In The Last Projector, the new novel from David James Keaton, is an epic evocation of bygone decades and secret histories. In an interview with Monkeybicycle, Keaton noted that the novel “takes place in my fantasy version of the ‘80s, right around 1982-‘83 (sort of a post-modern riffing on what we think of it now), when Carpenter’s The Thing came out and was unfairly overshadowed by that freaky finger-banging, sugar junky E.T.” Patrick Wensink has compared Keaton’s novel to “Harry Crews’ grit-filled world head-butting William Gaddis’ dense, rollicking literary hopscotch,” which is a description we can wholly embrace. The Last Projector is out now from Broken River Books; you can read an excerpt from it below.
Eyes closed, head pounding on the set of yet another movie, his third in as many days, Larry heard another four bathrobes drop together like the gentle thud of snow off a rooftop. He slowly opened one eye, then the other.
It was the moment he always dreaded before a shoot. And he could have sworn it was even worse than the time before, which, at the time, had been the worst time yet.
Larry had worked with all of these actors for years, but he could have sworn their tattoos were multiplying every 24 hours. Like poison ivy, or an angry friction rash. There was no other explanation. In the ‘70s, you’d never see a tattoo staining your film, unless you were using the hoary “sailors on leave” in your plot. And even then, it would probably just be a faded green lizard on the arm, or a little “Semper Fi” on the shoulder. Sure, back then there was always that one girl who grew out her bush to mythic proportions and turned it into Willie Nelson’s beard with some ink of him from the nose up, like a beatnik “Kilroy Was Here.” But other than those exceptions, tattoos in porn usually signaled “prison” to the viewer, which was tough on their concentration, as well as blood flow.
But more ink had started creeping onto his set lately, and no one else seemed to show the slightest concern. Larry was starting to think it was that movie Tattoo with Kinsky and that Bond girl, whatever her name was, that might be to blame. It had just come out on video. Or maybe it was the colorful Ray Bradbury bibliography Carl was carrying on his back in the movie The Illustrated Man. But that flick had been out awhile. Maybe it was all those “Z’s” on Fletcher Christian’s neck in The Bounty? Or that glimpse of “death” on the toes of the Night Rider in Mad Max? And what about the proud eagle adorning Fenix’s chest in the brutal Santa Sangre? Or maybe it was Harry “The Story of Love and Hate” Powell’s knuckles in Night of the Hunter. Maybe Snake Plissken’s cobra in Escape from New York. Maybe it was that leering devil on Lee Umstetter’s groin in Weeds. Maybe it was Woody Woodpecker in Raising Arizona. Maybe it was that little fucker from Fantasy Island. Maybe…
Or maybe it had something to do with this line of work.
Maybe that’s what happens on a movie set like this, when you fuck so much without offspring, he wondered, eyes crawling from body to body, crew starting to worry. Rather than fertilize an egg, you’ll just hatch a chopper-riding Grim Reaper on your pectoral muscle instead.
He’d been sorta prepared for the skin doodle apocalypse today, however, because he already knew he’d be dealing with Head Breakfast’s tattoos on this shoot. “H.B.” as they called him was so named because of the Denny’s grand slam breakfast inked across the top of his bald cranium. Hey, what could you do? Motherfucker loved breakfast. His real fake name was Freddy, but how could you call him that when he had goddamn Eggs Over Easy, sausage links, and a side of flapjacks forever staining his dome? And everybody agreed you didn’t bother asking him about it, as Larry made the mistake of doing more than once. Freddy had no explanation, except that he honest to God loved breakfast like no one had before or since, or before the since.
People would say, “Hey, remember that book, The Man Who Loved Women?”
“Yeah, the movie with Burt Reynolds?” most people would ask right back, or “Yeah, the movie by Truffaut?” as Larry would have said to score points back in film school.
“Well, swap the word ‘women’ with ‘breakfast.’” Or, “You ever see When a Man Loves a Woman?”
“We get the point, dude.”
