Buddy J. Finowicz: The Maker of Something Else

by Matthew Breen

The closer I try and get to Buddy J. Finowicz, the stranger he becomes.

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By coincidence, it was around the same time that he died that I began reading his books. His death, aged sixty-five, hardly made headlines on this side of the Atlantic. I remember a brief obituary in some newspapers, and I suppose perhaps a few literary magazines would have honoured him with a kind, reflective article. But for the most part, the name of Finowicz will mean nothing to most people inside and outside of America, his native land. And now he is dead, what can happen to that name except for it to fade into obscurity, and then vanish forever?

My first read of his was Cosmic Manifesto. It was an impulse buy in a second-hand bookshop. I was beguiled by the lurid illustration on the front cover: a glittering spacecraft crashing through the pages of an enormous book. Turning over to the back, I found that the histrionic blurb promised ‘an awe-inspiring odyssey through the stars–and the human soul.‘ What was not to like here? I could not resist. Yet this was not the paperback trash that I had expected to enjoy in a guilty-ironic fashion. Nor was it not paperback trash. It certainly wasn’t art in any orthodox sense.

Either way, I felt compelled to read more. I next acquired Mescaline Rain, Finowicz’s notorious debut novel, and devoured that with the same feeling of ambiguous pleasure. I then came across Fallen Prairie, the strange tale of three generations of a Midwest family protecting their farmstead from encroaching demonic forces. It was at this point that I began ordering his books from the U.S., where they are still (sporadically) in print, and read Syndicate 7. This is the book that Finowicz will most likely be remembered for, if simply because in 1994 it was adapted into a film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring his nephew Nicolas Cage. A critical and commercial failure, Syndicate 7 sunk without trace and by general consensus marks ‘the nadir of Coppola’s ailing career.’1 (I personally rather liked it.) I have read many of Finowicz’s books, and continue to read them–he wrote over a hundred novels–but I say again: the more I read, and the more I learn about this strange individual, the harder I find him to quantify. In fact, let this be clear: there is no use trying to artistically define this man. I defy anyone to successfully pigeonhole him at any singular point on the cultural spectrum.

The books, on one hand, are appalling–awkwardly written, workmanlike affairs, generally never more than 150 pages long. Literary values, such as description and characterisation, were clearly of little interest to Finowicz; I suspect he perceived such things to be superfluous frills that got in the way of the main objective of telling the story. And the stories themselves! Car crashes of narratives that tumble and clatter from one page to another, marked by ludicrous plot devices and deus ex machinas (time travel, alternate universes, dream-hallucinations)… Finowicz’s books buzz with a crackpot energy, an energy rather charming in itself, but an energy dispelled by the fact that most of these books are utterly indecipherable.

Yet for all the same reasons, I believe his work to be fascinating, complex, engaging, and original. As vulgar and slapdash as so many of them are, Finowicz is not a writer of lowbrow books. He does not appease his public with gratuitous pop objects. There are no page-turners, bestsellers, or quick reads. Finowicz’s books are difficult, in the best sense of the word. They will never ascend to any exclusive echelon in high culture–Finowicz sits in some limbo-land outside of the hierarchies of high and low, art and pop. Like Andy Warhol and Alfred Hitchcock before him, he is the maker of something else altogether.

Perhaps now would be an opportune moment to lay out a biography. Charles Joseph Finowicz was born in 1944, in the town of Round Rock, Texas. His father was a miner, his mother a schoolteacher. By all accounts, Finowicz was an obsessive writer from the moment he could grasp a pencil; childhood friends recall the young Buddy constantly getting into trouble at school for filling exercise books with scribbled passages of frenzied prose. At the age of sixteen, he left high school to enter into the most appropriate vocation he could, working for a local newspaper. Finowicz himself was to describe the following years as spent ‘churning out crop-dusting articles for that rag… living off uppers and scotch, flicking roaches off the kitchen table.’2 Then, in 1967, this was to change as Finowicz found himself drafted in the Army and sent to fight in a war in Vietnam.

A year later, he returned to America a different man. He resolved to become a professional writer of fiction, and within a matter of months Mescaline Rain had been written and published. Unfortunately, the book was savaged by critics, and barely sold at all in the first edition. This was a painful ritual that Finowicz was to endure throughout his career: the constant lack of both critical recognition and commercial gain. He rallied hard, ceaselessly writing, but his was a tumultuous life, marked by a series of bizarre events–periods of acute mania brought about by his unhealthy fondness for psychedelics; his terrifying, drunken performances at parties; his strange acquaintances: shamans, witch doctors, gurus; the unexplained five years when he vanished from society and was assumed to be dead by everyone. No event, however, could have been so strange as the sudden financial security that the Syndicate 7 movie offered. It bombed at the box office, but the royalties were sufficient: at the age of fifty, Finowicz was no longer poor and desperate. The final years of his life were a period of hard-earned stability. Finowicz found a place to settle in Las Vegas, and married for the fourth time. He enjoyed the devotion of the newly formed Finowicz Fan Fraternity, a small but loyal group of mostly young readers. He signed autographs at cult conventions, played blackjack on the Strip, and continued to write as ferociously as ever.

Then in April of this year, it came to an end. By Finowicz’s own standards, it was a remarkably quiet exit: dying from heart failure at his desk, pen in hand if we are to believe the rumours circulating on the FFF’s website. An intense lifestyle finally caught up with him. His estate is currently in the process of being administered by lawyers; Finowicz left, apparently, a wealth of unpublished material but with no specific instructions on what should be done with it.

And so a life comes to an end, a life so outlandish and bizarre one might dare liken it to the plot of a Buddy J. Finowicz novel. What happens now? I picture that small, lofty pantheon occupied by dead geniuses, visionaries, virtuosos and masters. I then picture the vast, anonymous graveyard of every hack, charlatan, sellout and trash-peddler who leaves the world without leaving a true mark upon it. Into which does Finowicz pass? What is his legacy? I, who remains undecided, can only hope that in the years to come there is enough of Finowicz left in the world that those who wish to make up their own minds have the opportunity to do so.

1 Saul Levinstein A Year’s Film Moving Image Dec. 1994

2 Chuck Feldman A Conversation with Buddy J. Finowicz Mightier Than The Sword Jun. 1998

© Image courtesy of Sturges Press