Tristan Egolf, 33; Writer Published His First Novel at Age 27 and Was Compared by Some to Faulkner
Tristan Egolf, an author whose first novel -- published at age 27 -- moved some reviewers to compare his writing style to William Faulkner’s, was found dead Saturday in an apartment in Lancaster, Pa. He was 33.
Egolf’s death by shotgun has been ruled a suicide, Lancaster police confirmed Thursday.
Michael Hoober, a family therapist in Lancaster who described himself as Egolf’s best friend, said the writer had shown signs of depression over the last 18 months, but he had always managed to pull out of it.
“He pushed the envelope wherever he went,” Hoober told The Times. “His creativity was always right in front of him, but somewhere in there it started to fall apart.”
Egolf’s debut work, “Lord of the Barnyard,” came out in 1998 to mixed reviews -- the New York Times called it “interesting and exciting without quite managing to be good” and Publishers Weekly called it “a wild ride of a book.” But the story behind its publication was almost as fantastical as the dense tale he wove about the misadventures of a dysfunctional farm boy.
After 76 publishers had rejected the novel, Egolf was playing guitar for money on a bridge in Paris when a young woman noticed his cold, sockless feet and invited him for coffee. Her father happened to be a prize-winning author, Patrick Modiano, who took Egolf’s book to his French publishing house, which agreed to publish it.
Judy Hottensen, vice president of marketing and publicity for Grove/Atlantic, which published his first two novels in the United States, called Egolf’s death “a shame and a tragedy” for the literary world.
“It was very, very early for him ... and he had many, many more books coming,” Hottensen said. A second novel, a frenetic love story called “Skirt and the Fiddle,” was published in 2002, and a third work, “Kornwolf,” is scheduled to be published next year.
The author was better known in Lancaster, however, as a member of the Smoketown Six, a group of antiwar protesters who caused a stir when they stripped to thong underwear during a July 2004 campaign stop in Smoketown, Pa., by President Bush. The six young men were re-enacting the infamous photo of a human pyramid of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
They were arrested for disorderly conduct, but the charges were later dropped. Five of the six, including Egolf, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit asserting that their right to free speech had been violated by the arrest. The suit will continue, said Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney for the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union.
Egolf, ever the activist, railed against living in “one of the most conservative areas of the nation,” Hoober said. Egolf participated in anti-Columbus Day rallies, burned an effigy of the president and, with Hoober, set up a digital literary publication, www.windmillsonline.us, and a radio station, www.windmillsradio.com.
“Tristan blew through life with an energy to change stuff,” Hoober said. “He jumped deeply into friendships and things that mattered to him.”
Born near Madrid in 1971, Egolf spent his early years moving frequently with his mother and his father, who was a traveling correspondent for the National Review. After his parents divorced when he was 12, he moved with his mother, a painter, and his stepfather, a bicycle explorer, to Washington, D.C., and then Louisville, Ky.
From 11 to 18, he spent long summer stretches visiting the family of his father, who died when Egolf was a youth, in a southern Indiana town near the Kentucky border. A fictionalized version of the community would show up as the unpleasant burg at the center of “Lord of the Barnyard,” a 410-page book with no dialogue.
After graduating from high school in 1990, Egolf dropped out of Temple University after two semesters, saying that “reading and teaching myself has always worked better.” He fronted a punk band before heading to Europe, afraid the success of the band would keep him from writing. He also thought that it would be easier to make a living as a street musician overseas.
Egolf is survived by a daughter; his mother and stepfather, Gary and Paula Egolf; and a sister, Gretchen Egolf, an actress.
The memorial service will be private, but the family will have a public service later, Hoober said.