“Would a breakfast tattoo on someone’s head make a woman (or man) hungry if he went down on them?” Glengarry once asked Larry. “Might be worse to have a sandwich. Bad form, you know? But swirling toast around those egg yolks? Nasty. Maybe he should have put a crossword puzzle up there instead…”
But besides his head tattoo being kind of hilarious, it was also easily covered up with a skully cap and forgotten. Head Breakfast was something else entirely. A quirk. An anomaly. Larry could forgive the kid. But everywhere else, it was an epidemic. Larry could not believe he was the only one who found it unusual that every one of his performing monkeys was sporting a veritable road map of bullshit across its tanned, sinewy hide. Time to read them all?
Indecipherable Chinese characters and their even more confusing cartoon characters, lightning bolts and Frankenstein bolts, lower-back sunrises and sunsets, gift-wrap bow above the ass crack, tombstone or two on the hip bones, every phase of the moon, a man on the moon, the man in the moon, all the pretty insects (some asshole even had a fly tattooed on the head of his cock once, causing Larry to ask, “Why? No, seriously, why?” Then he shouted “Cut!”), and all the scary spiders, the essential Virgin Mary, of course, this one on a motorcycle, even an ashtray right above the left cheek, ‘cause Christ knows that joke never gets old, even if she does, and all the weapons you could think of, usually covering the L5-S1 rupture scars that ran down to their tailbones (more bad backs than warehouse workers in this business, and Larry never understood why workman’s comp didn’t cover it), gold porn “stars” everywhere like grade-school stickers, all the trendy music-scene bullshit like nautical everything and those swallows everyone called “sparrows” by mistake (particularly funny considering the industry), a noble tree that turns into a goldfish or a tidal wave, whichever is more Zen, and finally, without fail, the ol’ stand-by, a tribute to some dead family member, who may not have said it out loud but was certainly relieved in the afterlife that their last wish to be immortalized as an angry rash of cherry blossoms next to their niece’s vulva had been granted.
How the fuck was no one seeing this shit? Larry would wonder.
But all of those skin scribblings may have been ignored. If it wasn’t for the names.
Sure, getting punched in the face very first thing in the morning was gonna throw off your day. So he expected every little thing to get on his nerves before he burned the first foot of film.
But those fucking names.
Not their porn names. Not the real fake names. Those were all suitably ridiculous. The tired joke among civilians is that your porn name is the name of your first pet plus the name of the street you grew up on. Wrong. Maybe a decade ago, back in the swingin’ dick ‘70s. Now it was much simpler. Now, at least for the men, it was a name that sounded like genitals, then whatever rhymed with that.
And Freddy Frigg, forever known as the Head Breakfast, was a good example. The “Frigg” part being particularly unusual because it represented only getting to third base.
But the other kid, Cuban, Italian, Greek or some shit (broken English falling all over his movies like dead leaves, just another example of the ridiculous surge of cheap Middle Eastern men in porn, satisfied to be paid in chickens and track suits), he just went with “Joe Fuck.” That one made Larry smile a little. Either something was lost in translation, or he just got lazy. He was a pain in the ass on top of it, sometimes a little too rough on the ladies, thinking it was cute (“Joe Fuck should be in jail, not in porn” was the most common reaction from the neighborhood adult vendor), but worse, without fail, asking the girls in the scenes with him, always in that horribly distracting accent, “Are you coming again? Are you coming again already?” Typically when they were never close to begin with.
Maybe if Joe loved women as much as, say, Freddy loved breakfast, he might have a chance at getting this done for the females. But, sadly, working in the porn industry, with the women consistently blurring the line between real and fake orgasms for the sake of the scene while the men had no disconnect from the moment at all, it made fuckwits such as Joe the worst sexual partners in history. Coins flying everywhere when they dropped their pants too fast.
But they were pros at doing what Larry and Damon needed them to do, when they needed them to do it. And he saved the day in Romancing the Bone, Rocky Whore Picture Show, Lawrence of a Labia, and one day, God help us, in Kindergarten Cock. See, few things were as frustrating as all the tight close-ups and angles when a money shot threatened but never came. When there was the crescendo but no orgasm, it was as traumatizing as a lost sneeze. It reminded Larry of when Journey’s “Loving, Touchin’, Squeezin’” came on the radio with no “City of the Angels” afterwards. Or when they split up those two Zeppelin songs off Physical Graffiti. Actually, that might be worse.
