Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Rushdie Rocks

His life, his exile, and his rock-and-roll novel

By Peter Kadzis

MAY 10, 1999:  As a young man, Salman Rushdie considered becoming an actor. But he stayed true to a more primal ambition and became a writer. Today the world is his stage, and -- although he may have wished otherwise -- he has become perhaps the most famous writer in the world. That distinction was thrust upon him 10 years ago, when the Iranian government placed a bounty -- a fatwa -- on his head after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses.

Although some Islamic fundamentalist groups would still like to see him dead, the Iranian government backed away from its fatwa last fall. In the wake of that decision, life for Rushdie has become more relaxed, yet hardly casual. He still travels with armed guards. But even though his movements are still cloaked in a degree of secrecy, he moves more freely than he has in years.

In recent weeks Rushdie has indeed been on the move, publicizing his most recent novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which was simultaneously published in 12 nations -- an act of creative (not to mention commercial) affirmation that clearly pleases Rushdie.

Even for this most protean of talents, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a startling and sprawling novel. To simplify: it is a rock-and-roll story. To amplify: it is a retelling of the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. To sum up: its ambition is epic.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the story comes from Publishers Weekly: "Ormus Cama, a supernaturally gifted musician, and his beloved, Vina Apsara, a half-Indian woman with a soul-thrilling voice, meet in Bombay in the late '50s, discover rock and roll, and form a band that goes on to become the world's most popular musical act. Narrator Rai Merchant, their lifelong friend, is a world-famous photographer and Vina's 'back-door man.' Rai tells the story of their great abiding love (both are named for love gods: Cama as in Kama Sutra, and Vina for Venus)."

Rushdie's fame as a controversialist is, as he explains below, unwarranted and unwelcome. Before the publication of The Satanic Verses, he already enjoyed an international reputation as the man who, said the New York Times, "redrew the literary map of India" with the publication of his 1981 novel Midnight's Children.

Before Rushdie, the tone of Anglo-Indian literature was decidedly cool. There was, for example, the sensitive reserve of E.M. Forster and the stiff upper lip of Rudyard Kipling. Rushdie's prose is more pungent, his range of reference more polyglot, and his world-view playful to the point of daring.

Although I suspect that Rushdie -- who exhibits a sort of muscular diffidence -- might shiver at the suggestion, he comes as close as anyone in public life to matching Hemingway's ideal of courage: grace under pressure.

Q: Let's talk first about growing up in Bombay. In Midnight's Children, you wrote, if I recall the line correctly, that you were "floating in the amniotic fluid of the past."

A: The thing to say about the Bombay of the 1950s and the 1960s is that it was a very different place than the city that now exists. I suppose it's true that, to a certain extent, there's a kind of golden glow of childhood about it in my memory. But it's also the case that the people who were of an older generation thought of that city as going through a particularly beautiful and sort of memorable phase. It does seem to have been Bombay's great moment. How to describe it? I mean, as a child, it was a very exciting town to grow up in. It was a very cosmopolitan town, much more so than most other Indian towns. Like any great city, it acted as a magnet, and so people came to Bombay from all over India. It had a greater diversity of Indians than other Indian cities. And it was the commercial center, so it attracted a large population of non-Indians. When I grew up, the kids I played with were by no means all Indian kids. They were American kids, Australian, Japanese, Europeans, and so on. It felt like a very cosmopolitan, big-city upbringing.

Q: So you were multicultural before your time?

A: Well, we all were. I think this idea of a separation of cultures between the East and the West was certainly never the idea I grew up with. They were all mixed in together from the beginning.

Q: Your parents were Muslims. Was your family religious?

A: Not really, as far as I can remember. I think that's one reason why, although it was technically an Indian-Muslim family, my parents -- at the independence of India and at the division of India into India and Pakistan -- never considered going to Pakistan. They certainly felt more like Indians than Muslims. And my father's family was an old Delhi family from the old Muslim neighborhoods of Old Delhi, and that's where my parents lived when they first got married. They decided to move to Bombay about nine months before I was born, I guess. They, like many other people, were nervous about the trouble that everybody could see coming at the partition. And my father felt that Bombay would be a safer place. Bombay has always had -- until recently, anyway -- a reputation of being a more tolerant environment than the rest of India. So they moved to Bombay to get out of the firing line. When the terrible events of the partition happened, the riots and the massacres and so on, almost nothing happened in Bombay. And so they stayed there, and that's where I was born and raised.

