Neglected Authors: Seth Morgan
“A book is a protean thing, mercurial, capricious. Its pure and piercing grace notes are struck only in the quickening of its own creation.”
“This book is pure filth”
–Anonymous, written in the copy of Homeboy at the San Francisco Public Library
Seth Morgan’s literary education began with eavesdropping. His father, Fredrick Morgan, had co-founded the Hudson Review shortly after graduating from Princeton, and the elder Morgan often entertained contributors to his literary quarterly in their New York residence. There, the young Seth was privy to the drawing room “literary jawboning” of his father’s frequent guests, including the likes of e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas.
As well as his rich education at home, the family fortune endowed Seth with the best private schools (from which he was frequently expelled) and a trust fund of more than two grand a month. “That’s great for a writer,” said Morgan, “But for a drug addict it was peanuts.” He spoke those words to journalist Mike Capuzzo, who would later write the closest thing to a full biography of Seth Morgan for Esquire following the author’s death. But before that came Morgan’s road of excess and his fleeting redemption with the publication of his first novel.
In spite of his track record in school and a few lost years afterward, he was accepted to UC Berkeley with sophomore standing in 1967. He eventually dropped out and spent the next several years running drugs, working the door at various San Francisco strip joints, drinking to excess and cultivating his own drug habit. An inveterate lothario, Morgan began a relationship with Janis Joplin after making a delivery to her Marin County home. While his mention in the Joplin biography Pearl was not flattering, the singer was sufficiently smitten to inquire about a marriage license with City Hall. Joplin died before the two could actually tie the knot. “Everybody wanted to know what Janis saw in me,” he said.
When his heroin habit outran his monthly stipend and the dealing and hustling weren’t cutting it, Seth turned to armed robbery. In 1977, he pleaded guilty to one such count, during which he pinned a victim’s hand to the floor with a knife, and was sent to prison in Vacaville, California.
Prison seemed to straighten him out. In 1978, he won the PEN American Prisoner’s Writing Contest with an essay about his relationship with Joplin. After serving three years of his three-to-five sentence, he returned to San Francisco and, barring the role of stickup man, promptly returned to his old vices. The ensuing drunken and felonious cross-country spree eventually stopped in New Orleans, with Morgan exhausted and “spiritually anesthetized.” He sobered up, attended AA meetings and began writing again. “I supplanted one compulsion with another," he said, "and became an addictive writer."
Originally titled Dead Man Walkin', the finished manuscript weighed in at roughly 1,000 pages. His editors spent two years sanding the word count down to the final 390-page hardcover, which Random House released in May of 1990 and re-titled Homeboy. Morgan describes the birth of Homeboy as a sustained, four-month burst of writing in New Orleans, but others close to him describe it differently. His younger brother, George “Jeff” Morgan, said, “It took Seth about five years or so to write the novel... and several copies were lost in transit between the east and west coast during drunken sprees.” Vicki Vanderford, an ex-girlfriend of Seth’s, puts the time closer to a decade. Whichever story is the truth, or closest to it, will never be known, but the estimations from Morgan’s brother and Vanderford seem more likely. If the length alone doesn’t attest to the author’s prolonged endeavor, then the language certainly does. The opening page practically fires the reader from a cannon:
That afternoon was the first time in her bustout life Rings’n’Things had met a man who wanted to know her real name before banging her silly. Daddy didn’t count—naming her after Rosemary Clooney was his big inspiration in the first place. So it wasn’t exactly like intros were needed that night in the garage when she was twelve and he was drunk and bent her over the Pontiac’s front fender and went to town.
Rings’nThings had been her handle ever since a biker called Sugarfoot broke her out of the Encino splitlevel where she’d been held POW fifteen years. Sugarfoot was prez of the Ventura chapter of the Satan’s Slaves and the business end of a dozen felony warrants—which pedigree spelled G-O-D to an echohead Valleyette. She took on faith his solemn word that chasing a fistful of Seconals with a quart of Thunderbird was the righteous way to celebrate her liberation. Three days later, when she came to, Sugarfoot was croaked from lead poisoning, like forty SWAT-issue rounds worth; and Rosemary Hooten, lollisucker of the shopping mall, was transmogrified into Rings’n’Things...
And it never lets up, this barely stable compound of conversational prose and criminal street slang adulterated with Morgan’s own riotous wordplay—as likely born of his love for the language’s mutability as his total disregard for civilized style.
While not exactly autobiographical, the story certainly draws from the author’s own long walk on the wild side. Based in San Francisco, the novel is populated by a rogue’s gallery of con artists, stickup men, strippers, streetwalkers, transvestites and just about every flavor bought-and-paid-for cop and politician imaginable. Morgan’s humor can sometimes be as obvious as inventive. The protagonist is one Joe Speaker (whom one of the Latino inmates refers to as José Narrador) and his closest buddy in prison is a badass named Jack Moran, aka Whisper. When he’s not using names as sledgehammer metaphors, he’s making cheap jokes with the likes of Kitty Litter (Joe Speaker’s stripper-squeeze) and Judge Trepanian.
As for the plot, it’s as complex, multi-threaded and (mostly) unpredictable as it is full of tropes and clichés. There’s a stolen, prize jewel at the heart of it all; the underdog anti-hero and his bumbling sidekick; the loner cop on a mission; not just one hooker, but two, with hearts of gold. But the prose is never less than acrobatic, and reading Homeboy is one linguistic surprise after the next. The descriptions are dead-on, the dialogue true and not a page goes by that I don’t laugh out loud or sit slackjawed in awe at the way Seth Morgan strips, chops and custom-builds the language into barely street-legal poetry.
His second novel, Mambo Mephiste, was by his own account to be the definitive Mardi Gras novel. Sadly, just five months after Homeboy’s release and rave reception, both critically and commercially, Morgan relapsed. On October 17, 1990, he wrecked his motorcycle while riding with a .3 blood alcohol level, killing himself and his passenger, Suzy Levine. One officer who visited the scene of the accident said that if Morgan had been wearing a helmet, “he might have had an open casket.”
Seth Morgan was certainly not an under-appreciated writer in his day. Homeboy received glowing reviews from critics and sold roughly twenty-five thousand copies in hardcover. He received a five-figure advance on the paperback and a six-figure film deal was in the works. Now twenty-three years later, it’s out of print. Mambo Mephiste exists ghost-like on the web, with its ISBN number and ostensible publication date popping up in search results. But only a few chapters of the work-in-progress survive, along with a letter to his agent that included the sort of synopsis that only Seth Morgan could write. Both the chapters and the letter were salvaged from his apartment by the good graces and quick thinking of Mike Dennis, a New Orleans jazz musician and noir fiction writer who’d befriended him. According to Dennis, Morgan’s junky cohorts had ransacked his Camp Street apartment of most everything with any possible street value the very morning of his death. “I kept his passport,” said Dennis, along with some overlooked floppy disks that contained the late author’s work-in-progress. Those three chapters and the cover letter to his agent were reprinted a few years after his death, in issue number sixteen of Conjunctions.
That is, sadly, the last the world ever heard from Seth Morgan.
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