And the only thing worse than that, Larry decided, is when the LP on the radio is skipping and a DJ is forced to change it halfway through. Thank Christ for cassettes.
Then Larry remembered the punch that broke his stereo’s jaw, and the black tongue that now rolled out of its mouth sometimes. Maybe that was the worst.
But for the women, their monikers were usually just those fake real names they’d give you at a party anyway, when you were trying to chat them up. Always a lot of alliteration, and usually something cute, something that sounded a lot like the name of a car. And today, the two girls Larry was eyeballing in the stable, preening and pointlessly flirting with their co-stars (has there ever been more wasted effort than that?), were known in the business as “Suzie Starrr” and “Roxy Renault.”
Plus there was the copyright issue. Larry was convinced that as his adult films inevitably crossed over into the mainstream, displaying tattoo artists’ distinctive work without compensation might become more of a concerning gray area. Not as concerning as the gray area around Joe Fuck’s urinary meatus, but still its own harbinger of a future problem.
Larry couldn’t fault them for it. Hell, he’d changed his name, too. At least twice. Ironically, his last fake real name (all three parts of it) was a lot like a noble, bearded director’s name, just waiting to adorn a tasteful, understated, Oscar-bait kind of poster. Something with a rose on it. Which meant it sounded more like a porn name than anyone.
Lawrence Bridge Kensington III. The third? Yeah, probably. His real given name, Jack Grinstead, was too loaded with history to bear. And people always thought he was saying, “Just grin instead!” Way too heavy with memories that name, just like the job he’d carried on his shoulders along with it. His character arc was so backwards, it sounded sideways. He went from America to England to America, from Jack to Lawrence to Larry, from “paramedic” to “professional student” to “pornographer.” And all of them were the most natural journeys of his life.
No, aliases weren’t the real problem. It was the real names his performers had written on their bodies that were the real problem.
He thought of the movie hidden in his car, a real movie on a reel. The movie he’d always wanted to make. Not some 8 millimeter bullshit. 35mm. Big, beautiful 35mm, wrapped around one of those brushed-steel, 15-inch Goldberg reels. This movie was mostly true and filmed on a shoestring budget, mostly Damon’s shoestrings to be honest, even though Damon had no earthly clue. All Larry had to do was ride along with some friends on their day jobs to get a real movie done. It was the 80s when he started, the season of the Cinéma Vérité, a style that suited cheapjack filmmaking. If he could find the right distributor, he would no longer be the only one to ever see the film with a light bulb behind it. Hell, if he could find the right projector.
Someone was tapping his shoulder. It was time to pay the bills. He opened his mouth to say it, but today Larry actually feared the word that was every director’s best friend. He’d been on set for five minutes, and the pulse that still lingered in his split lip told him he wasn’t gonna be able to keep it together for long, not after that bastard’s alarm clock at the stop sign.
He feared the word today because it felt less like a friend and more like someone flicking his earlobe in church, daring him to fuck up everyone’s sermon. And when he finally said the word, it hung out there in the air between him and his lens, taunting him so bad he almost tried to suck it back through his teeth like spaghetti.
…tap, tap, tap… tap, tap, tap.
“You feel that? You feel that?”
Larry felt it all right.
Then, even more inexplicably than usual, Joe Fuck asked the girl under him, in his broken English, “Are you coming? You coming again are you? Are you coming again already?”
Then the smack.
“Choke yourself,” he whispered. And she did. They always did.
“Choke marks are the new hickeys!” one of the girls said back when they were filming The Meaty Urologist: The Last Word on Global Warming. Then she added, “Purple is the new black.”
“Cut!” Larry shouted. “Listen, I think we should-”
“Quit calling me that!” Suzie yelled, still drooling.
“No! Keep filming!” Stevey screamed from behind them. “Larry, get your head in the game. Look at the sky. We’re at sudden death here. Damon wants this in the can.”
In the ‘can?’ Always too many jokes. Larry sighed and laughed at the same time. And two sports metaphors at once?
