Brace yourself, Garfield. You may be joined on the best-seller lists by Fup the duck. Be warned, this is no cuddly little marshland creature. Fup swills whiskey. Fup hunts wild boar for laughs. Fup is so lazy she won’t fly and so gluttonous she’s nearly the size of a Christmas turkey. If Fup could talk, she would curse.
Fup, one very odd duck, is the title character in a loopy, 59-page novelette by 38-year-old northern California poet and woodsman Jim Dodge. Essentially a tall-but-heartwarming tale about the changes Fup makes in the lives of a lonely old moonshiner and his orphaned grandson, the book abounds with slightly skewed aphorisms (“Sometimes when you put your money where your mouth is, it’s only to kiss it goodbye”) and down-home talk about bluetick hounds, Rancho De Luxe drive-ins and the proper twang of a barbed-wire fence.
From such humble beginnings has grown the Fup phenomenon. Fup was first published last June by City Miner Books, a small Berkeley press. Author Dodge, a veteran starving writer who jokingly says he’s earned “maybe $17.38” from his poetry, was somewhat taken aback when his maiden prose effort sold out three printings. Dodge was even more surprised six months later when Simon & Schuster paid $100,000—split between Dodge and his original publisher—for the rights to Fup. That version will be in the bookstores nationally this spring.
“It’s a wonderful joke, to wake up in the morning and think I can make a living as a writer,” says Dodge, who works out of a ranch in the rolling Sonoma hills north of San Francisco. In the past he has made his living by herding sheep and chopping wood. More recently he’s planted trees and cleared jammed creeks for an environmental restoration business managed by the woman he lives with, Victoria Stockley, 34, a naturalist.
Dodge says he enjoyed Fup’s local success but worries that national attention may disrupt his rural ways and, worse, his poetry-writing. “Poetry is the most important thing in my life,” says Dodge, whose 12-sided writing studio, built from redwood he split by hand, is lined with binders filled with unpublished poems. Fup’s success, he says, will allow him “to make fiction my business and poetry my passion.” His second piece of business, a handwritten 800-page tome that he describes as a “metaphysical potboiler,” is already on the way.
Fup’s varied elements—from jet fighters to sheep disease to poker expertise—reflect Dodge’s own experience. An Air Force brat, he attended Humboldt State University, near the Oregon border, where he became the school’s first group major in poetry, journalism and fisheries biology. After graduating and earning a master’s in creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, he landed a “dream job” teaching English at Clarke, a Catholic women’s college (now coed) in Dubuque, Iowa.
“I was surrounded by impressionable young women,” he recalls with a sigh. “I was like a kid in a candy store.” Unfortunately, his contract was not renewed after he was caught skinny-dipping in the school pool with a novice who had just left the order.
Soon after, in 1971, Dodge moved to Root Hog Ranch in northern California, a classic ’60s commune. In addition to the usual ranch work, he operated a legal poker parlor. “I would come in at 3 a.m. and write until dawn,” he recalls. “It was a terrible way to live your life.”
Although the commune broke up in 1977, Dodge, Stockley and a few friends have remained at Root Hog Ranch. Stockley is apprehensive about how Dodge’s windfall may affect their lives (“You might get $50,000 and realize it’s destroyed your life,” she says), but Dodge believes he can keep his life low-key. The only extravagances he plans are “a new dress for my sweetie” and a yearlong trip to Mexico for the two of them—after he finishes an upcoming experiment. “I want to see what it is like to go on a book tour, stay in $200-a-night penthouses and drink champagne,” says Dodge. “I’m convinced it won’t make any difference in me. But that,” he notes, with admirable openness to new experiences, “is just a theory.”