Author draws on Claremont memories for new novel
Claremont is the setting for first-time novelist Bradley K. Rosen’s wonderfully offbeat new book, Bunkie Spills, which was released in June on Small Doggies Press.
Mr. Rosen, 59, lived in Claremont from age six to 17, graduating from Claremont High in 1976. He moved around a bit, but left for good in 1981, living all over the west in places like Humboldt, California, Logan, Utah and Boulder, Colorado to name a few. He spent 25 years playing drums, touring and recording with rock, reggae and jam bands, and continues to play music on the side. He is a 1998 graduate of the University of Oregon, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music, and now lives in Portland, where he raised his two sons, Avery Rosen, 31, and Michael Stock, 21.
He’s always been a writer, filling notebooks in tour vans and hotels throughout his years as a traveling musician. Things got serious after he joined famed Portland author and teacher Tom Spanbauer’s writing group, Dangerous Writing.
Mr. Spanbauer focuses on a minimalistic style and “writing from the body,” the act of overcoming fear to write painful personal truths. There, Mr. Rosen learned to write about the “sore places,” and that “lies are a truth that tells a truth truer,” he said.
Bunkie Spills unfolds over two tumultuous days in the lives of a group of teenage friends living in Claremont in 1976. The lead, Bunkie Spills—Mr. Rosen’s nickname when he was about that age—is a brilliantly rendered 17-year-old with an off-kilter but sophisticated worldview.
His wisdom at first seems masked by his charming malapropisms, but by book’s end these grammatical misadventures make complete sense. Bunkie, broken hearted and by turns angry and self-reflective, sees his suburban life upended over just 48 hours: He loses the love of his life, Evelyn, to the older leader of their small tribe of stoner friends, Big Pete.
After Big Pete turns them all on to heroin, the night devolves in multiple tragicomic directions. Along the way Bunkie gains insight into himself through a series of alternately hilarious, shatteringly violent and heartbreaking scenes. It’s a deeply personal, spiritual coming of age story with the exploration of good and evil at its core, and features some of the most honest and visceral writing about 1970s drug culture I have ever encountered.
“I wanted to tell a story about what it was really like in the seventies for a lot of people, and actually not paint it as a sensationalist, like you see in the movies all the time with the room spinning and camera moves and all that,” Mr. Rosen said. “It wasn’t like that. I wanted to show what it was really like, and I didn’t want to hide anything. I wanted the reader to make his own conclusions. I didn’t want it to sound bad, and I didn’t want it to sound too good either.”
There’s plenty of both in Bunkie Spills. The writing is exhilarating and dynamic. And even though the story takes readers to some extremely dark places, the overriding essential goodness of Bunkie somehow brings hope to it all. He’s a spirit guide, part Huck Finn and part Holden Caulfield, reeling from everything happening at once, with his broken heart wide open.
“The book, and that voice, just came to me,” Mr. Rosen said. “It was a gift.”
Claremonters will recognize places and motifs, especially readers of a certain age, as Mr. Rosen recalls a time when lemon groves still proliferated and cops spent their weekend nights busting up teenagers’ keg parties. It’s a work of fiction to be sure, but the author had plenty of source material.
“You can take stuff out of your [memory],” he said. “That’s the fun part about fiction. You can make it entertaining, and switch it around, but you can use experiences.”
Mr. Rosen paid a high price for his own drug use. He contracted Hepatitis C, and eventually underwent a liver transplant, all because of damage from doing heroin twice that summer when he was 17. “It changed my life,” he said. “I paid for it for years. It wasn’t like we were bad kids, per se, but drugs were a part of a lot of Claremont.”
There were also a lot of people who weren’t getting high—including most of his friends—Mr. Rosen said, but drug use was certainly prevalent in the 1970s.
Writing a book that pulls no punches was a difficult balancing act.
“You know, a lot people died,” he said. “I didn’t really put that in the book, but I think it was inherent. Hopefully people took that away from the ending.” It’s intimated that Big Pete, the older ringleader of the group, will delve deeper into heroin addiction. “There was a whole slew [of overdoses], especially in Claremont. It was an epidemic.”
Bunkie’s spellbinding inner dialogue and seemingly endless supply of inventive malapropisms are the book’s center. It took almost a decade and many drafts—including running the manuscript through the Dangerous Writing group three times—to produce the final product. Mr. Rosen credits his writer peers and his editors with helping him hone the manuscript.
“I go way out into left field and then pull it all back and see what I can get away with,” he said. “There were a lot more of them,” he said of the main character’s unintended (or not?) misuse of words. “They really helped me weed out a lot of them.”
Mr. Rosen has also published several acclaimed short stories and is currently at work on another novel. “It’s hard to get out of that voice,” he said of Bunkie Spills’ unique protagonist. “But it’s coming.”
For fans of off-the-beaten-path fiction, let’s hope it arrives soon.
Bunkie Spills is available through Small Doggies Press at smalldoggiespress.com.