PERSONAL: Born in MN. Education: Received M.A.
CAREER: California State University, San Marcos, currently associate professor of literature and writing. Former dairy farm worker.
AWARDS, HONORS: Recipient of National Endowment for the Arts grant; Associated Writing Programs Award for best novel, 1988, for The Book of Mamie; Milwaukee Magazine fiction award; President's Award for Scholarship and Creative Activity, California State University, 2002.
The Book of Mamie (novel), University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1989.
The Holy Book of the Beard, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.
Too Cool, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1998.
The Altar of the Body, Picador (New York, NY), 2001.
Also author of "The Secret Altar," about The Altar of the Body, in Literary Review, summer, 2002, pp. 709-716.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Working on a set in the Yukon, "The Acts of Triple E."
SIDELIGHTS: "There is much to be admired in Duff Brenna's ambitious first novel. A work of varied textures and unusual richness, it has an energy that catches hold from the very first sentence," wrote New York Times Book Review critic Harry Middleton of The Book of Mamie. The Mamie of the title is a young retarded girl on the run across rural Wisconsin from her physically and sexually abusive father. She meets up with the narrator, fifteen-year-old Christian Foggy, who bonds with her and helps in her flight across the state. With her father, John Beaver, in quick pursuit, Mamie and Christian encounter numerous adventures and misadventures as they both mature during their odyssey.
Middleton went on to describe The Book of Mamie as "a story of lost youth and life lived deeply. And it portrays a transformation that is at once comic and tragic, as the trauma of Mamie's life is peeled away, revealing a young woman of immense complexity and compassion." Middleton concluded that the novel "is a risky, graceful book. Its story is told in language that is lean and unpretentious, a language forged out of the hard landscape of the rural Middle West." A Kirkus Reviews critic described the book as "an intelligent, lively picaresque coming-of-age tale about a backwoods adolescent who travels with a sort of idiot savant who has the strength and vitality of a folk-tale hero." The reviewer added that the novel "survives some bagginess and dull spots to succeed as a sort of modern folk tale." A Publishers Weekly reviewer perceived similar elements, stating that "this picaresque yarn has the exuberance and broad humor of a folk tale."
Brenna's second novel, The Holy Book of the Beard, focuses on Jasper John, a man in his early twenties who arrives in East San Diego from Colorado in search of a new life. He obtains work as a busboy at Fat Stanley's Diner and there meets a cast of unusual characters whose lives, relationships, and escapades comprise the novel's action. A Publishers Weekly reviewer described the book as "alternately sad, funny, grotesque and sexy," adding, "Vivid characters, rich dialogue and spellbinding narrative make this odd mix of tragedy, myth and ribaldry memorable and often moving." New York Times Book Review writer Nicholas Birns wrote, The Holy Book of the Beard "is a showcase for the raffish, the down-and-out and the free-spirited." While acknowledging some plot flaws, Birns nevertheless found that the book "should not be underestimated. Loaded with all the ingredients of an underground classic, engrossing and uproarious, it is nearly impossible to put down…. Most important, though, Mr. Brenna writes with an honesty and vigor that make his characters and his vision matter."
Readers meet sixteen-year-old Triple E, the main character of Too Cool, escaping to Colorado in a stolen Oldsmobile after breaking out of Goodpastures Correctional Facility. His passengers include his girlfriend Jeanne, fourteen-year-old cousin Ava, and Ava's boyfriend Tom. With the police in pursuit, Triple E stalls the car in a snow bank on an unplowed road in an attempt to avoid a roadblock. As the story continues, it shifts between his current predicament and the events that led Triple E to this moment. Richard Bernstein explained in the New York Times, "As Triple E struggles to find a way for him and Jeanne to survive, his memories come in new-hallucinatory form. The idea here is for the boy-man to face the explosive rage, the death wish, the primitive urgings and the craving for love that brought him face to face with death." A reviewer for Booklist described Brenna's characters as "both rough-talking and deeply philosophical," and wrote that their "only desire is to be free to be themselves." Bernstein concluded, "What especially characterizes Too Cool is not just compassion but the honed intelligence of a skilled writer who has brilliantly evoked the airtight, impenetrable inner logic of youth determined at all cost to find its own way."
