Veteran author of 37 books, Hollywood’s Raymond Strait pens his first novel. “Bughouse Blues” is a classic

0
253
Bughouse Blues, Ray Straits 38th book and 1st novel. | Courtesy of Rusty Strait.

Book Review

Mark Lentine | Contributed

I have been a fan of Raymond “Rusty” Strait and his work since the late 1970s. Back then, Strait and Robert Osborne were the two most trusted names in Hollywood reporting, and my good friend Al and I were movie geeks. Who-da thought that four years ago I would move to California from the East Coast, meet and befriend Ray Strait? Rest assured that our deep friendship has no bearing on this review.

“Bughouse Blues” is a book which truly needs to be ranked with James Michener’s, “Fires of spring” as a boy’s tender passage into young manhood. Some of the scenes in “Bughouse” are more brutal in their honesty than anything Michener ever wrote, but what comes through this beautiful, sometimes-ugly coming-of-age tale of a 13-year-old boy born in the teeth of The Great Depression, is the protagonist’s utter transformation and sheer triumph over the ugliness that was his early life.

Most, if not all coming-of-age novels contain more than a little bit of autobiography in them and this novel stays true to that form. But it is Raymond Strait’s own true-life tortured beginnings and ultimate triumph that are played out in the story of protagonist Jeremiah McKenzie. By the novel’s perfectly rendered final scene, we are on our feet for the young man who overcame almost undefinable odds.

The novel does, at times, read like Henry Miller’s, “Tropic of cancer,” or “Tropic of Capricorn,” but there is one major difference: Raymond Strait is a master storyteller. While Miller’s novel was read mainly for its titillation and “dirty words” at the time of its publication, and is now read–if it is read at all-for its quaint place in literary history, Strait uses his sexually charged and often brutal scenes as a short, cold-mackerel slap to the face of his reader. He challenges you to look away, to believe, “…this is just a novel, this could not have happened.” But happen it did, and Strait captures Jeremiah’s twisted, turbulent start and “Hero’s journey” with more blood, angst and tears than any other writer out there: Strait still has the marks to prove that he faced life squarely…and came out on top.

“You’re the only one who got that,” Strait recently told me. “The darker scenes are there, not only to wake the reader up to Jeremiah’s stark existence, but I want them to have to stop and think about this hard, hard life. That way, when the novel ends, you see that the kid has triumphed over some ugly early experiences.”

The scenes, while needed, are sometimes hard to imagine. “As you said to me, a lot of coming-of-age stories are semi-autobiographical, and this is no different. There were times my insides seized…and I couldn’t write for a year or more. This thing, this story, was forty years in the telling.” Strait looks off into the distance, as if reliving, re-imagining some harsh scene from the book…or maybe from his life itself.

Strait’s Jeremiah is a kid kicked out of his home by a perverted, domineering step-father while his sickly mother can do little more than stand by and watch. “Mac” as the kid is sometimes called, falls in and out of love as fast as any teenager ever has, while he scratches and claws his way to a life forged out of grief, dried tears and sheer determination. On these mean streets he meets a to-good-to-be-true character named “Howie,” who is so perfectly drawn that you believe every word he says. Mac also meets a Runyonesque cabaret of “rubes,” cons, hoods, drifters, grifters, socialites and low-lifes whose very number would frighten a lesser story-teller. In the hands of another writer the characters might have become weak and lost in the shuffle: Strait juggles them with ease to the point where every single character keeps his or her own distinctive voice. Each is fully drawn and is as real (and sometimes brutally nasty) as it gets. Spoiler alert: have tissues ready. The casket scene alone will bring tears to your eyes.

The life Mac faces on the cold, lonely streets of late 30s/early40s America, the “family” he helps create with an admixture of “oddballs” and triumphant love which he finally finds at the novel’s end, marks this sexually-charged, sometimes too-ugly novel in the top five of the coming-of-age genre along with Salinger’s “The catcher in the rye,” Jane Austen’s, “Emma,” “The alchemist,” by Paulo Coelho and the aforementioned, “Fires of Spring” by James Michener.

It is a book which will make other writers wish they were better story-tellers and which screams out loud to be made into a film. The final page will leave you wondering if there will be a sequel: the book in to will leave you begging for more. These characters need to be heard from again.


• DISCLAIMER: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various author’s articles on this Opinion piece or elsewhere online or in the newspaper where we have articles with the header “COLUMN/EDITORIAL & OPINION” do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints or official policies of the Publisher, Editor, Reporters or anybody else in the Staff of the Hemet and San Jacinto Chronicle Newspaper.

Find your latest news here at the Hemet & San Jacinto Chronicle

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here