The Story of Sailor and Lula

By Barry Gifford

Grove Weidenfeld. 159 pp. $15.95

THESE INK scritches and scrawls we call writing are symbols. But it's good to remember that they do not represent things or ideas or images or facts or events. This writing stuff stands for nothing but the sounds made by the human voice. Those sounds are themselves symbols for all the things we talk, whisper, yell or sing about.

And we tend to hear what's important for us to hear. Rabbit ears are designed to hear predators. The robin can hear a worm moving underground. A fox can hear a mouse breathing. The human ear, on the other hand, is specifically built for deciphering that limited range of sounds that can be produced by the human voice. As ally or foe, diner or dinner, the most critical sounds for our survival come from the throats of other people. When Lula Pace Fortune, the young heroine of Barry Gifford's fourth novel, says she's "a big believer in talkin'. . ." she's not just whistling Dixie. Talk is the joyous blood and most of the tortured flesh of Wild at Heart. It's good talk, too. The blackstrap rhythms of Lula's Southern tongue play delicious counterpoint with the crisper banter of her darkhorse lover, Sailor Ripley.

This intense gem of a book is structured like a film script to exploit and explore these utterly human voices. Readers familiar with the work of director David Lynch will understand why Lynch was so drawn to Gifford's story that he made the film even before the book was published. The movie of Wild At Heart swept Best Film honors at Cannes in May, and is scheduled to be released in the United States in August when Vintage will also bring out the novel in a paperback edition. Without having seen Lynch's visual version, it is easy to suspect that this book is a lucid expression of the subterranean preoccupations of the creator of "Eraserhead," "Elephant Man," "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks."

"The Story of Sailor and Lula" is a simple tale. Lula's wealthy mother doesn't want her precious daughter hanging out with a manslaughtering ex-con like Sailor. The pair slide into Lula's Cadillac and run away West, escaping from mom and deepest Florida, and talking as they go. They've got California in mind, trouble ahead and mom's pet private investigator on their tail.

The trick is that this seamless, easy- going plot is made of a thousand small tales woven together in talk -- reminiscences on the road, languid post-coital confidences in dingey motels, jokes, nightmares, fantasys -- all the hot, intimate talk of lovers testing and informing each other, salted with news flashes from the radio and yarns from the locals they pass on the way. Brief detours take us back to the frenzied mother talking to a friend about pursuing the pair, and to Johnnie Farragut, the investigator on their trail. When Farragut, in his lonesome search, has no one to talk to, he sits down and writes short, punchy stories that are reproduced entire in the text.

The key is that all the talk in Wild At Heart is sculpted to demonstrate one encompassing view. Lula herself lays out the theme early in the adventure, "The world," she says, "is wild at heart and weird on top. . ." Every tale and incident is calculated to lead us, in happy horror, to the same conclusion. Tough language weaves melodramas of passion, betrayal and death. Incestuous seduction leads to abortion and madness, con games collapse and heist schemes snap back on the schemers, news of child prostitution rings and civilian massacres are echoed in seemingly humdrum lives. Power voodoo, sex and the endless foaming concoctions of the mortal mind form the lustrous pulsing dark beneath the pastel pretense.

The techniques polished in Gifford's earlier novels, Landscape with Traveler, Port Tropique and An Unfortunate Woman, his various nonfiction books and volumes of poetry, culminate in the swift brilliance of Wild at Heart. His consummate skills give us reflecting images and themes in quick, bright strokes that linger on the retina. Sailor's mother dies of lung cancer after a lifetime of Camel cigarettes, so he naturally smokes Camels. Lula devours Mounds candy bars in moments of stress and, years later, her small son does the same. Sailor's last name is Ripley, as in "Believe It or Not." The investigator meets a spy whose friends all have heroic names and disastrous lives, while Lula balks at being nicknamed "Peanut" because it puts her so far down the food chain. Everybody eats peanuts, she complains, but peanuts don't eat anybody.

Lula has her limits -- beyond some lines she will not go -- but she is drawn to rapturous chaos. She fantasizes about getting ripped apart by a gorilla or a tiger, explaining with the rising inflection that makes a question out of a statement, "Sometimes I think it'd be the biggest thrill?" and 20 pages later her mother remembers that making love with Lula's father was like "bein' devoured by a unstoppable beast, and it was the most thrillin' thing ever happened to you."

In brisk scenes, Gifford moves his larger narrative through its flocks of miniature stories with the simple, credible device of the human voice. The talk comes from the hot dark of the innards, reminding us that the world is "wild at heart," and that we fear and love it that way. Katherine Dunn's third novel, "Geek Love," was nominated for the 1989 National Book Award.