BEFORE BARRY GIFFORD’S novel Wild at Heart even made it into bookstores, movie audiences had already welcomed Sailor and Lula, the “Romeo and Juliet of the South,” into the pantheon of American outlaw couples. In May 1990, nearly six months before the book’s publication, David Lynch’s adaptation of Wild at Heart won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The Wild at Heart screenplay, written by Lynch and vetted by Gifford, follows the broad contours of the darkly funny novel. The story centers on the parole-breaking cross-country quest of the ex-convict Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage, peacocking in his prime), and his barely legal girlfriend, Lula Fortune (a leonine, red-lipsticked Laura Dern). They cross state lines to flee the clutches of Lula’s overbearing mama, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother), and Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), the private eye tasked with tracking them down. Gifford’s neo-noir antiheroes are indelibly embodied by Cage and Dern. Their kinky, if somewhat dimwitted, chemistry placed Sailor and Lula alongside other, more murderous fugitive twosomes: Bonnie and Clyde, for sure, but also Kit and Holly, the Badlands couple inspired by spree killer Charles Starkweather and his underage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate.

Wild at Heart sparked a spate of films about dangerous duos on the run: Thelma & Louise (1991), True Romance (1993), and Natural Born Killers (1994). The movie is still eminently quotable, owing to a combination of pungent original dialogue and the bushy-tailed cheesecake served up by the lead actors. Cage, doing a kind of swamp-thing Elvis impression, repeats the mantra behind Sailor’s snakeskin jacket: “This jacket represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” Lula, slithering in a black lace bodystocking, drawls an intimate summary of her love: “You move me, Sail, you really do. You mark me the deepest.” But the manic interpretation pulled off by Lynch, Cage, and Dern also effectively stole the thunder and shrouded the sharp intelligence of the road-tripping couple as they were conceived of and written by Gifford.

The cinematic Sailor and Lula have become cult icons — Liv Tyler even named her son and daughter after them, apparently not minding the incestuous overtones. Though the novel Wild at Heart spent time on best-seller lists and Gifford continued adding to their story in subsequent books, the literary Sailor and Lula have slouched toward obscurity. Nearly 30 years after Wild at Heart, Gifford’s multi-book saga of Sailor and Lula is one of the unsung feats of oddball American literature.

In May, Seven Stories Press released Sailor & Lula, Expanded Edition: The Complete Novels, an omnibus that collects eight short novels published by Gifford between 1990 and 2015. The almost 800-page document of Sailor and Lula makes for a picaresque, frequently violent, and surprisingly tender journey through a meridional world that, as Lula puts it, “is really wild at heart and weird on top.”

That catchphrase sums up Gifford’s magnum opus. His stories about the couple, along with the friends, foes, and acquaintances who orbit them, are set in a noirish, Beat-infused, and yet somehow contemporary America that is threaded with equal parts grit and grace. The cultural references, both low and high, sprinkled throughout the pages of Sailor & Lula make up a master syllabus as regards What Is Cool — at least to Sailor and Lula, who are undeniably cooler than the reader. Songs by Ernest Tubb and John Lee Hooker play in Lula’s white ’75 Bonneville convertible and at juke joints and dives. Outlandish news bulletins on the radio interrupt night drives on lonely roads. The consumption of Barq’s root beer and More cigarettes approaches fetishization. Plots of movies starring Humphrey Bogart, Susan Hayward, or Randolph Scott crop up in idle conversations. The private detective Johnnie Farragut writes surrealist short stories in motel rooms, settling in at night to read The Anatomy of Melancholy. And while Lula might begin a story with her signature podunk uptalk — “Once in the Variety Do-Nut?” kicks off one parable — the novels are set off by quotes derived from a motley crew that includes Tuesday Weld, Mata Hari, Edmund Wilson, Roland Barthes, and Iris Murdoch.

The author’s own origin story seasons this heady stew of references. Born in 1946 in a room at Chicago’s Seneca Hotel to a beauty queen and a mobster, Gifford has published more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as several screenplays (including Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway). His childhood was spent shuttling between Florida, Havana, and New Orleans, living in hotels where he studied the faces in the lobbies and sharpened his narrative instincts on the late-night movies he watched on TV. After an aborted stint at the University of Missouri, he kicked around London during the heyday of Eric Clapton and the Kinks, wrote for a fledgling Rolling Stone in San Francisco, and penned an oral biography of Jack Kerouac. In 1984, he founded Black Lizard, a publisher that later merged with Vintage Crime and reprinted forgotten noir fiction by master practitioners Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Charles Willeford (Wild at Heart is dedicated to the latter).

The hard-boiled economy of his forebears rubbed off. The Sailor and Lula books consist of tightly crafted chapters that rarely exceed three pages yet manage to embed stories within stories. The characters boast poppy cartoon names like Beany Boyle, Zero Diplopappus, Romeo Dolorosa, Poppy Papavero, Bobby Peru, Smokey Joe Rattler, Crazy Eyes Santos, Coot Veal. Their vernacular ranges from the Dirty South to South America. Bad guys might speak redneck, Italian, or Spanish as the tales ping-pong between North Carolina, West Texas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Florida, Chicago, Wisconsin, and Mexico.

