Four years ago Don De Grazia was working as a bouncer at Metro and living at the YMCA while teaching in Columbia College's fiction writing department. In typical impoverished-writer fashion, he spent his last $75 to send his unagented, unsolicited novel about a young man who gets involved with skinheads in Chicago, American Skin, to the English publisher Jonathan Cape.
"Working-class writers like Irvine Welsh, primarily from Scotland, were taking the London publishing world by storm," De Grazia says. "Even though I was an American, I thought the rawness and energy of that movement seemed sort of in the same universe as American Skin, so I gave it a shot.
"In New York and LA, I'd gotten the sense that my novel, which focuses in part on violent street feuds between antiracist and Nazi skinheads, posed a political correctness problem. I'd approach publishers, but the minute they heard the word 'skinhead' they'd cringe and lose interest."
In part due to the trend of emerging working-class voices--but also perhaps because the racial violence depicted in the novel happens on foreign soil--Jonathan Cape was willing to take a chance on De Grazia, and American Skin was published in the UK in 1998. Not long after that, De Grazia's new agent approached publishers in New York armed with a sheaf of positive reviews. The novel proved to be much more popular the second time around, and Scribner is releasing it this week.
American Skin's success story hasn't exactly been a struggling writer's dream. The same year the novel was published in England, New Line Cinema released American History X, a film with elements that De Grazia found a little too close to American Skin's for comfort. Besides the subject matter and the titles, the book and the movie share plotlines that appear remarkably coincidental--most notably a prison story line allegedly added to the script after star Edward Norton's well-publicized "researching" of skinhead source material, including, some have speculated, De Grazia's novel. Norton told New City not long after the movie's release that he wanted his character to be "the king of the skinheads"; in American Skin the protagonist, Alex Verdi, and a murderous Nazi skin, Frank Pritzger, repeatedly refer to an antiracist skinhead character as "the King of the Skinheads."
"I guess I could say a lot about this," De Grazia says, "but in light of the fact that American Skin was published in Britain a year and a half before American History X, sold to Random House UK two and a half years before American History X, sent out all over Hollywood as an unpublished manuscript three and a half years before American History X, submitted as my master's thesis four and a half years before American History X, and published in excerpts five and six years before American History X, you might be better off talking to Ed Norton, who I understand took a strong hand in rewriting that script after he was attached. I'd be really curious what he has to say. Suffice it to say that before there was American History X, there was American Skin." But, De Grazia quips, "I'm not too concerned since, with the exception of a couple of excellent scenes, American History X pretty much just lets us know what would happen if Seventh Heaven or Dawson's Creek did a special skinhead episode."
Now American Skin is also a film project, with Scott Kalvert (The Basketball Diaries) directing a script by Dan Yost, who wrote the screenplay for Drugstore Cowboy. The producer, Frederick Levy, downplays similarities between the two projects. "American Skin is nothing like American History X," he insists. "American Skin isn't about skinheads--it's about a young man; it's about families." Meanwhile, American History X has had its share of scandal even without De Grazia: director Tony Kaye sued New Line and the Directors Guild of America for $200 million for letting Norton, who was allowed to reedit the film, "alter his vision." The case is still pending.
De Grazia isn't bitter about the initial indifference to his work. In fact, he thinks "some of the subject matter has gotten more topical since the book came out in England. The life of Benjamin Smith, the Chicago-area skinhead who went on a shooting spree this summer, seemed to me like an evil, inverse version of American Skin's main character, with opposite choices made every step of the way. And in Las Vegas, white-power skins recently lured black and white antiracist skins out to the desert and executed them. In California, a black antiracist skin stabbed a Nazi skin to death. And so on."
After two skinheads in Indiana shot and killed a black man last November, several TV stations included interviews with De Grazia in their coverage. He admits he's a little uncomfortable with being pigeonholed as a skinhead expert, "not because I don't know what I'm talking about, but because I don't want people to think my novel is just about skinheads." Yet he notes with general approval that the media is turning to fiction writers for comment after news events. "After Columbine, there were a number of journalists who got quotes from Russell Banks, because he wrote a book about an 'outsider' kid with a Mohawk. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but there is that old adage that says journalists lie when they tell the truth and fiction writers tell the truth when they lie. So maybe it's not an altogether bad trend."
De Grazia, who now teaches full-time at Columbia and is the editor of the 33-year-old literary journal F Magazine, is at work on his next novel. But he's reluctant to discuss what it's about. "I've developed this strange phobia about that," he demurs.
De Grazia returns to Metro, 3730 N. Clark, on Thursday, April 13, to read from American Skin as part of Columbia's free Story Week festival; other readers that night are Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn) and Richard Price (Clockers). It starts at 8; call 312-344-7611 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.