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  duff brenna

The first chapter of Too Cool is a fictionalized version of the time three friends and I went west in a stolen car. I was fifteen when the events in the novel took place. We were on our way to California, land of warm beaches and sunshine. It was a crazy, spur of the moment decision. I had decided not to go to school that day, and I was lounging in bed, when my girl and my best friend and his girl came bouncing into my bedroom and told me we were all going to run-away from home. I can't remember what their reasons were, but reasons didn't much matter to me in those days. For several years (since I was 12) I had been getting into a lot of trouble and was on probation for car theft, but the other three did not have criminal records. They were "good kids," and so when the four of us took off together, those in the know (parents, authorities) blamed me; but for once I was not the instigator, though as soon as they told me what the plan was, I promptly went along with it. I knew it would be the end of me if I did what they wanted, but I did it anyway. I was a bit insane and certainly self-destructive. It's a long story. The details are in Too Cool.

So anyway, the other boy and I went downtown and found ourselves an Oldsmobile. It was parked in front of a dry-cleaners. I had noticed that its owner always left the keys in the ignition, and I had been keeping the car in reserve, so to speak. We drove back to my house, picked up the girls and took off. We went south, then west into the Rocky Mountains. That evening we arrived penniless in Gunnison, Colorado. We were almost out of gas. We decided we would have to mug somebody. I saw a woman come out of a store, and I followed her. When I got close, she looked at me and she said, "Hi, Billy!" She asked me how I was and how my parents were. I got a bit flustered. She was chatting away about the weather and all kinds of things, and I was walking beside her listening and nodding and looking at her purse. I walked her to her door and said goodbye. It is hard to rob someone when they look at you and talk to you as if you are an old friend.

I went back to the car and drove to a gas station. An attendant came out (they had attendants in those days, the early sixties) and I told him to fill the tank. When he was done and had turned to hang up the hose, I drove away. He stood there gawking, like he couldn't believe what was happening. My friends and I got all the way to Nevada by stealing gas and food. We were on the east side of White Horse Pass in Nevada when things started going wrong. I pulled into a gas station and had the attendant fill the tank, and then as usual I drove away. But this particular attendant turned out to be a moonlighting policeman. He chased us in his souped up Ford. The weather was awful, the highway slippery, more snow was falling, deep canyons loomed at the edge of every curve. Several times we were at the brink of going over. Finally, the policeman backed off and we thought we had gotten away, but he radioed ahead and there was a roadblock waiting for us on the other side at the bottom of the pass.

But that's not the end of the story. We could see the roadblock from far away, so we turned north onto a road leading away from the highway and into the hills. The snow got deeper and deeper and the car finally got stuck. My friends and I worked to get the car out, but it was hopeless, snow over the rocker panels, and a deep arroyo right next to us, into which we could plunge if we buckled the car around too much. So we sat inside, playing the radio and running the heater and trying not to think about what a mess things were. The next day the car ran out of gas. We stayed there another day and night and nearly froze to death. We ate snow. We were weak, dizzy, sometimes incoherent. We had to do something or we would all die.

I was in better shape than the others, so I got out of the car and went down the road to see what I could find. Two or three hours later I stumbled upon a tiny community out in the middle of nowhere, the people living in crackerbox houses, rectangles of wood and white paint surrounded by junk cars and sagebrush.. The railroad tracks ran nearby, and the men were laborers who went out everyday to keep their section of the rail-line in good repair. As I approached the area, dogs came running at me like they were going to tear me apart. I reasoned with them, told them they were good dogs and I was proud of them and glad to see them. They barked and sniffed and settled down and let me pet them, then they fell into step behind me. One rebel mongrel stayed back and barked his fool head off, warning the others not to trust me. When I knocked on the door of one of the houses a woman answered and she wasn't friendly. "What do you want here?" she said.

By then my feet were frozen and I was exhausted and very near to fainting. I grabbed the handrail on her porch and more or less gasped my story to her: "Car stuck. Three days. No food. Freezing." "Well, Jesus, honey, come in, come in!" she said. I was so grateful for her kind words I burst into tears. She led me to her kitchen and fried me up a half-dozen eggs in yellow butter and she made toast and coffee. They were the best eggs I've ever eaten, the best toast, the best coffee.

When the men got home, they took off in their four-wheelers to rescue my friends. An hour or so later, I watched a line of vehicles snaking its way down from the hills. Everybody was safe. After my girl had eaten something and warmed up, she was doing all right, but she was tired. I sat next to her, holding her hand as she stretched out on a bed. I started telling her that maybe we could all stay with the railroad workers and maybe they would give us jobs, and--

None of that happened. The next thing I knew, the police were there. They took us to Elko and then we were transferred to Reno and the other boy and I spent a month locked up with an Indian kid who had knifed somebody in a fight. He told us about a mountain nearby and a cave filled with gold. We planned a break-out and how we would live like kings once we got the gold and got away. One day the Indian was taken out of the cell, and we never saw him again. Finally we were sent back to Colorado in chains, the girls in one car, the boys in another. When we got to Brighton (the county seat at the time), I was locked away in a cell by myself. My friends were released to their parents. The authorities said I was incorrigible and mentally ill. Everybody believed this to be true. Even I believed it, but I refused to talk to anybody, therapists and "experts" be damned. So they said, "Okay, after some time in solitary, you'll be glad to talk to anybody." They were wrong. After two months locked alone in a cell, I was sent to relatives in Minnesota and put to work on a dairy farm, which was the best thing that could have happened to me. I had a good judge who worked it all out for me. His name was Jean Jacabucci, God rest his kind-hearted soul.

In Too Cool I get my characters trapped in Colorado, rather than Nevada, and I leave out the rail workers. I pare the main characters down to Triple E and his girlfriend Jeanne, the two of them trying to stay alive. It's a sort of Darwinian tale: Indifferent nature, survival of the fittest. In the course of his journey through the wilderness, battling frostbite, exhaustion and the increasing specter of death, crazy Triple E is stripped of all presence and he becomes very, very sane at last. We find out who he really is at the core, where the truth resides and where it comes out under severe pressure.

Aesthetically you might say Too Cool is an experiment in sustainable narrative drive, adapting itself to the pace of a sixteen-year-old hyperactive juvenile delinquent. I tried to reflect in the style itself the pace of his mind, his pulse, his unconquered heart and the way he lives his life overall. For literary sources Too Cool is most indebted to Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. I pondered the meaning of the cross-country, climatic foot race in that book and modified it to fit my own needs, converting the race itself into a championship boxing match and altering Sillitoe's outcome just a bit.
 
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Copyright © 1998 Duff Brenna.

Photo of Duff Brenna copyright © Erik Nilsen.