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Author Brings Books to Life : Dramatic Readings Help Barry Yourgrau Tell a Story

December 05, 1987|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Times Staff Writer

Author Barry Yourgrau shies away from the word "reading" when describing his frequent public appearances. "A live version of the book" is his preference.

"They're readings, but they're very dramatic, so they have the impact of a performance," said Yourgrau, speaking by phone from Santa Barbara. "The trouble with the word 'reading' is it's such a deadening term, and most people's experiences with readings are, by and large, deadly affairs."

Yourgrau's enactments of his short vignettes--wild flights of fancy grounded in elements of everyday life--have been described as a blend of "literary stand-up comedy and surreal Oedipal drama." The author brings his act to Orange County next week, with an appearance at noon Sunday at Fahrenheit 451 books in Laguna Beach and at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

He will read from his third collection of stories, "Wearing Dad's Head," published in September by Peregrine Smith Books. The author sees the new work as his most personal to date.

"My previous book, which was 'A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane,' was more about astonishments, kind of surreal episodes," Yourgrau said. "But this book, 'Wearing Dad's Head,' is really a lot more about family issues. . . . What really anchors this book is the whole business of being in a family, of being a son with parents, and the world of dealing with that, alive and after they die."

The narrator's parents appear in many of the book's stories. In one, the mother is stung by an insect and floats to the ceiling; in another, father and son go on safari, hunting real lions, elephants and giraffes in the family's suburban backyard. There is also the specter of death--in one of the last stories, the narrator's late father appears to him in a soap bubble. The stories were written in the "aftermath" of the death of Yourgrau's parents.

"Part of what this book represents is just the world of having parents. It's living with them when you're alive and what you go through when they're dead," Yourgrau said. "Their deaths in the stories are a very strong part of it, but it's only a part; it's not what the book's about.

"The book is full of joy and laughter. The whole point of the parents' death is to sort of situate it in the whole experience of having parents."

One of Yourgrau's aims, he said, is a blend of the comic and the poignant. "Someone once said to me, 'You know, I read your books, and I don't know whether to burst out laughing or to burst out crying.' That's what I'm after, because I actually in fact would like people to do both."

The Manhattan-based author, who is 39, was born in South Africa and came to the United States as a boy of 10. One of the things he carries with him from his early years is a love of English children's literature.

"The English write great sort of childhood things that continually resonate through people's lives. 'Wind in the Willows' is a great one," he said. "So I think that made quite an effect on me. I like crossing that stuff, you see, with hard-boiled American stuff. . . . I like getting that weird blend."

He compared his working methods to those of silent film comic Charlie Chaplin, who would build entire scenes around a simple prop. "To a certain extent, that's the way I work. I get a notion, an image, a feeling, and see how to get things in trouble and get it going somewhere interesting."

His stories are often described as dreamlike, but Yourgrau does not draw from his own dreams. "I never use my dreams. I generally make a huge point of that," he said. "I want to write stuff that operates like dreams--constructing dreams, as it were, or operating with the same mechanisms as dreams.

"The main thing is opening up and letting all things be possible. My work is factually and naturalistically untrue, but it's emotionally authentic, and that's what I drive after. If the stuff really works and I feel good about it, it's because it has emotional authenticity that grounds all the fabrications and fantastic elements."

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