Account of journeys leads to self-discovery and now a one act play; ‘Bone Man‘ takes us back to ’70s

By Casey Mills

Posted on Sun, Aug. 15, 2004

TERRY TARNOFF seems at home in the Cafe Prague. The San Francisco coffee shop reminds him of a European cafe, with its bright murals on the walls, framed photos of exotic locations and world music blaring out of the speakers.

Tarnoff spent more than four years of his life in and out of cafes like this, as well as Nepalese Buddhist temples, African peasant huts, Swedish art museums and a host of other wildly diverse locales. It was in this very cafe that he documented these experiences in his recent novel, “The Bone Man of Benares.”

The book is a semifictionalized account of Tarnoff’s life from 1971 to 1974, when he traveled on an epic adventure through several continents, love affairs, tragedies, spiritual revelations and drugged-out bummers. The journey reflects the insanity of the times, as the protagonist runs into everyone from monks smoking hash to African blues musicians.

Music weaves throughout the narrative as Tarnoff, an accomplished harmonica player, jams with all kinds of fellow musicians during his travels. Music can be heard in his writing style as well. While the narrative is mostly traditional, Tarnoff will suddenly switch gears and dive into a page-long stream of consciousness without punctuation, sentence structure or attention to tense.

‘Saxophone solos’
These sections provide the book’s high points, revealing many of Tarnoff’s most emotional and spiritually intense moments in equally intense prose. Tarnoff likens them to saxophone solos, with the rest of the book working like background piano chords. Tarnoff realized the book’s close connection to music when, while writing it, he’d start tapping his foot in time to the words.

“I always knew I was onto something then,” he says.
While this style may sound like another group of San Franciscans — the Beats — Tarnoff is reluctant to agree with the comparison. “I have lived the past 15 years in North Beach,” he acknowledges with a smile, but then goes on to liken his writing more to that of Henry Miller or Nikos Kazantzakis.

The comparison is an apt one, especially considering the messages these authors present to their readers. “The Bone Man of Benares,” despite the protagonist’s tremendous hardships, including everything from spurned love to sharing a pipe with a leper, ultimately leaves the reader with a profoundly positive conclusion — that life is beautiful, from the smallest grain of
sand to continents the size of Africa.

Novel as medium
Tarnoff spent the past 15 years as a screenwriter, and while he sold several screenplays, not one turned into a movie. Throughout his career, though, he knew the real story he had to tell, the unique one that could not be told by anyone in Hollywood, and that was the story of his travels.

He struggled with writing it as a screenplay, growing frustrated with turning such a sprawling adventure into a tidy feature-length film. Finally, he woke one day to a simple realization — he would write his story as a novel. He started immediately, soon finding he loved the freedom the medium allowed him.
Oddly enough, the process revealed to him how the story could be told as a movie, and the film rights have already been optioned. Beginning next month, the book will also be performed as a one-man show in San Francisco by renowned Bay Area actor Ron Campbell.

Tarnoff says he’s incredibly excited about the show, which started a year ago at his first reading of the book. After the reading, several people told him he should turn it into a oneman show. He scoffed at the idea until Magic Theatre’s Mark Routhier said he’d like to direct it.
Soon after, Campbell signed on to star in it, two Encore Theatre members decided to produce
it, and the production was under way.

Learning curve
The play, like the book, will document a journey of self-discovery. Throughout “The Bone Man of Benares,” the protagonist throws himself into increasingly difficult situations, from the frigid cold of Stockholm, to the brutal heat of the Kenyan coast, to disease-ridden India, to lonely Nepal. At each step, however, he learns more about himself and the world around him, a process Tarnoff says was almost as hard to write about as it was to live.

“The hardest thing, and ultimately the most valuable thing, was digging deeper into who I am,” says Tarnoff about the writing process. “I was digging into my emotions, my fears, my sense of what was I doing out there for all those years. This was a very crazy thing to do.”
While the book helped Tarnoff to better understand those years of his life, he says he wrote the book for other reasons. One was to provide an account of the era and those who lived in it by someone actually a part of it.
“I’ve always felt that groups that are in the avant-garde at any time in history are just
completely misrepresented,” he says. “And I’ve always been kind of outraged at the portrayals of this scene I was part of, and so one of my goals when I wrote the book was to accurately portray what it was really like.”

Cultural understanding
So far, Tarnoff thinks he’s done a good job. Many old friends who appear in the book have been contacting him, for the most part to tell him how well he’s encapsulated the times and their experiences.
Another reason he wrote the book was because he feels that his story, while universal, is extremely relevant at this point in history. He feels his and his friends’ travels in the ’70s represented an attempt to understand foreign cultures, to see what peasants in Africa had to teach them, for example, rather than telling them how to live their lives.

Tarnoff sees many of today’s current problems, especially the recent terrorism, as stemming from the absence of this type of perspective. He hopes his book, as much as it connects with the older generation who lived during the era, will reach younger people and help give them guidance as to how to deal with a fractured world.”Something went very wrong,” he says. “And I think the only solution is to get back to that very nice start that we had going.”

• WHO: Terry Tarnoff
• WHAT: Author of “The Bone Man of Benares: A Lunatic Trip Through Love and the World” (St.
Martin’s Griffin, $14.95, 388 pages)
• RELATED EVENT: “The Bone Man of Benares: A One-Act Play,” Sept. 27-Oct. 30. 8 p.m.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Starring Ron Campbell. $15-$20. Encore Theatre, 1695
18th St., S.F. 415-821-4849.
Casey Mills is a Times feature writer.