Is a monster still a monster if it knows it’s a monster? Stand-up comedian Sam Tallent has fashioned a golem-like creature called Billy Ray Shafer and set him on an anti-hero’s odyssey into a hell entirely of his own making in Running the Light (independently published), a book that is sometimes so funny it hurts. Along the way I cringed every time Billy Ray blew yet another opportunity to save himself, but I never gave up on the man, no matter how low he sank. How Tallent tricked me into rooting for this trainwreck is a mystery I’m happy to leave unsolved.
We ride in rental cars with Billy Ray for a miserable week of shows at hotel bars, fraternal lodges, and uncategorizable function halls throughout the southwest. Time offstage is spent searching for cocaine, booze, or whatever oblivion is closest at hand. Billy Ray is obliterating his glorious past: appearances on Johnny Carson, Hollywood deals, the wife who loved him, money, success, and adulation. In his chemically-aided reveries he returns to those peaks, only to be startled awake by homeless men prodding him where he passed out bloody-faced in an alley or by teenagers laughing at his fat naked body as he cleans himself up in a public park pond. All Billy Ray has are his memories and the desperate desire to blot out his day-to-day.
Tallent evokes transitory road dog reality like someone who’s lived it. As a longtime stand-up he clearly knows this world. The question of whether a dinosaur like Billy Ray has a place in today’s more cautious and inclusive environment is left open. Billy Ray rues the fact he can’t do off-color material like in the old days. He thinks comedians can no longer take chances. When Billy Ray hangs out with his old pal Norm MacDonald their chatter is peppered with dated gay jokes. But they don’t tell these jokes onstage. They know better, but can’t help themselves behind closed doors.
After reminiscing with Norm, Billy Ray is inspired to set his life right one last time. He has dinner with the son he hasn’t seen in three years and visits the ex-wife he’s never gotten over. It’s a Hail Mary but shows the man still has glimmers of hope. No matter how much chaos he wreaks, Billy Ray still believes he can be saved. But should he be?
Our culture’s reckoning over toxic masculinity is aimed directly at the Billy Rays of the world. It’s a testament to Tallent’s skill as a storyteller that I empathized so much with a character who’s so flawed. Empathy doesn’t mean endorsing the man’s actions. That’s one of the key things that separates art from policy-making. A portrait of an ugly man can be valuable without approving his actions in the slightest. What art has to do is feel real, and Billy Ray Shafer is rendered in hi-def despite being a figment of Sam Tallent’s imagination.
The alcoholic, drug-addled dumpster fire creeping from town to town, redeemed only by his hour on a mike telling unvarnished truths, can be a tired trope. Tallent is self-aware enough to namecheck Sam Kinison and dozens of lesser known practitioners of this kind of debauchery. He places his doomed hero among real people in true-life locales seamlessly. What saves Billy Ray’s self-indulgent wallowing from so much crocodile tears are the moments when he can admit to himself that no one else is responsible for his multitude failures. By the time we meet him, his attempts to drown his sorrows with booze, coke, and anonymous sex seem rote. He’s just going through the motions because he’s forgotten any other way to be. He wants to change but doesn’t know how.
It’s for the best that Billy Ray represents a dying species. Men who abuse their loved ones and everyone else who comes into their orbit and explain their narcissism away as artistic temperament deserve to be left out in the cold. But I couldn’t stop reading about Billy Ray. He’s a monster but a sad, funny one. His miseries are outsized and profane, but even the most virtuous reader will find something of themself in this man’s struggles. No matter how outlandish his transgressions or how twisted his logic, Billy Ray is a living, breathing human being. He’s bad, but he’s one of us. v