Understand This

July 1, 2014   •   By Caleb Powell

JERVEY TERVALON, LA Times bestselling author of Understand This (1994) and Dead Above Ground (2000), has taken on an icon in his latest, Monster’s Chef (Amistad: 224 pp., $24.99). William Gibson, chef and ex-con drug addict, begins working for Lamont “Monster” Stiles, a pop music star who bleaches his skin white, has a “Lair” populated by young boys, his mute wife Rita, and Thug the gay bodyguard, intimidating anyone who wants to delve into the specifics. Take Michael Jackson’s anxiety and hypersensitivity, insert a little bit of the sinister pathologies of Jim Jones and Phil Spector, and the result is one chilling character to mirror the attention given to the celebrity and pop culture of our current age.

Recently Jervey and I conversed over Skype, exploring his novel’s themes of abuse, stereotypes, power, and the obsessions society has with celebrity.


CALEB POWELL: What is your book about, beyond the obvious?

JERVEY TERVALON: Monster’s Chef is about issues of identity. Monster has this racial ambiguity, between black or white — he doesn’t care how people perceive him, and that’s often advantageous. A lot of issues are raised for people who have specific notions about race, and who don’t understand all the subtleties, the craziness, the norms of how people of color, particularly black people, think of themselves. Consider how Omar, in The Wire, blows up stereotypes. I love Omar, but I came up with this character Thug back in 2005, before The Wire.I mean, there are tough, roguish gay dudes. Or ineffectual straight guys … like me [laughs]. I think of The Wire as one of the great cultural events in my life.

As far as the overarching thing about blackness: I consider myself African-American. If you looked at my parents you might say they’re not black, but many people — my ex-wife, for instance, assumes that everyone thinks my family is African-American. The advantages of whiteness, though — I know there are benefits to being lighter than darker, that’s objectively true, and I find that to be disturbing.

My daughter, she’s racially ambiguous. She gets called a white girl by black people — it’s like a term of endearment — and then an African-American kid said he wanted to go out with her because she’s light-skinned. My kid’s grandfather graduated from Stanford and was a nuclear engineer … this idea of skin typing, one makes assumptions; you just need to ask. In New Orleans there were advantages to being Creole. I’m from New Orleans — it’s a complicated place. Everyone marries everyone: French, Creole, their cousins [laughs]. Ideas of race can be bewilderingly complex. First, Obama was too black, then too white. It’s strange. Whiteness is a concept; so is blackness. If Obama’s not black then I’m Nordic.

Your character Lamont “Monster” Stiles is clearly based on Michael Jackson. What’s your opinion of the real Michael Jackson?

I have a lot of ambivalence. I grew up basically looking up to him, as a measure of achievement. We all wanted to be him, famous and a great dancer and singer, but as he began to alter his physical appearance, it became obvious he wasn’t a well person.

For whatever reason, my circles would overlap with his. Even now it still happens. I’m friends with the lawyer who represents Conrad Murray. One guy told me — I collected a lot of these stories — he said he worked on a set, and there was a big flag around Michael’s trailer because he’s with these boys, and no one can go in. A student told me that after Michael Jackson was accused of molestation, his plane landed in Santa Barbara and two boys got off dressed like Michael Jackson, wearing the same clothes, tight pants, and then he gets off and drives away in a golf cart with a little blond boy on his lap.

It’s tough to look at his relationships with children as normal. Especially when you have kids, or me, as a former high school teacher — being around young people can be really exhausting and the proper situation is for the adults and kids to go in different directions. It’s fun to watch children but exhausting to interact, particularly with people who are not your kids. Children hang out with their age group and adults hang out with their age group. All that enthusiasm Michael Jackson had for being around young people — to me, that’s just a red flag.

What about the entertainer, after his death, who was found to have molested hundreds of children? This English guy, Jimmy Savile, a TV personality and DJ who molested 500 kids? Savile died a couple years ago and all these accusations came out. And Savile had a history of cover-ups — he had playfully admitted he liked 13-year-old girls, he was a monster; he selected boys, too. It’s obvious MJ had serious problems, and the kids’ parents were willing to let their children engage with this man even though he had a very dubious reputation — that’s scary.

There are many predators, Monster’s sexuality, you would assume he’s gay, but the issue becomes about pedophilia, the definition, the operative terms about power and sexual obsession. It’s rape, basically.

What sort of narrator is Gibson?

There’s a kind of realism, but through Gibson’s eyes you feel as if no one is sure about everything, that you’re being drugged, that everyone is under the influence of hallucinogens. What the characters are experiencing seems fantastic, doesn’t make sense, and Gibson doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s been in the restaurant business, but he has a drug problem, and has an outsider view of really rich people. Gibson’s first name is William. Not sure if it’s mentioned in the novel, but he’s my nod to the influence of William Gibson — cyberpunk to gothic/celebrity punk.

Gibson is a servant, and this idea of serving people, it seems nightmarish to me. It’s like working for a vampire. Dracula is one of my favorite novels, but for Stiles, for this Dracula, think of Phil Spector. Spector went to prison for murder; his defense was the woman threw her mouth on his gun. Seriously. And that’s who Stiles is, who Gibson is working for, a nut.

How did Michael Jackson’s death affect the book, and what did your publisher and editor think?

My editor had no problem, and we’re not saying it’s Michael Jackson. And it’s not about Michael Jackson, per se — he’s just emblematic of a type of catastrophic celebrity. This is worthy of conversation — what happens when celebrity overwhelms everything like a malevolent tsunami of fame, wealth, and power. When we accept it, it just metastasizes. Eccentricity is one thing, and people want celebrity, but when it’s this over-the-top it’s extremely dangerous.

I’m not particularly religious, but I think of our relation to celebrity as a misplaced bit of religious devotion. Ben Affleck bumped into me at a Starbucks, nice enough guy, but he didn’t apologize, and there’s this woman there, and she’s hyperventilating. It was strange until someone told me who he was.

It’s become human nature. Celebrities are something we need; we adore them, but we want to devour them. Watching teenage girls run at the Beatles like 28 Days Later zombies, there’s this energy, my god — you always wonder what these teenage girls are thinking. Myself, when I run into a movie star I try to ignore them.

You’ve been spending a lot of time in China, right?

I’m married to a Chinese woman. I was commuting 6,500 miles to court her. Very romantic — and I married her and into the family. It’s like a very modern family. When she was working in America her mom told her, “Date whoever you want, just don’t date a black guy.” [Laughs]

We get along fine now. I like Shanghai a lot. In Santa Monica people think I should be mowing their lawn, but in China they think I’m some rich American. In September I’ll be in Shanghai for a residency for a month from the Shanghai Writers’ Association and Jinghuan, my wife, will be here, at our house, so the world has flipped.

What projects are you doing now?

I’m doing a proposal for a woman named Doris Payne. She’s an octogenarian, but she was an international jewel thief. A year ago she stole a $22,000 ring and got away with it, until she was caught pawning it. She’s been stealing since the 1950s. And my next project, whether fictional or nonfictional, is about falling in love in and with Shanghai.


Caleb Powell's work has appeared in Post Road, The Sun Magazine, and ZYZZYVA.