Q: Can you recall your extended family?

A: I can't remember my father's father, who died before I was born, but he was, by all accounts, one of my few literary antecedents, in that he was an essayist and a patron of young writers and so on -- and he also made a fortune, which my father then spent most of his life losing.

Q: How about your mother's father?

A: Yes, my mother's father I remember very well. He was a huge figure in my childhood. Unlike my parents, he was really quite a religious man. He was a practicing Muslim. He said his prayers five times a day. He performed the pilgrimage to Mecca. But at the same time, he was one of the most tolerant and open-minded men I've ever known. For myself, my sisters, my many cousins, he was a huge figure in all our lives because he loved children and was never happier than when he was amongst us.

Q: How did his wonder manifest itself?

A: I remember -- not when I was a very small child, but when I was more grown up -- we would needle him by claiming not to believe in God and so on. You'd say, in your 10- or 11-year-old self, "I don't believe in God, Granddad." And he'd say, "Oh really? Come and sit down here and tell me all about it." And so you'd sit down next to him and he would very seriously listen and probe as you offered your 11-year-old reasons for not believing in God. And then, instead of contradicting you, he'd say, "Yes, well, that's a lot to think about, I think you've given me a lot to think about, I'll have to think about it." And then, a couple of days later, he'd come back and he'd say, "I just did have a couple of thoughts about what you were saying, and let me just talk to you about them." And he'd then offer you, in a very gentle way, his rebuttals to your childish atheism. And when you'd say, "No, no, Granddad, that's just complete nonsense, it's completely wrong," he'd say, "Yes, well, you're probably right, but I just think we should go on talking about it." So certainly, the atmosphere around him was that anything could be said, anything could be discussed, and that's how we all grew up.

Q: What was the first rock-and-roll record you ever bought?

A: Oh, I think Heartbreak Hotel. It was very difficult in India in those days to buy rock-and-roll records, because they were not locally produced. You had to rely on occasional imports and then run to the record shop when the bush telegraph told you that there were some there. And these were old-style 78 rpm discs that I'm talking about -- fragile, you know? They were often damaged in transit or scratched because they were secondhand and being sold off by somebody whose family was going home. So it wasn't easy to come by these things. There was a particular record store in Bombay, called Rhythm House, which used to occasionally have these imports.

Q: Did you listen to rock and roll on the radio?

A: Yes, but not, oddly, on Indian radio, which was state controlled and didn't permit the playing of Western music. I think in that post-colonial moment, it was thought to be culturally unsound. Radio Ceylon, as it was then called -- it's Sri Lanka now -- had a rather more tolerant policy, and, yes, at the weekends, it would play a few hours of a Western hit-parade kind of program. That's where we first heard a lot of these songs. But also, because the city was so international, we had access. I often heard this music in my friends' houses, listening to their records. It wasn't easy for that music to arrive, given these constraints. And yet it did arrive, and we all heard. So, in a way, it became the first globalized cultural phenomenon.

Q: As a former colonial, what was it like going to Rugby and Cambridge? Was it a tough transition?

A: Rugby was tough. Cambridge I had a very good time at, but coming to Rugby was really quite brutal. I was not quite 14 and taken aback to be made to feel like a foreigner, which, until that point, I had never thought of myself as. I did experience certain amounts of racial discrimination -- not from the staff, from some of the other boys. And that was shocking and depressing. And so I remember my school days as not being particularly happy. I was bad at games. I think it was the triple whammy: foreign, clever, bad at games. [Laughs] I think if I'd been any two of those three, I might have been able to get away with it. Foreign, clever, good at games -- that would have been all right. I mean, there were some boys there with Indian or Pakistani or, indeed, African backgrounds, but who were excellent sportsmen, and they seemed to have a perfectly nice time at school.

Q: How was Cambridge different?