On the Web site Bold Type, Brenna explains that the first chapter of Too Cool "is a fictionalized version of the time three friends and I went west in a stolen car." He was only fifteen at the time. He ended up in jail and was confined there even after his friends were released. Officials referred to him as being "incorrigible and mentally ill." "Everybody believed this to be true. Even I believed it," he says. But he refused to talk to anyone about it. So they locked him in solitary confinement for two months, hoping that he would be more willing to seek help afterward. He wasn't, but was finally released into the custody of relatives in Minnesota, who put him "to work on a dairy farm, which was the best thing that could have happened to me."
Published in 2001, The Altar of the Body is a book Andrew Roe for the New York Times referred to as a novel of "unyielding melancholy." Although the novel is filled with the problems of alcoholism, abandonment, dementia, sexual abduction, and others, Roe concluded his review on a positive note by calling Brenna's fourth novel "a moving meditation on the dissipation of youth and our raw need for intimacy and love."
The main character in The Altar of the Body, George McLeod, has isolated himself from other people since the death of his mother. However, he is soon visited by a rowdy, needy group of people, who begin to fill his life. There is his childhood friend and cousin, Mike Routelli, who now calls himself Buck Root. Buck is a body builder bulked up on steroids. Joy, his girlfriend, and Joy's mother, Livia, who suffers from Alzheimer's, completes the quartet. The contrast between the two male characters, George who is withdrawn but has remained true to his own nature and has pursued intellectual challenges, and Mike, who wants to look good no matter what the cost to his health, establishes the main theme of this story. Bonnie Johnston for Booklist defined this theme as an "examination of the obsession with youth and looks," as Buck will do anything to look good and George could care less about his physical appearance. Meanwhile Livia's lack of good health reawakens George's lust to live more fully. Bookreporter.com reviewer Becky Ohlsen, referred to this novel as a "war of the body versus the mind," a war in which "there can be no winner." Ohlsen found that the strength of Brenna's novel was in the fact that he could create such larger-than-life characters, then slowly expose their inner layers, "making them real and complex and utterly moving."
In an article for the Literary Review, Brenna exposes some of the personal details that enhanced his writing of The Secret Altar. He wrote: "When my mother went through the process of losing her mind and becoming the shell who ultimately died a wretched, undignified death, it was writing that gave me a means to endure." Brenna's mother died of Alzheimer's disease, the same disease that his character Livia suffers from in the novel. His role of writer helped him to accept his mother's death as well as the realization that there were many issues between him and his mother that would never be resolved. Writing gave him the ability, as he put it, to "keep one portion aside to observe what is happening and how everyone is behaving and how you feel about it." It allowed him to take a more objective stance instead of totally losing himself to his emotions. He also added that he hoped, if in some way his mother is "able to know things in that unknown world," that she will realize that what he's written in this novel is actually "an act of belated love."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 1998, p. 1720; August, 2001, Bonnie Johnston, review of The Altar of the Body, p. 2083.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1989, p. 1419; June 15, 1998, p. 826.
Literary Review, summer, 2002, Duff Brenna, "The Secret Altar."
New York Times, July 27, 1998, Richard Bernstein, review of Too Cool, p. E4; September 23, 2001, Andrew Roe, review of The Altar of the Body, p. 24.
New York Times Book Review, January 7, 1990, p. 12; March 17, 1996, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, September 29, 1989, p. 59; January 1, 1996, p. 56.
West Coast Review of Books, March/April, 1990, p. 31.
Bold Type, http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/ (March 4, 2003), Duff Brenna, "Author Notebook, From Car Thief to Author: A Journey."
Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (March 4, 2003), Becky Ohlsen, review of The Altar of the Body.*