Tristan Egolf

Author of 'Lord of the Barnyard'
Click to follow

The novelist Tristan Egolf leaves a body of work that is small but searing: Lord of the Barnyard (1998), which made him famous, Skirt and the Fiddle (2002), which somehow wove together true love and rat-catching, and Kornwolf, which will be published next winter.

Tristan Egolf, writer: born San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain 19 December 1971; one daughter with Kara Dimitris; died Lancaster, Pennsylvania 7 May 2005.

The novelist Tristan Egolf leaves a body of work that is small but searing: Lord of the Barnyard (1998), which made him famous, Skirt and the Fiddle (2002), which somehow wove together true love and rat-catching, and Kornwolf, which will be published next winter.

His life was such that something of a myth is already growing around it. The irony is that it is a myth Egolf would have had a fine time debunking, even as he built it for himself. He was, in fact, a writer, a musician and an activist - the holy trinity of hipness. Lord of the Barnyard was reviewed as hilarious and harsh. Likewise, his band was called Doomed to Obscurity, and what he called his "patriotic work" still has local authorities shaking their heads in south-eastern Pennsylvania, where he lived. All perfect. And above all, he was a prankster, playing harmonica with his dog, singing love songs to his fiancée's voice-mail.

Born in Spain in 1971, but raised in the United States, Egolf was precocious but rebellious as a teenager, suspended in high school for starting an underground newspaper. After graduation from Hempfield High, in Landisville, Pennsylvania, in 1990 and three semesters at Temple University in Philadelphia, he was done with school and proceeded to rock out full time.

By his early twenties, Tristan Egolf had already become a high-profile local in Philadelphia. His punk band had been offered a record deal. But Egolf had other ideas, and so he took off for Paris, which he said was the best place to write about Kentucky, where Lord of the Barnyard was to be set.

For 18 months, he worked all day, making rent for his one room by playing guitar in Irish bars and on the Pont des Arts. There had already been seventy-odd rejections when Maria Modiano, daughter of the French novelist Patrick Modiano, met him playing on the street, and it was through the Modianos that Lord of the Barnyard ended up at Gallimard and was published in France in 1998, then in the UK later that year.

Egolf was warmly handsome, tall and occasionally goofy but graceful too, and almost always gentle. I once marvelled as he rocked his infant daughter to sleep on the noisy streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side. People he had just met often remembered him as mellow, which was surprising, given what he would sometimes say to them. Like how he was going to burn George W. Bush in effigy (he did).

A night with Tristan Egolf saw you smarter in the morning. He might discuss the truth about Peter Stumpf, history's most notorious werewolf, or the detailed history of the Amish in Lancaster County, or the biology of the oyster. He was a true autodidact, a college drop-out with a breadth of knowledge that astonished some of the most sophisticated journalists and publishers in the world. It all seemed to come easily to him, arguing politics with the editors at Gallimard, charming a reporter from The New Yorker with obscure Woody Guthrie lyrics.

The trick wasn't just what he was saying, it was also how he said it. He spoke in stories, edgy stories. Laura Miller, in her review of Lord of the Barnyard for the New York Times, when it was published in the US in 1999, noted that "invective is a cornerstone of Egolf's characterization". True enough, but his loping speaking voice dipped the invective in honey, and people couldn't help but listen. For this, among other reasons, he was a formidable political organiser.

He made headlines most recently as leader of the Smoketown 6, a group of men who staged a protest during President Bush's campaign visit to Smoketown, Pennsylvania last July. Egolf orchestrated and participated in their recreation of the infamous human pile photograph from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The six were arrested for disorderly conduct, and, at the time of his death, Egolf had federal civil rights law suits pending against the Pennsylvania State Police and the US Secret Service for violation of his free speech. It was all part of the circus. As Egolf saw it, everyone was equally loony. Everyone had the capacity for troglodytic moonshine stupidity, as he might have put it, using some of his favourite words. And like the greatest comics, he was always fundamentally serious.

His favourite complaint was that there were not enough hours in the day for everything he wanted to work on. He feared losing ideas. His home was littered with bits of writing, scraps of chapters, or rock operas, or poems, composed on envelopes, the wall, the backs of his hands. This is what his friends talked about as the news spread that he had taken his own life. There was so much left to do.

The subtext of Tristan Egolf's work and life was that the world is incomprehensibly, simultaneously beautiful and horrible, and that we are lucky to have the lives we do, publisher or criminal. He wrote this of his protagonist in Lord of the Barnyard: "We'd find ourselves running back to him in times of need, back to his bony-assed howl in the wild as our new-fangled antidote for ordinary madness." And that is how we will remember Tristan.

Nick McDonell