Seth Morgan was an addict. A pimp. Pusher, strip-club barker, serial robber, and one-time lover of Janis Joplin.
Seth Morgan is also the most under-recognized writer of his generation. Declared by the NY Times to be a “Joycean Hell’s Angel,” he speaks authoritatively because he bears the scars of life lived as a miscreant, a devious and wild twister chewing up the roads of San Francisco and the alleys of New York. Perhaps his literary oblivion is simply due to his dearth of work, work cut short the day he ran his motorcycle into a dividing post on a New Orleans bridge.
Mr. Morgan lived so truly the essence of the noir tragedy. Disenchanted with wealth and privilege, Morgan disappeared; robbed, pimped, cheated, and jailed his way to an understanding of himself and the demons of our world. Morgan lived authentically the raw material of noir fiction, experience so hard-won, he deserves an audience.
Heir to a Very Rich Tradition
Young Seth was born to wealth, a very old family fortune which began to reveal its sinister underside early on. Morgan described his mother Constance as an alcoholic beauty who drove his brother to suicide and himself as “an addictive personality growing up in an alcoholic household.”
Although the heaping family fortune had an ill-effect on the family matriarch, George Frederick Morgan used his wealth and talent to hang out with prolific artists. An established poet and founder of The Hudson Review, Seth’s father regularly held court with the likes of ee Cummings, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Lowell, conversations overheard and savored for years by young Seth. His father’s poetic temperament inspired a certain verbal playfulness in Seth, noted by his father as an early expression of his literary talent.
Seth was then sent off to the choicest private schools: St. Bernard’s in New York City, Hotchkiss and the American School in Switzerland (from both Swiss schools he was expelled). He then studied at UC Berkeley, his focus primarily the delivery of drugs among the winding hills of the Bay Area. It is this pursuit which brings him to Janis Joplin’s door…
Reckless Wheels in Frisco
1970. Seth Morgan parleys a cocaine delivery into a romantic relationship with Janis Joplin, even stating that they would have married had it not been for her “untimely check-out.”
After Joplin’s death, Morgan continued to burn up the roadways, slam drugs, and break hearts. In 1971, he crashed his Harley into the back of Jack London’s old house, severely injuring the woman riding along with him. He even proposed that he might have to marry the woman so “she won’t sue.”
Following the descent he had marked for himself much earlier, Morgan finds work as a strip-club barker, coaxing potential customers in from the sidewalk. During this time, he meets a restaurant hostess, talks her into prostitution, commits 12-15 armed robberies with her in tow (including one gruesome turn in which he pins a man’s hand to the ground with a knife), and is finally arrested in 1977.
1977. Morgan spends 30 months in prison. Thirty months without booze, drugs, or women. He turns his narcotic impulse toward other pursuits, long-forgotten talents. He writes furiously, having re-discovered the voices of Dos Passos and Algren and, most importantly, a constructive relationship with his father. He wrote essays, letters to his father, the novel that would become Homeboy, and all while, according to his brother, “imposing upon himself a facsist regime of workouts, sobriety and solitude when he needed to write.”
Although it seems that he had shed his baser appetites and attentions for an ascetic, artistic life, Morgan regressed immediately upon his release. Pimping out his girlfriend for support money, Seth and his girl tore across the country leaving large early drafts of his novel scattered across the floors of dingy hotel rooms.
Safe Port of Orleans
After a whirlwind of drugs, booze, and sex, Morgan lands in New Orleans beat-up and ready for a change. He likes New Orleans because it feels like place where he “could go incognito.” He attends AA meetings, stops dealing drugs and pimping, and becomes a “write-a-holic,” again swapping one impulse for another. Four months later, he hands over the 1,100 page manuscript of Homeboy to Random House, where they trimmed the novel to the lean 390 pages it remains today.
The pages of Homeboy are populated by the type of folks Morgan knew so well. Junkies, cops, gangsters, prostitutes, low-rent hoodlums, bookies, inmates, and strippers are all animated by Morgan’s experience and talent.
Homeboy‘s protagonist, Joe Speaker, is a sculpture of Morgan’s personal experience, a vague doppelgänger. Joe Speaker also works as a strip club barker, rousts cash with a gun in hand, dates a prostitute/stripper, lands in prison, and shares the author’s hunger for hard drugs. A few samples of Morgan’s experience spoken through Joe Speaker help to illustrate the relevance of Morgan’s personal knowledge and the sharp yet lyrical quality of his prose.
