I was the kind of late that bordered on rude. Humming through intersections on Robinson Street, tapping out a beat to the lyrics of ‘shit, shit, shit’ in my head, I saw Clay McLeod Chapman standing outside and talking on his cell phone. Cutting a hard right into the gravel alley I mouthed an apology as he thanked the person on the line for telling him I had already gone. He told me that he’d just arrived himself and then just like that, neither of us felt bad for the rest of the afternoon.
I know a lot of people who like this Clay McLeod Chapman. They say he’s brilliant and smart and explosive in that manically smart and brilliantly explosive way. Myself, I’ve never seen him on stage. I’ve met him a couple of ties, we’ve shared a few friendly emails, but there was always some binding obligation or sudden fit of sociopathy that kept me from the theater. I enjoyed Rest Stop, his first collection of short stories published by Hyperion last year. As far as the dynamic performer who commands a room by channeling the atomic energy of his nuclear prose… I take people’s word for it. Amazing, they say. Perhaps insane, I’ve heard. From my perspective the pictures look convincing enough, still shots of contorted gestures, pained expressions and that skewed, motion blur effect that portrays the artist in most every instance as about to fall headfirst into something.
It must be made clear at some point that the Pumpkin Pie Show is so named for a story about young men who fornicate with gourds. Boys on the brink of manhood are often overcome with the urge to copulate, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your tastes), in the world of Chapman, it’s with vegetables. This edgy approach to sex, death and the struggle of the human being to find his place in the world is part of what makes Clay’s repertoire so appealing (or unappealing, depending on your tastes). He has a finger on the pulse of the soft, slimy underbelly of the subconscious. A shared affinity for the darker, less travelled boroughs that he shares with cultural misfits and anyone who ever considered David Lynch a deity.
It’s obvious that Clay hasn’t been home in a long time. He’s been back for a week or two here and there, but it’s obvious he hasn’t lived in Richmond for a while. I listen to him use names like Twister’s, The Mosque, The Flood Zone and The Metro and I haven’t got the heart to tell him everything’s changed. It’s different, it’s all different and the city is nothing like it was when he left those years ago for the promise and new bohemia of Brooklyn. But he returns when he can, because Richmond will always be his hometown. He will always bring a new show to Richmond first, along with cohorts and collaborators like fellow Richmond expatriates, One Ring Zero (aka Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp). True to its reputation as a commercial test market, Richmond is Clay’s favorite place to try out new material. The home field advantage is appealing of course, but so is the honesty that comes from debuting virgin material in front of longtime friends and original fans.
The book contract went something like this: okay mister pumpkin man, we’ll publish your little book of sicko stories, but you owe us one novel right after. Something we can sell, because it’s novels booby, people love the novels. The writing of Miss Corpus was an experiment in terror. Panic and fear became Clay’s constant companions. The deadline sat like a red-assed monkey in the window sill, looming and leering and stinking up the place with the worry of impending disaster. When the bell rang, Clay delivered a 500 page monster that the editors looked at with the curiosity of something that washed ashore. They poked it with a stick a couple of times and told him to cut it in half. So he did. And he’s still scared, sort of, but coming to terms and learning acceptance of this thing he created. This thing he’s never done before, now he’s thinking maybe it’s not so bad after all, while in the same breath worrying that it’s really not and then finally coming to rest with the comfortable logic of fuck it, it’s done, too late to change anything now.
Clay is comfortable with the simmer. He’s rubbed up against the survivors of the white hot brilliance of literary superstardom. He’s conversed with last year’s wunderkind, David Eggers and performed in his McSweeney’s store. The Pumpkin Pie Show rolls on and gets tighter and has no plans for Broadway just yet. If anything, the travelling troupe of musicians and performers hope to maintain a crowd that can still see the sweat on their brows and remain just a bit unsettled during the raucousness of Chapman’s regurgitations. If anything, Clay envys the way musicians have earned themselves a sort of brand loyalty, a devoted fan base that will buy first and ask questions later. And after all, is an ever-expanding, profoundly devoted cult following too much to ask for?
There was a man once who wanted to make Clay’s show into a movie. The man sent Clay a copy of another movie he’d been involved with and the movie was somewhat less than great. Clay didn’t know whether to blow smoke up the man’s ass or tell the truth. He ended up dispensing a combination of both. He never heard from the man again.
When he sits still, his hair seems to be moving. Clay is quiet and reserved, but I kept searching for that glint in his eyes, that slightest twinge of rogue gamma radiation to reveal itself as the catalyst for the transformation that happens on stage. The catalyst that suffocates the well-mannered guy in the white button-up short sleeve and expands the lungs of a hundred manic characters. I wonder where that fire starts and how he puts it out every night.
Clay wonders about his stories and the life they have in the minds of children. Or rather, the way adults perceive how they affect the minds of children and whether he’s as radical or dangerous as some adult and near-adult reactions seem to imply. His work is nothing worse than American Pie, he says, nothing worse than what teenagers discuss among themselves. But perhaps what frightens people is the actual six-foot man talking about screwing pumpkins versus the 16-foot projection of an actor humping a pastry.
Clay is accountable. His lips form the words. He becomes a messenger in a world that loves to shoot messengers. But there is also the worry that his work is much deeper than silly soft-core porn, that it is more than shock value and titillation. Dare we say his work has levels of meaning, degrees of thought and hints of illumination. It could be the depth that scares people the most. When I was a kid, there always seemed to be more room at the deep end.