The lusty, true-blue couple at the center of the stories is writ larger than life, but Gifford also realistically renders their individual contours. Sailor and Lula contain multitudes that seem designed to puncture stereotypes about ex-cons and Southern-fried mama’s girls. In addition to Lula’s unabashed sexuality — hearing about Sailor’s adolescent fumblings with other girls makes her horny, not jealous — Gifford imbues her with a private world and an impressive moral compass. “Damn it, Sailor,” she tells him, “it’s not always you I’m thinking of.” Meanwhile, Sailor gets intellectually moony over composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s A Night in the Tropics. Wherever he goes, he reads the local newspaper thoroughly, and he wants Lula to have “Dear Peanut, I love you to death” engraved on his tombstone.

Gifford began Wild at Heart during his two-decade career as a newspaper and nonfiction writer — while researching a book on deep-sea fishing at a hotel in Cape Fear, he said he suddenly heard a conversation between Sailor and Lula in his head. That first conjuring of dialogue must have been something, as Sailor and Lula eventually get to talking about, well, everything. (A sample exchange in Memphis: “Think James Earl Ray ever shot a bird when he was a boy?” “He did,” said Sailor, “don’t guess it bothered his mind none.”) Their always affectionate and frequently philosophical discourse anchors the far-ranging odyssey of the couple, which spans Lula’s life from ages 16 to 80.

The books’ plots spin outcomes that are both lackadaisical and sudden. There are no fewer than three kidnappings. After that star-crossed first road trip to Big Tuna, Texas, Sailor gets skittish at the completion of the resulting prison sentence. He abandons Lula and their son Pace at the end of Wild at Heart, feeling unworthy of becoming a family man. But their story wasn’t fated to end there; Gifford published four more Sailor and Lula novellas in one 1991 Random House collection.

A later edition of that collection — variously titled Sailor’s Holiday and then The Wild Life of Sailor and Lula — also included the standalone novella Perdita Durango, previously titled 59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango. It’s the gruesome tale of the fortune-seeking “half Tex, half Mex” moll with “cobra eyebrows” who fled the same Big Tuna robbery that got Sailor popped, only to get caught up in more sinister crimes that include a blood-drinking cult sacrifice in Mexico. (That event is purportedly based on the real-life 1963 Tamaulipas killings committed by High Priestess of Blood Magdalena Solís and the Hernandez brothers. Gifford co-wrote the screenplay for the 1997 Spanish film of the same name, which might just be even more wackadoo than Lynch’s Wild at Heart. It stars Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem, as well as a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Repo Man director Alex Cox.)

Sailor and Lula come together for good in Sailor’s Holiday after young Pace is kidnapped in New Orleans and Sailor reads about it in the newspaper. Sailor goes straight, supporting the family by working for Bob Lee Boyle (husband of Beany), helping him with the sales and distribution of his Gator Gone repellent and similar products. The family attracts trouble wherever they go, however: as soon as Lula tells Sailor, “Despite ever’thin’s happened to us, we got a charmed life,” a bad-omen pelican plunges from the sky and bounces off the roof of their Sedan DeVille. Their misadventures are rooted in the William Carlos Williams lines of poetry that Gifford has said inspired Wild at Heart: “The pure products of America / go crazy.”

Gifford’s coda to the series, The Up-Down, was published in 2015. It takes on the story of Pace Ripley at age 58. He’s intellectually omnivorous even beyond his parents, reading Conrad and Faulkner and living in post-Katrina New Orleans. As he reckons with the recent death of his mother, Lula, he decides to take his life in a new direction. Along with the four cardinal directions, he remembers an ancient recognizance of fifth direction: the Up-Down, representing the navel of things. He decides to seek it out. The novel is kick-started by a quote from Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: “A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story.”

By the time readers of Sailor & Lula get around to Pace’s solo adventure, we’ve allowed Gifford to teach us how to read him. The Up-Down, like the other novels, offers stories on an episodic level, in two- to three-page increments, while a macro narrative unspools. It is Gifford’s most philosophical novel, as Pace hopscotches from T. E. Lawrence to Melville to B. Traven for guidance along what resembles a journey through the underworld — though it is decidedly sexier and more colorful than Dante’s.

“Often when Pace reflected upon his life,” Gifford writes, “he thought that nothing of real significance had happened; at least insofar as his actions were concerned […] had anything profound occurred by the fact of his having existed?” The Up-Down — and the reader — ascribes meaning to Pace’s life only when it is revealed that he is the author of Wild at Heart and the further adventures of Sailor and Lula. Pace decides — late in life, with no love of his own — to tell the extraordinary love story of his parents. That story becomes his legacy and his own Up-Down, his navel and his center. Upon his death, his diary is discovered but unpublished, as it contains “his truth, and the truth is always best kept to one’s self.” As far as Gifford and the Sailor and Lula universe are concerned, everything else under the sun is fair game.

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Molly Boyle is a former crime fiction editor at Penguin and Random House and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.