First Pages: War Boy by Kief Hillsbery
Welcome to First Pages on Fridays! Every Friday, we share the first pages from a book (usually vintage), along with a bit of information about the author and the book’s history.
This week’s selection is the 2000 novel War Boy by Kief Hillsbery. Kief Hillsbery (actual name Thorn Kief Hillsbery) also wrote the novels What We Do Is Secret (2005) and Empire Made (still in press). He is an American writer, originally from Portland (Oregon) and currently living in New York. In addition to novels, he also writes for magazines, specifically about surfing, skateboarding, and rock climbing.
[Note: I have an advance reading copy of War Boy, so there may be some slight differences between the text below and the actual published book.]
I’m Rad I’m deaf I don’t talk I’m fourteen I’m telling the story. And storytellers lie so why bother you ask.
Because just the way any white boy would tell it there’s a place where I knew there would be a story and a story like none in my life or anyone’s and it was in the light at the end of the General Douglas MacArthur Tunnel.
On the Green Tortoise bus.
When I woke up suddenly seeing two things at once: a huge truck loaded with redwood logs headed the opposite direction out of the sun and into the tunnel and also the hairs on Jonnyboy’s legs glowing brighter than gold like they were fiber optics lit from inside and his skin was a solar collector.
And I asked myself one why were the logs going north across the Golden Gate Bridge where they already had redwoods to cut of their own and two where to the south did they come from anywayz unless Big Sur which was practically a national park and three was it the way kweerboys feel the way the light on Jonnyboy’s legs touched something inside me that also seemed new like being in San Francisco for the first time really that I could remember even though I was born there.
All these thoughts in the time it takes to strike a match. And now it seems like signs and portents in more ways than three but then I just knew somehow it was the beginning of everything changing and would dead sure be a scene to scroll the screen when I breathed my last. So I made a promise to myself when the truck passed by and the rumble of the logs moved the air and Jonnyboy shifted his leg against mine that I’d try like a trooper to keep track of what happened so someday I’d read it and know who I was when I left home for good and made my life mine.
Storytellers lie was right up there at the top of Jonnyboy’s rules-to-live-by list with Ignore heroes and Never make decisions based on fear. It was how he’d buck me up in the old days when I was head down kicking dirt while people around me grooved on someone talking and I mean fully with their eyes and the moves of their faces and it was just like music before I found punk rock. Because I couldn’t be part of it no way never nohow and there I was unwashed and alone in the wonderful modern world. And is it lame to wish you’re what you’re not and even worse something you know less than zero about. So Jonnyboy could have read me hard on that but never did. He just smiled and eyed me and moved his lips and it was me who did the reading.
As in don’t worry get happy. As in happy you don’t have to listen. As in most people’s stories are your basic commercial on TV that’s maybe interesting to watch but nothing to pump up the volume about.
And since he was the storyteller nine times out of ten that’s really film at eleven on Jonnyboy. It wasn’t so much lying as entertaining the way he saw it. But he was proud he never lied about the big things. Big things like being a full-blooded kweerboy he took seriously the way some people take religion or politics or dressing in black seriously. Once he told this bigtime homo in Monterey he didn’t like old movies and the guy asked what kind of kweer he thought he was and Jonnyboy worried for a week I swear.
Because he thought he was a good kweer. Just not a good Norcal kweer was what he finally decided.
Since he came from down south.
Since he listened to unheard music.
As in do U know about the Germs?
Which is the first thing he ever asked me way back when at the Electric Light Arcade on Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey. He saw me before I saw him and is it blushing material because I had full long hair in a surfer cut and worse curse an upside-down KLOS visor cap. I rode my sk8board hella fast through the open doors the way I always did and braked with my skidplate to stop hard in front of the pinball game I was shredding then which was Mars Attacks. And Jonnyboy didn’t waste time he just walked right up.
Took off his leather jacket and slid two quarters across the glass. So we started playing doubles and did we rock that machine more than twice around the clock. And it was almost three hours later I swear after multiple new high scores when he finally realized I wasn’t just the silent type and popped the question with the one-inch yellow pencil stub complete with pink eraser he pulled from the piercing in his left ear.
And is it surprising I didn’t know about the Germs or any other bands really except for Kiss and I only knew them because when I was little I had a cheesy old notebook with their stickers on it. But Jonnyboy wouldn’t take no for an answer. The way he saw it was that I knew inside and he knew I knew from the way I sk8d into the arcade and the way he put it as in read my lips was:
–You’re a punk when you’re born.
Meaning there’s more to it than music and fashion. Which may be how it started with the New York Dolls and the Sex store in London but really the look is just a package to get attention for what’s inside. The look tells everybody you don’t blend in and you won’t blend in. And that was Jonnyboy hands down your pants no doubt about it. He blended in nowhere and it wasn’t just his hair whether it was purple or shaved or piled in a greasy high pompadour or his glow-in-the-dark nail polish or his jewelry made from old computer parts and other machines he scavenged from the trash in alleys behind stores and offices late at night. He was only regular-sized but everything about him seemed big from the way he smiled to the way he moved to the way he looked at you sometimes like the two of you just got the punch line of a rad-ass joke no one else would ever understand.
And I mean no way never nohow. But the end of that first time we hung out he was calling me Radboy and I knew it was curtains for the name I used to have. Because it just felt right and walking out into the parking lot beside him afterwards I looked at our shadows on the pavement and mine seemed taller and badder than ever before and I knew it was goodbye forever to the generic deaf and dumb kid who never got in anybody’s way except sometimes on a sk8board.
So Jonnyboy was like the real live hero to me from genesis ground zero. Especially because after my mom died all I had was trouble with my dad and my brothers and sisters and what Jonnyboy called the question authorities namely the cops and courts and smiley face do-gooders buying me hamburgers and patting my back and predicting I’ll go far against all odds because I know how to read and my complexion is clear and I can set the time on a VCR. And was that trouble sure to be continued in our very next issue with Tommy getting out of Chino and swearing to kill my dad in revenge for my mom. Only calling Jonnyboy a hero breaks one of his own A-list rules so I guess he was more like a sun to me with a warmth I could feel. And remember I lived my whole life where it’s foggy for weeks at a time.
Or at least I did until my dad tried to kill me or maybe just scare me worse than ever before which is saying a lot.
What happened was he had Mateus Rosé bottles lined up in front of him dead soldier style on the coffee table in our house on Grace Street the way a normal dewd might have a few Bud longnecks. It was like four in the afternoon and he was sitting there in his wife-beater undershirt peeling off the labels with my brother Terry’s eight-inch Buck knife when my sister Rita walked in and said something to him and suddenly the knife was flashing fast in her direction but not quite fast enough.
I jumped up to run too but the power cord connected to the portable TV got in the way and when I tripped on it my dad nabbed me by the neck in an iron grip. And to tell it longer than it took to happen he had the knife at my throat and my sisters and my little brother Timmy going crazy in the doorway in front of us and I could feel him yelling and smell the wine so hard I couldn’t help but thinking if I only had a match.
To purchase a copy of War Boy, visit the Somewhere Books online store.