A: Well, for a start, there were girls. That helped. But also, I didn't feel any oppression. I didn't feel any racism aimed toward me. I didn't feel excluded. And then, also, I was at Cambridge at quite a good time to be young. I went there in 1965 and graduated in 1968 and, you know, of all the years in the last 50 years to have been at university, those were probably the years.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

A: I did, really. My parents tell me that when I was 10 years old, I would say that I wanted to be a writer. Now, obviously, at the age of 10, I didn't know what that meant. All it meant, I suspect, is that I liked being a reader and therefore wanted to be a part of that world which made those things that I liked to read. I did for a time wonder if I might be able to be an actor. I did a lot of theatricals at university, and some after leaving, and then decided (a) that I wasn't good enough and (b) that, anyway, I wanted to write more than I wanted to act. But I still have an unscratched itch about acting. I think I'd be a better actor now than I was then. So maybe I can have a late career, like Gore Vidal.

Q: What's your sense of nationality?

A: I was born as an Indian citizen, and the only passports I've ever held are Indian and British. In England now, there are probably getting on two million people with Indian or Pakistani origins, either first-generation immigrants like myself or their children. Indeed, by now, their grandchildren. And I think in that group, in which I would include myself, the sense of identity is plural. They're described in Britain as British-Asians, and that's a description which is completely unproblematic to me. I mean, I think one of the facts of the contemporary world is that people have plural identities. African-American, British-Asian: these are perfectly comprehensible terms.

Q: Your work balances alienation and pluralism. Which do you think is stronger? The impulse toward alienation or toward pluralism?

A: You mean in general?

Q: In general or regarding yourself.

A: Regarding myself, it depends on my mood. [Laughs] But I think actually there are certain things about me that just inescapably, 100 percent, will always be Indian. That's to say, that's what I racially and ethnically am. And yet, much of my life has been spent away from India. And certainly at this moment, having spent a great deal of my life trying to understand and write about the world from which I came originally, I find myself turning away from that, feeling that I've done enough, if you like, or enough for the moment -- and I find myself more and more interested in the world to which I came, about which I first wrote in The Satanic Verses. That's the aspect of The Satanic Verses that really got blotted out by the storm that surrounded that book.

Q: One critic pointed out that The Satanic Verses is a book in which a novelist named Salman moves not only westward, but also increasingly inward, searching for yet another way to describe a world that is increasingly connected, but in no way yet whole.

A: It's not at all a bad description of the way that I felt at the time that I wrote The Satanic Verses. I felt that I'd written one novel, broadly speaking, about India [Midnight's Children] and one novel, broadly speaking, about a kind of version of Pakistan [Shame, published in 1983], and I thought it was time that my writing made the same movement that I'd made -- that's to say, migrate into the West. And I felt, first of all, that I wanted to write a novel about the act of migration and, secondly, a novel about the internal effect of migration. It's so ridiculous in light of what happened, but I did think about The Satanic Verses that it was the least political novel I'd ever written. I thought it was a novel of introspection and a novel which tried to make sense of the kind of life experience that people like me had had. And then, boom. It turned into the most public novel I'd ever written.

Q: In a time when so many people seem to doubt the potency of literature, did this experience scare you? What was it like to find out that fiction could matter so much?

A: Well, of course, it was an extraordinary discovery that it should be my book that ended up mattering so much. Particularly when it was written as an introspective book, not as a book designed to shake the world. I suppose Uncle Tom's Cabin was designed to have a certain public impact and did have it. But in this case, it really caught me unawares. But I do think that, as somebody once said, you can judge the importance of literature by the apparatus that tyrants set up to repress it. And the more repressive the society that exists in the world, the more tightly literature is censored and the more danger writers are in. I was in the unusual position of living in a free country and being attacked across the world from a much more censorious and closed society, but it happens to writers around the world all the time. And in that sense, what happened to me is not unusual at all.

Q: What did it feel like when you found out that The Satanic Verses was being burned in England?

A: Well, all I can say is, it was the most shocking moment of my life. And I think the moment when I actually saw television images and, afterwards, photographs of my book being burned was the moment that engendered in me the kind of fury that I can't remember otherwise feeling. This was, after all, a month before Khomeini imposed the fatwa. And in that month, what I did was to more or less go on the warpath and try to make sure that this act was seen as -- I can't think of a word other than barbaric. I also wanted to make sure that I was fighting this with all my strength. And then, a month later, there was the escalation from Iran, which changed the argument again.