Stevey loved his sports talk. Neither of those motherfuckers, him or Damon, ever played a sport in their lives. Unless maybe it was in a pool. But Larry had found himself in a tournament bracket with Stevey every year. See, even though Larry blamed the director’s beard he first grew as a tribute to Kubrick, Spielberg, Scorcese, and Coppola, and maybe Brian De Palma (“Thought I was gonna say George Lucas, didn’t you?” he told the grip with the “I’d rather kiss a Wiccan” T-shirt the last time he ran through that list of idols), Stevey always mistook it for a playoff beard instead. So he signed him up. Larry did win the tournament one year, when some kid lost his temper and flipped out, getting a technical and landing himself on the bench for three games during the Final Four. But all his life, Larry could never watch an entire basketball game.
Too many stupid tattoos in a basketball game. Too many dinosaurs doing reverse slam dunks and burning basketballs speckling their shoulders like a disease. Although filmmaking had taught him that tattoos looked a little better on black men, maybe, less like someone with Magic Markers caught them passed out at a party, and more like the noble shading around the arms and shoulders you’d get from working hard under a car all day. Sort of what they were doing on the court, actually. Nah…
Not like a disease. It is a disease. Fuckin’ idiots, the lot of them.
But his idiots kept fuckin’. No matter what. It’s what they did best. And it was what Joe Fuck did the worst. People were saying he was getting violent and trying too hard these days because of some new guy in the business, Boris something. No, it was “Aura Boris,” not to be confused with Aura Borealis, the porn star with the glow-in-the-dark condoms, an idea he’d stolen from John Ritter’s Skin Deep. No, Boris was named after “ouroboros,” the snake eating its tail, a very popular porn tattoo for obvious reasons.
And guess what his talent was.
Larry worked through it all best he could, getting all the reaction shots, remembering that Clint Eastwood movie about the book about the movie The African Queen, where Clint played John Wilson playing John Huston, explaining to anyone who would listen that Hollywood was simply a factory town, just like Detroit. So, so true. The intersection of North Hollywood Boulevard Road and South Florida Street was, too, which was where Larry was shooting today.
Not as diseased as Detroit though. Larry remembered when that one asshole showed up talking about his Hepatitis C (and this was his actual asshole he was talking about), and there was a flurry of condoms at the shoots for about a month. Until the men started losing them in the women. This actually got to be a point of pride with the females, touting elasticity, muscle control and what not. Who could pull off the most rubbers by Friday. Larry thought it was a dubious honor really, but Suzie bragged for weeks how one time her partner started his scene bareback, but by the end he was standing there balls deep in a shriveled Trojan, dangling like the last scarf from a magician’s hat.
“Can I stop a second, pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease?” Head Breakfast whined from another room, wiping the sweaty eggs whites on his temple. He was on double duty moving furniture around. Tricky when you’re naked. “I’m hungry!”
“Of course you are,” at least three people laughed.
“Fuck the shit out of that pussy,” Suzie grunted, those overplucked snaky sperm brows on her forehead all furrowed.
What did she just say? Larry thought. Nasty. He looked for the boom mic, hoped it hadn’t picked up that line. No one would want to hear something like that, let alone see it.
It was getting done. Until he started to obsess over the “Sammy” tattoo again, starting to wonder if there was a way they could cover it up. With a beach towel? Maybe a houseplant? Maybe a fire.
One time, Larry had to deal with a tattoo of a Dashboard Mary on one of his actresses. Her trick was bobbing her bobble head just like it. And he’d seen a four-armed Mary on another girl. “Mary Fishnu,” she called the creature. Sometimes he imagined his own Stone Mary coming off the lawn-ornament factory line with her teeth bared like a chimp and all four hands smashing cymbals, and those moments almost always led to silent screams. Sometimes he laughed.
Now the vein was back in his head. He thought he could cover it with blood if he had to.
But then he noticed the “Sammy” beginning to smear with the sweat and the friction. He couldn’t believe it. Tattoos were so popular now, people were apparently faking them with ballpoint pen. “Sammy” turned into “Hammy,” then turned into “Amy.”
