A confession up front: not being much of a fan or literary memoir, I avoided opening up this literary memoir, written by a very good West Coast poet and published in the exemplary Italian house La Finestra Editrice, for nearly a year. Perhaps Vangelisti wasn’t famous enough to tweak what tell-all celebrity appetites I possess, or be moved to explore the back story of a person whose life and/or work has had an impact on my consciousness.
When I did crack the handsomely produced book open, however, I was in for a surprise. After only several pages, I found myself fully taken with not only the subject matter (an early childhood growing up in San Francisco’s North Beach Italian community, prior to the advent of the Bohemian take-over of the 50s), but the dance and flow of Vangelisti’s capable prose. 30 pages in, I was still racing along with the narrative, as he grew into a young man embedded in the incipient Southern California literary world, with more than an incidental mixing in of Hollywood culture. 50 pages in, Vangelisti travels to Europe, and I did something I only do with very special books – I slowed down to savor the experience. I didn’t want this experience of Paul Vangelisti’s memoir to ever end.
Of course all books must end, and for the 120 pp Detours: A West Coast Memoir — broken up into three sections — this one ended, for me at least, at the end of section II. At that point, the author fast forwards from the truly enticing details of his experiences from the early 60s to 1998, and stalls to an end for thirty pages with what to me are uninteresting stories about fishing trips, good meals he’s experienced, and the politics of college administration.
But o! those first 90 pages. An embarrassment of riches — exceptional literary experiences and near-experiences, told as aptly as a gossip columnist for some Hollywood entertainment rag of the 1950s.
In fact poet Vangelisti tips his hand twice in this little memoir, revealing what he’s working with: the first, early on, with a frank admission that he developed a lifelong passion for the phantasmagoric story, the more outlandish the better, as a small lad growing up in an Italian SF famiglia.
The second tip of the hand comes when he reveals that, for a number of years, he was a columnist for a popular Hollywood gossip rag, exposed to the tricks of the trade that make for success in that field – a fine eye for anecdotal eye-candy, and an economy of phrasing that borders on the poetic.
The result is 90 pages of pure reading pleasure in Vangelisti’s memoir, as he moves sure-footed from anecdote to increasingly entertaining ‘ brush with the famous’ anecdote. Yes there is the Northern California radical in the man, stirring up mischief on KPFA and otherwise earning his utopian socialist stripes. But ensconced in an environment that’s one part high literature and one part tinsel town, in short order he serves up tidbits and dishes out dirt on the likes of Charles Bukowski, Luis Borges, Martin Scorsese, Joe DiMaggio, Bugsy Siegel, Aldous Huxley, Lana Turner, Hugh Selby Jr. Amiri Baraka, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Marilyn Monroe.
In his European adventures, we see him convening with dissident writers, cowboy booted CIA operatives, living a poet’s life in Dublin (complete with poetic wakes and fist fights and plenty of Guinness), and waiting in vain for Pier Pasolini on a bench outside the Coliseum in Rome in the snow.
All this might be written off as a little fluff and a lot of name-dropping, especially with the unfortunate way it shifts gears in after page 90; but for its pure journalistic readability, exceptional poetic prowess, and a good nose for what makes a good yarn to spin, Vangelisti’s DETOURS is a pleasure to experience.