Q: Artists and performers long for fame. What's your reaction to being perhaps the most famous writer in the world?

A: Well, I don't know. The main reaction is one of disappointment. It's a terrible thing to be famous for the wrong thing. I'd always hoped that people would respond to and like my work, and that's all I'd ever wanted, really -- to write books that did well and that were well thought of. I'd begun to do that with Midnight's Children and Shame. It's easy to overlook this now, but they were books which had quite a considerable international reputation. The road I was going along was the only life I'd ever wanted, and I was delighted that I was beginning to have it. And to have this other reputation hasn't at all been beneficial to me as a writer. I think in many ways, for people who didn't know my writing or don't know my writing, it's often been something that put them off because they felt that this dark, theological cloud that descended over my work must in some way be representative of the work itself. And, I think, it made them think I must be an arcane writer, with these dark, theological inclinations. And I think it made a lot of people less likely to pick up a book by me as well as, of course, making some people more likely, even if only out of curiosity.

Q: How much energy did it take to keep going in those days?

A: It took a lot. It was terribly bewildering. I had to find my feet again. I had to learn how to fight back. I had to find the strength to get back to writing, and I had to then set about the task of going on being a writer in fairly difficult circumstances. But you discover things about yourself under extreme pressure, and I guess one of the things I discovered about myself was that I was able to find that equilibrium again, and I was able to find ways of fighting back, and I was able to go on with my work. So I guess I'm tougher than I thought.

Q: Did this experience change your concept of liberty or your feeling toward freedom?

A: Well, it made me think a lot more about it. I think one of the things about living in a free society -- which, broadly speaking, I've done all my life, first in India and then in England -- is that you don't have to examine the idea of freedom too much because it's simply there. You've got it, you don't need to make great speeches about it because you already have it, and it would seem unnecessary to bang on about the importance of free speech when everybody has free speech. I guess what happened in my case is that somebody tried to turn off the tap. Somebody tried to deprive me of those basic freedoms and, as a result, drew my attention to the importance of them -- not just the importance, but the importance of articulating the case for these fundamental freedoms. I became much more involved in that battle than I ever had been before. I mean, one is always asked to sign things. I'd probably sign my share of petitions on behalf of this or that. But it suddenly became to me, for obvious reasons, a very central issue of my life, and I think it will remain so even though the bad days have come to an end.

Q: Why a rock-and-roll novel? You've said rock is a universal, an international language?

A: Yeah, that had something to do with it, but that wasn't the starting point. I mean, that was one of the valuable things about rock and roll. It meant that there was a language of cultural reference that I could use which people all around the world would easily get, just in the same way that people once might have got a range of classical or mythological reference. Rock is the mythology of our time. It was interesting to contrast it in the novel with that older mythology, which now requires more explanation than it used to. I wanted to write about rock and roll partly because it's the music of my life. When I was young, it was young. We've more or less grown up and grown old together. It feels as if rock music is the soundtrack of my life. As if I could associate all kinds of moments in my life with songs, and songs would evoke memories that otherwise might have been lost.

Q: Could you sketch that soundtrack?

A: Well, I suppose it starts with Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley -- all that takes me right back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, even before I'd come to England. Many of those songs can evoke moments of my childhood. Then I came to England at the time when the music was in the process of transforming into what became the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And that music, the music of the Beatles and the Stones and the other bands, that period seems to have been the background to most of my teenage years. Bob Dylan was very, very important for me. I remember one of the boys at Rugby, in the boarding house where I lived, first introducing me to an early Bob Dylan album. And actually, I have to say, at that time, he made a bigger impression on me than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. I'd never heard this noise before, you know, the nasal intonation, the strange phrasing, the -- oh, you know, the harmonica, the extraordinary surrealism of his lyrics. And I became a Dylan fan at that point, and I have never ceased to be one. So yes, it was very important.