There was no “Amy” in the movie either. It was more than he could take.
Right then, Joe started to lose his erection and jammed it back in Suzie’s mouth, pushing out her cheek again. Tap, tap, tap. “You feel that?” Tap, tap, tap. Deafening. And bad timing really.
Snap, snap, snap.
And before he knew what he was doing, Larry had a forearm under Joe’s throat and was throwing him back over a crackling, plastic-covered sofa.
“Hey!” Suzie yelled.
“Shut up, cunt!” Larry screamed at her. “And who’s this Sammy? Where the fuck is Sammy anyway? What does he think about all this?!”
It was amazing Suzie answered as calm as she did.
“My name is Sammy, Larry,” she said. “My real name. What’s yours again?”
Larry stopped a second, then turned all his attention to Joe.
“Hi, Joe. Hold this…”
He delivered a hard shot to Joe’s nose, the locomotive punch he’d learned from the fist of the Virgin Mary’s strapping lumberjack of a grandson earlier that morning, sending a starfish of black blood across his cheeks.
“But how did you know that?” Suzie was still asking, used to fighting all around her, apparently. “My real name, I mean…”
Joe soaked up the blow, then hit Larry back about fifteen times while Larry was thinking about Suzie’s question.
And Joe could fight. The fucker was scrappy, always in good shape, every appendage red and well muscled. And as Joe beat him into a defensive curl, he found himself eye to eye with the angriest end of his actor. Back when Larry first started doing commercials, they warned him that the camera always added ten pounds. But in porn, it turned out the camera took off three inches. And Joe still looked good.
Larry covered his head, deeper and deeper underwater. Porn kids were tougher than they looked. He’d heard they were about a year from fucking modified holes in their faces. Glengarry swore he’d seen this, in spite of it making no sense biologically. And this was Glen talking, one of the business’s foremost anal pioneers. They wrote it off as something they’d never understand, saying, “Every generation adds a new hole.”
But they still had the same weaknesses.
Desperate under the barrage of body blows, Larry finally fell back on what he knew.
“Skins always win,” his gym teacher told him once. Not today.
He grabbed Joe by his erection, catching it before it could turtle all the way back into his body for safety. No one believed it later, but Larry actually picked him up with it, held him off the ground like one of those retractable tape measures you would unspool just to see how long it could hover in midair before it collapsed. There was enough blood to bend it, bend it, bend it. Until…
It turned out an erection broke like any limb, only it turned three colors first, even more colors after. Joe passed out from shock, but not before Larry straddled him to rap the top of his head just like the hollow coconut it was with a “tap tap tap, tap tap tap, tap tap tap…”
“You feel that? You feel that?” Then Larry tried that stupid Eurotrash accent, “Are you coming again already?”
Just as everyone was tackling him, Larry dealt a dozen-some savage elbows. They landed easily, almost like he was dealing cards. And when he slipped the KY grip of his sound guy, and smelled the dank, wet-earth exhale of someone else lining up over his shoulder for a perfect shot, he delivered his last elbow so dead-on that the satisfaction rang through his bones like the sweet spot of an aluminum bat.
But it was poor, poor Head Breakfast who caught it, the only one on the set who didn’t deserve such a betrayal. H.B. stood up slow to stare at Larry in shock as tiny trickles of red yolk covered his Eggs Over Easy, now transformed into Eggs Benedict Arnold, pinballing through the stubble on his skull like Pachinko, finally filling the corners of his eyes until he blinked.
Larry escaped to his car eventually, shrugging off all the howls and threats, to drive around and steady his breathing again. He was desperate to find at least one station on his A.M. dial, but there was nothing but fucking “Seasons In The Sun” as always. So he settled on a dead stretch between the static where he thought he heard a voice. A voice that sounded an awful lot like a countdown. He’d heard the voices there before, usually on that stretch of highway where he sometimes saw shadows of giants moving in the woods. He had no idea this was the night the drive-in debuted their new technology: piping the soundtrack through the dead air on your radio so they could save money on those speakers that hung on your car window like cold food at the car hop.
If he had known this, it may have saved about eighty lives.
He turned up the volume so he could have a conversation.