Barely Legit: Rodger Jacobs, 1959-2016 — Joseph F. Mailander

Rodger Jacobs was a bad boy writer. To the end, he practiced his vocation as though he were still living a time when editors plied writers with whiskey, generosity, and occasional emergency services. He wasn’t a good fit for the telemarketing-styled interactions they offer to-day. But that didn’t stop him from writing anything he wanted to write.

Rodger died alone in a one-room Echo Park carriage house apartment on Tuesday, July 5. (He called it a carriage house, but that was historical embellishment; the date is the coroner’s estimate; he was discovered by his landlord three days after that). Weeks later, the coroner still hasn’t released a cause of death; nobody has claimed the body.

His friends, donors, and even his various readers knew he had been dying for years. He was fifty-seven years old at the time of his death. Ironically, his long time partner, devoted editor, and dauntless caretaker, Lela Michael, with whom his life and career was much entwined, died fighting cancer in Lake County, California twenty-four days later.

One of the reasons I liked and befriended Rodger Jacobs—despite his enormously self-destructive streak, his crippling insouciance, his obvious wrong-footing of any obstacle set before him, his addict’s denial, his Herculean efforts at shirking self-sufficiency—was that I identify all those traits as honest writerly traits from a time when writing was less careerist, less corporate than it is today. These are the traits that once kept writers inert enough, even from their patrons, to be honest and incisive when making a diagnosis. Rodger could not be told what to do nor what to write nor what to say nor what to think; gifts, donations, or assistance of any kind won no favor with him. This is the American writers used to be before the arrival of the stiff and often witless corporate co-opting of their trade.

Readers, lots of them, especially ones who recall writing from a time when publications mostly were stand-alone, also liked this arms-length approach. “I think I bought every one of his books,” Kitty Myers, an upstate New York resident who never met him said on learning of his passing. “My favorite is ‘Last Summer at the Marmont.’”

In this work, a play, a wisened character says to an insouciant ingénue type: “You can withstand the painful hurdles that life is going to throw your way. But you’ll die stupid,” and even more bitterly, “You’re about a dozen dead-end auditions away from becoming a porn star.”

Rodger withstood painful hurdles, but he did not die stupid. Touching the wicked and remaining unwilling to be co-opted also often means commercial suicide for the kind of writer another era used to deem “legitimate.”

Maybe this is less true to-day than even a few years ago; we now note with some awe that Lena Dunham is presented as a credible speaker at a national political party’s convention. But a little over a decade ago he carried the stigma: when I first met him, he was trying to distance himself from his extensive work as a writer of pornographic movies.

I had no idea at the time how much effort that required, as I would later learn his aka, Martin Brimmer, is credited on over 100 pornographic movies before 2007. By the mid-zeroes he was quick to point to the irony that one of his best-read pieces was about his attempt to distance himself from this part of life and yet only succeeded in identifying him with it all the more.

But Rodger always gladly rolled out a welcome mat for anything involving commercial suicide. When he wrote blogs, typically they would reach a critical mass of readers—and as soon as they did, he would abandon them. A few weeks later, he’d start another and tell a small handful of people, “Hey, I’m over here.” The names of the blogs were often literary-suicide referent; one was called “Hemingway’s Shotgun.” Another, perhaps the one to which he was most devoted, was simply titled “8763 Wonderland,” street address of one of LA’s grizzliest murder scenes (admittedly a crowded category), a porn and underworld crime world scene Rodger devoted much professional energy and effort examining in various media, for years.

His insistent detachment from anything self-preserving, mannerly, rational, or bourgeois enabled him to borrow and riff characters that he did not create, insert familiar cartoon characters into short stories, mock the lit press and celebrate the pulp, and chase every personal demon as far down the road as that demon would continue to lead. Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker were as likely to appear in a story of his as his own writer-for-hire hero, Trace, who drew as much from comic detective hero Dick Tracy as from the life story of another hero of his, Chester Himes.

Nothing was ever sacred. At one of his blogs, Rodger spent a lot of weeks of 2010 condemning his dying mother, for whom he and Lela were also caretaking. Bad form enough, but soon after that, he pitched a series to the Las Vegas Sun on how he and Lela had suddenly become homeless. They were living in a motel, not entirely without a roof, but the identification was on, and with it the long slouch towards catastrophe was underway.

Many friends familiar with his struggles in those days believe the series wrecked him more that the motel or even caring for the mother did. He betrayed such an unusual degree of sensitivity to the comments that came the series’ way that it was obvious there had been another misfire. His sensitivity was quite genuine; for years, in person especially, he would often bemoan the barrage of hostile comments.

His final blog, Rodger Jacobs Online, is mostly a medical charting of ailments and distresses. The last post on it, from twenty months ago, leads off with the fact that his daughter was estranged from him, and ends with him choosing between food and prescriptions.

With little to do and lots of time, he read. Beyond Himes, Chandler, and an L.A. writer’s writer who was also a friend, Rudy Wurlitzer, Rodger favored Moby-Dick above the continental novel and read Georges Simenon comprehensively for fun. Comprehensively, yes, and sometimes at a clip of a book a day. He loved Joan Didion essays, always. His last exchange with me was about a production of Shakespeare’s histories in which Richard II was omitted—an outrage.