Then what I've always considered to be my political awakening was the protest against the war in Vietnam, which took place in England because the British government so strongly supported the American presence in Vietnam, even though no actual troops were sent. That protest seemed also to be very closely wrapped up with the music. Traditionally the music of war is there in order to instill, in soldiers and civilians, patriotic feelings. But this was music which was much more -- I'd say, much more dissident than that. And music which was simply affirming love during a time of death.

Q: The Ground Beneath Her Feet, for all its range of reference and mythological underpinnings, is a very American novel.

A: The country that has mattered the most to me with this book has been the US. It should be well received here, and I'm happy to say that it has been, if only because it's my first American novel. I mean, not just because a lot of it happens in America, but because rock and roll is a thing that came from America. And so one of the things that I was writing about was how the rest of the world has responded to American culture, and how America has responded to the rest of the world. That's one of the kind of -- the under-themes of this novel.

Q: It seems like a logical step in your westward progression that we alluded to earlier. If I were to try to boil 575 pages down to a sentence, it would be this: you can kill the musician, but you can't kill the music.

A: Yes. I mean, I think of the end of the Orpheus myth, in which the head of Orpheus, having been torn from his body, is thrown into the river and goes on singing. That's the meaning of that story. You can destroy the singer, but you can't stop the song. And I think for fairly obvious reasons, that's an important thought for me to have and to hold on to. The durability of art and the paradoxical fragility -- that was the message, that was the thing that I wanted people to take away from the book.

Q: In Midnight's Children, your hero is born at the inception of India's independence. The Ground Beneath Her Feet begins on Valentine's Day 1989, as did your exile. Surely there is a message here?

A: It's really a very simple thing, and what I should say is that, of all the things in this novel, it was the thing I was most uncertain of. I vacillated a great deal about whether to leave that date in or not. There was a bit of me that thought it was digging the reader in the ribs too hard to leave it in. In the end I did, simply because I thought, well, one of the reasons I'm writing a novel about cataclysms in people's lives, about earthquakes, about the fact that the world is provisional and the life that you think is yours can be removed from you at any moment -- one of the reasons I'm having these ideas and writing this book is because of what happened in my life, and I may as well just acknowledge the fact.

Q: Let's talk about twins for a second. Vina Apsara is the surviving sibling of a dead baby twin, as was Elvis. Is this a coincidence?

A: No, not at all. I think where it comes from in my writing, all this business with twins, is that I've always been very conscious of the choices that I didn't make in my life. That's to say, when I left university at the age of 21 I decided that I would make a life in the West and not back in the East. And I've always wondered about what would have happened if I'd gone down the other road. So I've always had this strong sense of the path not traveled, the road not taken, and of that shadow self, of the person that I might have been but chose not to become. And that kind of doubling and splitting in myself is the reason why it keeps happening in my books and is the reason why, in this novel, the character has a shadow self running down the corridors of his mind. But I think this time I may have done it. I may have pushed it to the limit with two sets of twins and, indeed, a twin world, an entirely parallel world as well as the real world. So I think maybe that's enough twins.

Q: Apsara becomes the inspiration for a posthumous cult. This reminds me of Princess Diana.

A: Yeah.

Q: Coincidence?

A: Well, in a way it is a coincidence, in that I'd actually devised the book and, indeed, written an earlier version of what happens after Vina's death before Princess Diana's accident. It was obviously essential to the idea of the book that Vina dies -- indeed, she dies in the first sentence, and by this time she's one of the most popular singers in the world. That she would be much mourned was obviously always a part of the design, but then the real-life event happened, which was on a scale so much greater than anything I'd envisaged. It shocked me because it seemed as if it jumped off my pages into the real world. It made me think again about what I'd written and actually rewrite it on a bigger scale, and with a dimension to it that it certainly couldn't have had without that real-life occurrence. So yes, in the end the book is affected by what happened, both what happened to Princess Diana and what happened after her death. But it is one of the most bizarre things about writing this book, that I'd actually already written it before it happened.

Q: Well, I suppose no more bizarre than our fighting in the name of ethnic Albanians after the movie Wag the Dog.

A: Yeah, this is true. Well, Wag the Dog does seem to have become the text of our times.

Q: There's a religious aspect to celebrity culture. Was that part of its imaginative appeal for you?

A: You don't actually worship the celebrities, you just watch them and obsess about them.

