Local author Jervey Tervalon takes a look into fame’s dark side with his new novel ‘Monster’s Chef’
By Carl Kozlowski 06/11/2014
Celebrities always held a strange fascination for Jervey Tervalon. A rising star on the literary scene in his own right, Tervalon has seen plenty of famous faces and dramatic moments. But it wasn’t until his fifth and current novel, “Monster’s Chef,” that he decided to take a look at the mysterious worlds behind the public images of the Hollywood elite.
Specifically, “Monster’s Chef” draws daring parallels to the creepier aspects of the late Michael Jackson’s world, the side that involved the pop music legend’s close friendships with young boys. The story is told through the eyes of Gibson, a successful chef who loses his restaurant while mired in a drug habit, then is offered the chance to become the personal cook for a music superstar named Monster.
Once he takes the job because the money is too good to turn down, Gibson finds he has to sign a confidentiality agreement. He also finds that the pop star’s gardener is warning him to stay inside at night and act as if he sees and hears nothing evil on the grounds if he wants to stay alive. But then, one night Gibson goes out for a walk in the compound’s woods and stumbles across a dead body, kicking off a string of desperate events.
“I’m interested in Michael Jackson as a phenomenon, not as who he is, but what he represents,” says Tervalon, 55, who also is the literary director of LitFest Pasadena and teaches at the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. “The whole idea of the mutability of his body, his interest in reshaping himself before our eyes … I had a couple panels on him at Cal State LA, looking at him as an art object.
“There are other artists who treated their bodies as an art project too,” Tervalon continues. “One woman from the Middle East said if not for Michael, she would have killed herself and that he was just like Jesus and Gandhi,” he said. “We were terrified,” he said of the overzealous woman. “There’s no cultural mores. Michael’s not African-American or even American, and he became a universal sign of achievement. He accomplished his goal to obliterate his origins.”
“Monster’s Chef” is the first thriller Tervalon has written, in keeping with his goal of never writing the same style twice. He grew up as a self-described “black nerd,” enjoying the works of famous science-fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Tolkien before discovering the writing of “macho” writers including Ernest Hemingway while in college.
He found success right off the bat, selling a poem to a magazine called Scope for $15 when he was in junior high. Despite the fact it took him another 15 years to sell his work as a writer, he was hooked on the thrill of writing as a career.
“It was like a tease, like giving you free drugs to get you started,” says Tervalon. “I ended up studying with a guy named Marvin Mudrick at UCSB who was like a literary Mel Brooks, very funny. He was a very serious critic, but he made literature seem like something one needed to be doing. He was raised in Philadelphia, so he could understand my stories about South Central and gangs.”
Tervalon’s first novel was indeed about life in the mean streets of Los Angeles, as “Understand This” focused on a teen who sees his cousin murdered and falls into a deep depression. The nascent author told the story from multiple points of view, a technique he found appealing in William Faulkner’s classic novel “As I Lay Dying,” and the end result earned him a cover story on the Los Angeles Times Book Review and a “nice blurb” from famed African-American scholar and writer Henry Louis Gates.
“I was on my way,” recalls Tervalon. “I just didn’t know the next one would be hard as hell to sell.”
Tervalon doesn’t have to be worried anymore about his books being published. He has found that taking different approaches each time has become an invaluable calling card, and has noticed a surge in interest already surrounding “Monster’s Chef,” as the word spreads about its controversial subject matter.
“The literary world is a very strange world, and there are levels of what people consider to be serious kinds of literariness and that’s in terms of boring workshop fiction that’s self-reflection and therapy. I come from the working class and nobody went to therapy. There’s this whole thing my mother would refer to as ‘poor, poor me.’
”So I get these reviews on Amazon and I shouldn’t pay attention and there’s this condescension,” he continues, implying that Michael Jackson’s defenders are purposely writing derogatory reviews to stand up for Jackson’s legacy. “There’s a racial solidarity defending him. I ignore it because it’s ludicrous. Obama was first called ‘too black’ and now he’s not black enough. The world is getting very complex and you have to approach racial identity with an open mind.”
Jervey Tervalon will discuss and sign his book “Monster’s Chef” Friday, June 20, at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Admission is free. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromans.com.