He had a healthy measure of contempt for the whole NY-LA commercial lit camarilla, which he followed more closely than most lit editors. He gave tips to a Craigslist literary message board for other writers, at which he was a very popular figure; most of these tips he wouldn’t dream of putting into practice himself for his own benefit.

Though he lived mostly in Los Angeles from the eighties forward, Rodger moved to San Francisco’s fabled North Beach district at the advent of the nation’s financial crisis, when he was particularly despondent about Los Angeles. It was when rents were beginning to rise out of his reach.

In North Beach he was happiest of all. One of his books was on the check-out counter at City Lights. He was drinking coffee at Caffe Trieste. He did a Kerouac project and interacted with many. He had found his Paris, his street, his life.

But the happy sojourn was brief. His mother’s health was beginning to deteriorate, and he was still not free from the usual financial pressure in San Francisco. He suddenly ditched the best for the worst; Lela came along for the ride. His mother’s death came soon enough, but what could have been temporary displacement ushered in the fateful chronicling of his “homeless” episode on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and a final move to LA, where he instantly fell into a physical, emotional, and psychological shambles, first in Highland Park, then Eagle Rock, and ultimately the one-room “carriage house” in the back.

Self-stigmatized by the homeless series in the Sun, Rodger solicited money through most of his declining years, and from many people, including quite a few fans. (One, I recall, sent him $1,000, an amount that made Rodger express real contempt for indicating too much obsequiousness). If these solicitation letters were collected, they would make a grand style book of their own, a perfect companion for crowdsourcing at the brink.

Such requests were in fact the largest social part of the final few years of his life; if he got together with someone, it was usually an outcome of his having sent out another request for Paypal cash. The solicitation letters he sent out were exemplars of his careful crafting of direct language and circumstance to make a point. They were feuilletons of indigence.

At first these went to a small crew; then the circle steadily widened; the lists were always public, like at a country club where you could see who else made the ladder. One masterful 2,000 word opus from the time the circle was very tight includes the barest breath of solicitation in this paragraph:

“Some of my friends receiving this letter have done more than enough to help us and words alone can never convey the depth of my gratitude. You know who you are. I’m not asking for anything specific at this time but rather I am simply issuing an iteration of our urgent needs at the moment and in the weeks ahead (I have some funds arriving next Friday but three-quarters will be offset to repay a loan and my food stamps also arrive on August 3): a stable roof over our head until September 1 and funds to clear up our deficit and purchase food until next Friday. With my worsening health a homeless shelter is not an option; I am highly susceptible to infection (I get at least one a year that sends me to the ER) and I have several open sores on my body for infectious agents to gain entry to my bloodstream.”

All these things were generally true throughout the final seven years of his life, as was the form of the pitch, suggesting that this, the fiftieth or ninetieth such solicitation, was an incredible exception owing to an unusual perfect storm of crisis.

Those who gave him money and imagined him to be profligate with it are indeed correct in their hunches. He may be asking for the money because of a surprise water and power debt or the new price of a necessary medication, and those were always paid. But a little padding built into the request meant that rarely did I take him shopping and he not come home with a bottle of Jameson’s and a carton of Parliaments packed in with the other sundries.

He was also estranged from his partner and angel of mercy Lela more often than not in the final two years; but a day never went by without one thinking of the other in a connected and even hopeful way. This fact was made all the more remarkable by some events in Las Vegas on Thanksgiving Eve 2010, in the Vegas “homeless” epoch, when Rodger, likely drunk, had Lela jailed for what was a supremely minor he-said/she-said charge involving access to his medication that he demanded be enforced. I think the cops took her in for a three-day hold to try to make a fool out of him, not a better citizen out of her.

The final outcome of their tumbleweeding across state and town was the plaintive scene of Lela’s own deathbed. Hearing of Rodger’s death, Lela instinctively tried to make arrangements to preserve his archives. They were never married, so the cops, enforcing the law as they must, wouldn’t let a delegate of hers retrieve so much as a photo of them together.

Trying to do something, anything, soon proved too much a challenge, and she ultimately called off the efforts. She died July 28, less than three weeks after hearing the news of Rodger’s death.

Very few editors are interested anymore to perform the generosity-whiskey-emergency kind of bolstering he required; and sure enough, as the best writing often comes from the end of the rope, we see the non-results daily. But there had been a point early in his life when Rodger Jacobs looked at his life, contemplated alternatives, and said to himself, “I am a writer.” It was a time when Charles Bukowski had dared to live independent of the flaccid publicist machinery, pounding the bars of Wilmington, making it anyway. It was a time when screenwriters were just as happy to ply their trade in carriage houses as to glom their name onto a Hollywood Hills contract. Constantly daring people to be especially hostile towards him in what became an increasingly hostile climate for everyone anyway, Jacobs died having “made it” too. That this is not obvious to many more, that there are so few obits and so little public celebration, only means he died a little early.

Joseph F. Mailander is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, political and cultural reviews, and poetry.

Image: My Street, Max, Creative Commons