Q: It's very mythic.

A: I think I'm interested in the way in which we as a culture use celebrities. In that respect they are quite like the old pantheons of gods, who, you know, behaved very badly. Ancient gods were not model examples, but simply instances of human beings enlarged to divine proportions. It was about how humans might behave if you removed all restraints and gave them great power. In that sense, celebrity is a kind of recurrence of that theme: we take this group of people and we shine on them a very bright light and give them, if not great power, then certainly great influence. We ask how they behave when we remove all controls and restraints, and we enjoy watching the answer to that question. Sometimes they behave very well, and sometimes they're destroyed by it.

Q: Why did you choose to have a photographer as the narrator? And why is he tone deaf?

A: Well, he can't sing because I can't sing. That's very simple. He's a photographer because I thought, if you look to the left of a rock star, you'll find the photographer. And if you want a point-of-view character, a slightly voyeuristic point-of-view character, it seemed a perfectly appropriate choice of profession. And then again, mentioning Princess Diana, in the aftermath of her death, I discovered -- having already chosen a photographer for my narrator -- that for a moment there, photography became the most unpopular profession in the world. All photographers, even artists like Richard Avedon, suddenly began to be thought of as paparazzi, and the profession began to be something that people scorned. There'd be boos when photographers took cameras out at public events. And I thought how strange that was, and it made me even more interested to write about the business of representation, the business of image-making, about what it is to take a picture of the world, what it is to walk up, walk up to the world and take its photograph. So it became doubly interesting to me. And I've always been interested in photography. I'm not particularly a good photographer, but I've got great heaps of photography books.

Q: You've said, I forget exactly where, that you're proud to have avoided two traps set by the fatwa -- writing timid novels and writing bitter ones. How did you manage that?

A: Well, just by great bloody-mindedness. [Laughs] I love literature. I think of it as a great privilege to be able to do this thing that I admire so much, the art of the novel. And it just struck me that lots and lots of writers have had a hard time. I'm not the first one. And many wonderful books have been made by writers who have gone through or are going through very bad times. And I just thought I could not use my particular bad time as an excuse. "Just get on with it and do your work," I thought. So, I've always gained something -- I've said this before, but I do think it sums my feelings. If somebody's trying to shut you up, sing louder and, if possible, better. My experience just made me all the more determined to write the very best books I could find it in myself to write.

Q: What's next?

A: Wish I knew. I like to find new things to do. And in this book, I found quite a lot of new things to do, both in terms of rock-and-roll music and in terms of being able to write about the West in a way that I'd not written before. And also, I felt that I found a new and very liberating and rich language to write in. I hope that I just find another new step to take, because otherwise I'd bore myself.

Q: Could that someday mean moving to America? At least for a while?

A: Well, I'd like to spend time in America, and I hope -- I hope that I will spend more time here. I have a two-year-old son, and I'm not sure whether I want to send him to school in America just yet. It seems to be too many people getting killed in schools in America just now.

I think certainly my wife would not be very keen on it, on educating a child over here, but the truth is, I've always loved coming to America. I hope things are loosening up a bit so that I will be able to spend more and more time here.

Opening lines

On St. Valentine's Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim. Bare-torsoed men resembling the actor Christopher Plummer had been gripping her by the wrists and ankles. Her body was splayed out, naked and writhing, over a polished stone bearing the graven image of the snakebird Quetzalcoatl. The open mouth of the plumed serpent surrounded a dark hollow scooped out of the stone, and although her own mouth was stretched wide by her screams the only noise she could hear was the popping of flashbulbs; but before they could slit her throat, before her lifeblood could bubble into that terrible cup, she awoke at noon in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, in an unfamiliar bed with a half-dead stranger by her side, a naked mestizo male in his early twenties, identified in the interminable press coverage that followed the catastrophe as Raúl Páramo, the playboy heir of a well-known local construction baron, one of whose corporations owned the hotel.

She had been perspiring heavily and the sodden bedsheets stank of the meaningless misery of the nocturnal encounter. Raúl Páramo was unconscious, white-lipped, and his body was galvanized, every few moments, by spasms which Vina recognized as being identical to her own dream writhings.

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