On Strip-Club Barking [while also stowing bags of heroin in his cheek…]:
“The joints were juking open throttle now, up and down the Strip bass notes spilling out the doors like ladles of hot grease. Joe added his own voice to the barkers’ caterwaul: “Walkin n talkin n crawlin on their bellies like reptiles…You, sir. Dont be no meanie to yer weenie. Dont pass by, give us a try” -though barking with a mouthful of junk balloons was as hard as hogcalling while gargling ball bearings, Joe netted the night’s first rube; by his highwater Sears Roebuck slacks and hickified overbite, a Future Farmer of America.”
“Looking back down he saw in the amber lumen a filament of blood, the merest undulant tendril. Sucking air through his teeth, whimpering softly, he adjusted the needle’s depth. Bingo! A mushroom cloud of blood exploded into the barrel, billowing, blooming a crimson orchid.”
Like the above passages,the language and visuals in the novel are infused with Morgan’s hard-won knowledge and roguish past.
The novel follows Speaker as he works San Francisco’s streets, accidentally rips off the kingpin of the Tenderloin district, lands in jail, dodges assassination attempts, and allies himself with some interesting characters (like Whisper Moran, feared thug whose damaged vocal chords speak in only the gentlest whispers).
Although the novel plumbs the deepest of Seth Morgan’s darker days, it also shows signs of epiphany, congruent with his dry-out in New Orleans. Joe Speaker muses on the lovely and redemptive qualities of the girl he has coerced into prostitution, loving her even though he knows its cost…
“He loved her screwball wandering eye that looked like the five ball off the eight, the hard way…loved the consumptive blush rising to her cheeks when she needed a fix; and especially the way when they were walking and she got excited over something and would spring ahead to skip backward before him, corralling his full attention. ..By blocking his heart from hurt, he’d stopped it from love, and until he’d earned the courage for the one he was denied the other’s grace.”
Homeboy offers us a defense, insight Morgan was not able to give himself. The novel at once works as a mimesis of Morgan’s world and an introspection of the author’s troubled habits. While his life provided the raw material for the book, Seth also used the pages to look forward, to offer explanations for the hurt he has caused and sojourn on, past never forgotten
Morgan begins touring in support of the book, even returning to San Francisco where, he admitted, he still had a few outstanding warrants from his wilder days. The days to follow, unfortunately, were to tragically recreate those old times…
Fall 1990. After years of slipping death’s grip, Seth Morgan and Diane Levine are killed in a motorcycle accident. Morgan was arrested early Tuesday morning for driving his motorcycle while intoxicated and, in typical devil-may-care fashion, less than 24 hours later drove the same bike into a dividing column of a New Orleans bridge. He was 41, Ms. Levine was 37.
Morgan left behind only two chapters of his next novel, Mambo Mephiste, a novel set in his newly-adopted New Orleans. You can read these two chapters in the Spring 1991 Conjunctions.
I’ll leave you with an anecdote from Seth’s brother George, detailing a family trip to the Southwest and Seth’s early and persistent habits…
“When Seth was a small child, he went on a vacation with my father and the three other older children. Driving to the the southwestern states in an old DeSoto, they went to Indian Reservations, the Grand Canyon and many of the popular tourist sites. One morning when every one else was asleep, Seth, who was five or six years old at the time, stole money out of my Dad’s wallet, snuck out of the motel where they were staying and proceed to walk about three or four miles up the road to a diner where he started buying ice cream sodas. When my father and the police finally found him four hours later, he had spent the better part of ten dollars and was on his seventh ice cream soda.”
In the pantheon of noir writers, Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich, Thompson stand tall and recognized. Their works rim the top of “best of” lists and fill the better part of collected works. You will not see Seth Morgan’s name in a Table of Contents for any noir compendia, stamped across the screen as inspiration for a film, or standing above a neatly-scrawled “staff recommendations” card at even your most in-the-know indie bookstore. Although Morgan only published one novel, singular in its brilliance, he lived most deeply the trauma and euphoria of noir.
If you have not read any Seth Morgan, check out excerpts given via Steve Danziger’s article, Second Glance: Seth Morgan and the Kamikaze Novel