."


TOM WOLFE'S COMPLAINT
Sampsell: Are you afraid of Goats getting lumped into the traditional coming-of-age-novel genre?
Poirier: No. It's not very traditional. I don't think Ellis comes of age in the novel. I guess I could buy into Tom Wolfe's complaint about triviality in the coming-of-age genre, but I won't. You can argue that anything fictional is trivial.
Did being one of 11 children speed up or hinder your own coming of age?
Both. I developed a thick skin early on, and I could hold my own. But being the only gay kid out of 11 was tougher for me to accept than it was for anyone in my family. I was the only one who was uptight about it. I didn't come out until I was 28--so I guess I didn't come of age completely until very recently.

CERVANTES AND THE IDIOT PICARESQUE
The other star character of Goats is Javier, a.k.a. Goat Man, a hired helper who lives in the Whitmans' pool house. Goat Man spends more of his time caring for his goats and smoking pot than tending to the housework. The more Ellis and Goat Man chill out together, getting stoned and listening to Toots and the Maytals, the more they form a bond that Ellis lacks with his absent father. When Ellis does cross the country to see his father, whom his mom calls "Fucker Frank," he realizes that he's not as bad as his mom claims, and that his new wife is also not the "slut" as advertised. Later, when sent off to an East Coast boarding school, Ellis has plenty of time to dissect his family. There, he develops a crush on a cafeteria worker who turns out not to be as wholesome as she seems. Poirier playfully calls his book "an idiot picaresque in the spirit of Cervantes' Don Quixote."

GEORGE ELIOT (2)
These days, Portland suits Poirier fine. "Portland has a great literary scene, but snowboarding and boyfriends led me here," he says. "The boyfriends have been disappointing, but the snowboarding has been great." Also, Poirier is polishing his next book, slated for release in 2002. "It's four or five long stories, called Unsung Heroes of American Industry. Each of the stories deals with one or two industries: pearl-button making, chicken and egg processing, type design, pornography, etc. I spent a lot of time researching each industry, traveling all over the country and digging into books." After lunch, we head out into the rain. Poirier climbs into his car and anxiously heads off to the coast with George Eliot and her industrious novel.


Poirier, like his star character, Ellis, is an avid ska music fan. His ska essentials: Desmond Dekker, The Skatalites, The Ethiopians,
 
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