Stranger than fiction
A novelist discusses absurdity and his search for himself

by Jesse Garon

Novelist Mark (The Soloist) Salzman turns his hand to nonfiction with the publication of Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia (Random House, $22.00). Looking back at his teenage years in the 1970s, Salzman tells the story of a white kid from the Connecticut suburbs who decides that he wants to become a kung fu master with an eye for humorous detail and a willingness to be honest -- even when it means talking about such potentially embarrassing details as wearing a baldhead wig to look like David Carradine.

Sitting at one end of the conference table in the meeting room of Random House's LA offices, Salzman explains why he decided, in his early thirties, to look back at his teenage years in print. "One reason I decided to talk about my adolescence now is that I've finally reached an age where I'm no longer embarrassed to talk about these stories," he says. "Now they do seem funny. Through my 20s, there were very few people I could tell some of these things to without blushing." Beyond telling his own story, however, Salzman feels that there's a lesson for all teenagers -- and anyone trying to establish their identity -- in his experiences. "Everyone I speak with agrees that adolescence is the worst time of their lives," he says. "My personal armchair theory on that is, when you're a little kid, you're told to be yourself. That's fine until you hit about 13, when you begin to project yourself into the future as an adult, realize that you'll be in control of your life, and ask yourself, 'What kind of life do I want?' Your parents and teachers have plenty of advice, but a lot of it doesn't feel like it's about you, and the kind of ideas that you come up with, like in my case wanting to be a kung fu master -- my parents' response was, 'Mark, that's not you. You're trying to be someone that you're not.' " [ The Reviews ]

Nevertheless, the teenage Salzman was hooked on the idea of kung fu, and so he began training under Sensei O'Keefe. In his training academy, Sensei would push his students to the limits of their endurance, and then humiliate them or force them to practice until they injured themselves. "He was an incredibly angry, unhappy, bitter guy and the only way he could have any sense of importance in his life was to brutalize his students," Salzman recollects. "I bought into that as a teenager, even though I didn't like it, because I thought it was a test of loyalty. If I could get through this mask of brutality, then I'd finally be his friend and he would teach me all his secrets." That never happened, and when Mark started his first romantic relationship, his formal studies of martial arts ended, though he would later spend two years in China studying martial arts while teaching English (as he relates in his earlier memoir, Iron And Silk, published by Vintage). Although back injuries prevent him from doing most martial arts moves today, he still occasionally does tai chi, which, along with cello playing, forms the core of his meditative technique.

"When you're writing," he explains, "you're thinking back, you're thinking forward, constantly editing in your head, and while it's very beautiful in its own way, you feel sometimes that you want to have an experience right now. Music, martial arts -- you can't be thinking ahead or back when you do those things. You'll make mistakes, or find yourself becoming self-conscious. I find these kinds of activities a complement, a balance to most of everyday life; even a conversation or a relationship involves a lot of mental work." The key to success in these activities, as Salzman puts it, is a willingness to be totally involved in the present moment, to have your mind focused totally on the activity at hand. That's why people who find themselves frustrated by traditional meditation techniques, such as sitting still in contemplation, should not consider themselves spiritual failures; Salzman suggests that they simply haven't found the activity that best suits their temperament.

But Mark Salzman's teenage years didn't revolve entirely around kung fu fighting. In Lost in Place, he recreates evenings spent with his father gazing at the night sky with the family telescope as he talks about his confusion and frustration, trying to make his father understand why Chinese philosophy is so appealing to him. He's also willing to talk about the year he spent between high school and college, where he spent several months doing little more than play jazz cello in the basement and smoke pot in the woods. All these experiences helped him to discover who he really was, he says, even if at the time he felt he wasted three years trying to be an asskicker. "The nice thing about getting older is you realize that what you couldn't predict then is that whatever missteps you take, all of those things are not wasted time. They are not evidence that you are a screwup, and no matter how silly they are, they can help you understand who you are," he says. In the end, he realized that the point was not to study kung fu to be the next Bruce Lee, or to play the cello to be like Yo-Yo Ma, but to find out how to be Mark Salzman.

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