Heading toward the couch, the interviewer is diverted by the interviewee.
"Not there," says Lee Barnes -- actually, H. Lee Barnes on his book covers -- as he gazes down at Angel, his frisky, 11-year-old springer spaniel, who is pawing the stranger's leg, begging for love. "That's hers."
Big, muscular and bald, looking like a human bullet that could quickly find a vital organ, the 67-year-old author seems imposing, until you consider that he's a man who gives his canine companion her very own made-for-humans snuggle sanctuary.
Softy? Perhaps that's pushing it. Intriguing combination, though, of physical and intellectual heft in this multiple prize-winning Las Vegas writer and rugged chronicler of Western life -- and 2009 inductee into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame -- whose latest work of Nevada-based fiction, "Car Tag" (Virginia
Avenue Press, $16), was released Wednesday.
Life story? Reads like a bucket list that's closer to pool-sized: Green Beret during the Vietnam War, Clark County deputy sheriff, Nevada narc, private gumshoe, construction worker, casino dealer and currently an on-sabbatical teacher of English and creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada.
As he directs us to another couch for his guest and settles into a chair next to it as the tape recorder goes on, a detailed analysis of storytelling style pours forth.
"Postmodernism did more to damage the storytelling end of what literature is about," says the Moscow-born Barnes (not Russia's -- ours, in Idaho).
"Postmodernism is aimless; it deconstructs everything. The best storytellers I know, novelists or short story writers, would best be described as existentialists, by which I don't mean nihilists. Existentialism is a living philosophy, a search for who we are. It's a term misused by the media. You hear it in the news. They say, 'This is an existential moment for America.' They don't know what they're talking about. They just want to sound smart."
Let's define, via a dictionary, for those clueless media motormouths:
"Existentialism: Doctrine that individual existence takes precedence over abstract, conceptual essence and holds that human beings are totally free and responsible for their acts and that this responsibility is the source of their feelings of dread and anguish."
Which brings us to "Car Tag," a Nevada story that stretches from the desert near Rhyolite to our state Supreme Court in its tale of the Debecki brothers: young, troubled Billy, who killed a rural police officer, and the efforts of his sibling, Drew -- a Las Vegas cop -- to spare him the death penalty and reunite them with their half-brother Alex, the three having drifted apart.
"Billy's crime is not one of intent," Barnes points out. "He got caught up in circumstances. Here he is later on facing death. He accepts what he did, accepts his life, which is the existential view of life."
Side by side with existentialism, though, Barnes pushes the red-hot-button issue of the death penalty.
"I don't get didactic about it, I don't want to take aim at people's politics, but rather to look at it in a different light," Barnes says. "There are people that are monstrous. I was a cop and always believed, death penalty -- kill these people. If somebody raped and killed my niece, I'd want to be the one to ... but that's not right. As a reasonable human being, you see the death penalty serves no purpose other than vengeance."
Raise a follow-up question -- wouldn't it be wildly expensive to build more prisons to house all the prisoners spared the death penalty? -- and Barnes points out the "huge" financial burden of the appeals process and, as an ex-narc, presses another button that sets some people's passions on fire: eliminating some penalties for drug use to alleviate prison overpopulation.
The so-called "war on drugs," he says, has been lost and should be scrapped.
"It's expensive," he insists. "There's this whole economy built on the enforcement of (drug laws), including prisons, defense attorneys, drug agents. That would be a huge interruption. One reason (drug laws won't change) is people in Congress who want to appear moral to their constituencies. It's ridiculous."
Prone to set some of his fiction in the sparsely populated backwaters of Nevada -- Billy's crime is committed near Beatty -- Barnes says those areas are more authentic and open than the artifice and isolation that sometimes characterize Las Vegas.
"People go there because they're seeking something separate from this kind of life. They don't want to hide in houses; they can have some kind of community, even if it's living in a trailer," he says. "Las Vegas, when you get away from the Strip, is largely California now. People live in garaged houses and rush into their homes. We've lost our sense of family."
As for artifice? Barnes zeroes in on the faux-Italian motif of Tuscany Village, not far from his home, as an example. "There's something pathetic about the gathering of people there. It's about selling what's in there, and there's nothing wrong with being commercial," he says.
"But they try to create this sense of a center of a village in Italy. It's beautifully done, but complete artifice. If you go to Italy, some village or town, around 5 o'clock at night, people spill out the doors and walk and visit with each other. There's a sense of community. Here, there is no sense of community."
Interacting with the world on a genuine level, he says, even extends to simple modes of transportation. Next time you take a trip, keep in mind the H. Lee Barnes Credo for Real-World Engagement.
"I much prefer taking a trip on a motorcycle because I'm surrounded by everything," he says. "In a car you're not. You're surrounded by a car. A motorcycle is about going there, and a car is about getting there. It's a huge difference."
Feeling alive versus feeling safe, he says, is also a theme through "Car Tag," addressing Billy's troubled past. "The closer you come to some kind of danger, especially as a kid, the more alive we feel, and the more safe and secure our lives are, in many ways the less we really live," Barnes says.
"I always hearken back to the experience of combat, out there in the (Vietnamese) jungle. If I was a kid again, I'd do it all over again. Why? Because you won't feel that alive again."
Colorful past has led to a contented present for Barnes at CSN -- he's happy in the classroom teaching creative writing, he says -- but even there his sense of authenticity can get violated.
"In some schools now that kids graduate from, they never have to read anything," he says. "At the college, we actually have a professor who shows nothing but film and calls it literature. It's a wholesale embarrassment."
Near the start of this story, one of the words used to describe H. Lee Barnes was "writer." Perhaps we should amend that.
"I don't think of myself as a writer so much as a storyteller," he says. "(Writers) prize the aesthetic of writing much more than the storytelling -- the wonderful sentence, the finely organized paragraph, a kind of character, rather than the story having a certain arc to it. This is the postmodern view of writing."
Postmodern. Seems we've come full circle. Must be, as Angel, as if on cue, cozies up to the couch -- ours, not hers -- and nuzzles the stranger's ankle.
Our interview is complete. It all feels so ... what's the word?
Nope. Not "existential."
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@review journal.com or 702-383-0256.