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Traveler's Tales 

Terry Tarnoff captivates with stories of his crazy trips, true and otherwise

Wednesday, Oct 13 2004
"In 1971, fed up with the politics and culture of America," reads the jacket copy to Terry Tarnoff's new novel, The Bone Man of Benares, "Terry Tarnoff packed a bag, a guitar and sixteen harmonicas and headed out on an eight year journey that would take him into the jungles of Africa, the mountains of India and beyond." He did, in other words, what hundreds of other people from the United States and Europe did in those days, and still do now, only he did it for eight years. Now he's written not just a semifictional book about the -- voyage? hiatus? homeless career? -- but also a play, which Encore Theatre Company has mounted at Thick House as a one-man show starring Ron Campbell.

Campbell plays "Terry" in a loose striped shirt that looks faded from too much harsh soap in too many Third World villages. The piece starts in a Bangkok hotel. "I hadn't been in an elevator in two or three years," he says, and before long he's lying on the floor of a room, paralytic from a gift of 90 percent pure China White heroin. "OK, I did --," says Terry, showing off some of the hard traveler's vanity that bleeds through Tarnoff's writing. "I tried the local stuff an hour after arriving in Bangkok." The story of how he wound up in such blissfully wretched shape can't be told in Bangkok, though. It starts three years earlier in Sweden, where Terry has fallen for a woman named Annika.

He lives like a vagrant in Sweden, sleeping in parking lots in his underheated Volkswagen bus. During a 22-below winter, to warm up, he pays morning visits to the forced-air hand dryers in a public men's room. Annika is his tall, blond reason for suffering. He persuades her to join him for a cruise in Greece, where it's warm, but the affair falls predictably apart ("You're looking for something but you don't know what!" she says), and he moves on, in a daze, to Kenya and India. In Kenya he rents a house for nine bucks a month from a stoned Brit named Pete, joins a blues band in Mombasa, and has bad encounters with insects of various kinds. When Pete leaves unexpectedly for India, Terry decides to head in the same direction, and on the banks of the Ganges, like any self-respecting hippie, he has a religious epiphany.

The charm of The Bone Man of Benares is Campbell's great talent for shape-shifting. He plays not just Terry, but also every character Terry meets, with a magnetic intensity. Pete the stoned Brit may be the funniest member of this rogues' gallery; whenever Terry asks a dumb question -- "Is there a flush toilet?" -- Pete gives a sycophantic laugh and says, concedingly, "Noice one." But Campbell does just as well as a mosquito, a gang of ants, and the mysterious Bone Man of the title. Terry himself is straggle-haired, barefoot, and exuberant; Campbell seems to play him by drawing on giddy memories of being so footloose and young.

You may remember Campbell as Buckminster Fuller, from last year's runaway hit Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe. In Bone Man he stretches a different set of muscles. There isn't a hint of Fuller's nerdiness in any of Tarnoff's characters, though Campbell handles them all with energy and style. The actor is good at setting a mood, too: Using movement and facial expression he communicates the dead cold of Sweden, the sluggishness of a heroin jag, or the nightmare of a Kenyan outhouse full of roaches. Christopher Studley's lights also help with mood-setting; they evoke everything from putrid cremation smoke to a swinging overhead fan.

There's one problem. A detail at the intense and spooky climax of the show stamps the whole thing as a work of fiction. While Terry sits by the Ganges at night, smoking a chillum pipe with lepers and holy men, he accidentally pulls off a leper's finger. It makes for a beautifully atmospheric and very funny scene, but it also belongs to biblical legends and wives' tales and sensational novels. That's because leprosy's not a rotting disease: It's an infection. It may kill nerves, so lepers can't feel cuts or burns, and little injuries may get infected and disgusting, flesh might grow bubbly with pus or even ragged with gangrene. But fingers and limbs, as a rule, don't loosen like wet bread and fall off. That's an age-old superstition, and it marks The Bone Man of Benares -- at the very moment you want to believe it's all true, at the incredible peak where Campbell and Tarnoff really have the whole audience going -- as an aromatic, if entertaining, traveler's tale.


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