Twisp of the Tale

Contained within a care package sent by C.D. Payne is a self-penned press release introducing the author as "the Rodney Dangerfield of comic novelists," complete with a picture of the bug-eyed comedian and his shopworn catchphrase "I can't get no respect." As it turns out, this is the letter Payne sends out with all copies of his novels and plays, which he must mail himself, as he can find no publisher interested in peddling his fiction--this, despite the fact that Payne is father of one of the most beloved and iconic figures of modern literature, at least among some 25,000 readers who have adopted a precocious, if not outright dangerous, 14-year-old boy named Nick Twisp as their sex-addicted, Sinatra-obsessed god. If one needs proof of just how iconic Nick has become, consider that Youth in Revolt, the epic first-person novel "by" and about a boy from Oakland, California, has become a best-seller in the Czech Republic and just this month became a 10-part radio production in Germany. Then, a hero is rarely appreciated in his homeland--be his name Nick Twisp or C.D. Payne.

Payne's press release, which has landed with a thud on the cluttered desks of book reviewers around the country, offers six reasons why he should be paid attention: His first novel, a "500-page whopper" titled Youth in Revolt, sold more than 25,000 copies in two Doubleday editions published in the United States. The same novel, presented in the form of Nick Twisp's diaries, has been published in five other countries; it has been turned into TV pilots for Fox and MTV, staged as a play, and broadcast on German radio; it has spawned countless Web sites and racked up more than a hundred passionately positive reviews on Payne also points out that one of two new novels--Frisco Pigeon Mambo, about booze-swilling, chain-smoking pigeons wreaking havoc in San Francisco--is being turned into an animated feature film by the Farrelly Brothers for 20th Century Fox.

"Yeah, I write about teenagers and pigeons," Payne writes in the release for Frisco Pigeon Mambo and Revolting Youth, the sequel to Youth in Revolt. "No wonder I can't get respect. Anyway, here are the two latest C.D. Payne novels for you to snub."

One can far more easily detect bitterness on the printed page than over the phone: Payne's is a soft voice that barely hints at despair or disappointment, the latter of which piles around him in the form of letters from magazines and agents and publishers that have rejected his work for nearly two decades. The 51-year-old Payne--a man who has held more than two dozen jobs, from advertising copywriter to graphic artist to house remodeler to trailer-park handyman--always thought of himself as a writer even while peddling cordless phones in a catalog for gadgets and gewgaws. The publishing world has always done its best to dissuade Payne of that notion.

Seven years ago, Payne self-published 3,000 hardback editions of Youth in Revolt, which now sell for upward of $100 on the collector's market. It presented the journal entries of a boy who, on the verge of his 14th birthday, had become "morbidly aware of [his] penis." He despised his divorced parents (his mother dated doltish truck drivers and fascistic cops; his dad lived with a 19-year-old bimbette) and had fallen deeply in love-lust with a striking, pseudo-intellectual girl named Sheeni Saunders during a trip to a trailer park. As the novel progressed, Nick wreaked more and more havoc--burning down restaurants in Berkeley, for starters--and adopted myriad personae, including that of a would-be gangster named Francois Dillinger and a black-wigged woman named Carlotta Ulansky, but suffered few consequences. Indeed, the worse his actions became, the closer he got to Sheeni and satisfaction. Nick's were cathartic, comic adventures, the scribblings of a boy determined to land the girl and leave his mark--even if it were nothing but a bombed-out crater.

By the time Payne managed to sell 50 books in small bookshops around his home in California's Bay Area, he had received some five letters from readers who felt compelled to tell the author how much they identified with Nick; if nothing else, the kid did and said that which they could only imagine. It was then that Payne realized his novel, which had been spurned by legit publishers, and his teenage alter-ego, a sort of cross between Bart Simpson and François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel and Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy, were taking hold. In 1995, Doubleday published a hardback copy of the novel and sent the author on a small promotional book tour; the paperback version is in its sixth edition.

"I think the fun thing about Nick is, he doesn't get discouraged by the knocks that life hands him," Payne says. "He's almost like a cartoon character in that respect, and there's very little filtering between his impulses and his actions. He's just always out there, ready to do just about anything, and that's kind of fun to hang around with a character like that. That may be why book editors don't understand Nick. He doesn't fit in the standard mold. Fact is, he could be a real guy, and the thing that sort of amazed me about the reaction of readers is that they do take Nick so seriously and they identify with Nick. The fact that it's skirting the edge of reality doesn't really seem to bother them. They accept Nick as a real person. That came as a real surprise to me.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky