Long, Strange Trip

Sex, drugs, and scurvy marked Terry Tarnoff’s eight-year trek.

May 26, 2004

In 1970 Terry Tarnoff, a hippie and recent University of Wisconsin grad who’d moved to Berkeley at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, left America with the feeling that his country had strayed from any useful path and went looking for a better one. The tangled journey that followed lasted eight years, much of it in Africa and much more in India, planting seeds in Tarnoff’s psyche that have borne luscious fruit in The Bone Man of Benares. New this month, Tarnoff’s memoir picks up in the middle of his time abroad, with our narrator kicking heroin and exchanging longing glances with a hooker in Laos. It then jumps back to a bittersweet tale of love and scurvy in chilly Sweden, making peace with nature and goodly doses of bangi on an island off the coast of Kenya, and Tarnoff having his mind thoroughly blown by India and Nepal, playing blues harmonica with local bands wherever he went.

“We were sort of the anti-Peace Corps,” Tarnoff reflects today at the cafe in his North Beach neighborhood where much of the book was written. “The people in the Peace Corps had very positive motivations, but they tended to go over to places like Africa in order to teach the Africans how to better their conditions. But we went over to learn from the Africans.”

The author’s down-to-earth insights and self-deprecating humor keep you right with him throughout this psychedelic safari. As a narrator, he is so delightfully upfront about his own unreliability that you’re willing to accept the most outlandish tales at face value. “There are several things that are metaphorical or allegorical,” he concedes readily. “But essentially this is a true story, and some of the things that seem to be impossible are actually absolutely true.”

Tarnoff started writing Bone Man after years of suffering the frustrations of a Hollywood screenwriter, selling some scripts but never quite seeing any of the movies get made. “I was writing film noir and modern comedy and trying to put my own spin on it, but anybody could do that,” he says. “This story of this journey that I had taken was the one story that no other Hollywood screenwriter could tell, but I could never figure out how to make it into a film script. It was too vast; it was too crazy. There were too many themes and too many characters and too many locations and too much dope and too many women — there was too much of everything. After years and years, I woke up one day and I suddenly realized the reason I hadn’t been able to write it as a screenplay is because it’s a book.”

Still, Tarnoff the memoirist had by no means supplanted Tarnoff the screenwriter, and he plans to divide his time between books and screenplays in the future. “About halfway through the book, I suddenly realized, ‘Ah, I think I see where the movie is now.’ And in fact, film rights have been optioned, so we’re very hopeful that there will be a movie.”

Whether or not Bone Man reaches the big screen, audiences will get a taste of it this fall. Tarnoff is in the process of adapting the story as a theater piece starring Ron Campbell and directed by Mark Routhier, to open September 27 for a six-week run at San Francisco’s Encore Theatre. The play, like much of the book, was born in this same cafe a year ago, when Tarnoff gave a reading to celebrate the sale of his manuscript. “The next morning I got calls from a bunch of people who said they really enjoyed it and that I should turn this into some kind of one-man show, which never occurred to me in my wildest imagination,” he says.

Tarnoff’s imagination is pretty wild and proves an endearing companion in Bone Man, a way-out Watson to his own Holmes as he chases the most elusive mysteries of them all. But he cautions fellow travelers that on the road it’s easy to let your imagination get the better of you.

“When I first got to Bombay, I met this Englishman at a little fruit stand who had been there for five years, and he wanted to know my impressions,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you care about my impressions? I just got here.’ He said, ‘When I first came to Bombay I thought I kind of understood it after a couple of days, but then I was here for six months and realized my first impression was totally ludicrous. Then a year passed, and I realized that what I was thinking at six months was totally wrong. Two years passed and three years passed, and every time I realized I was totally wrong. Finally after five years I looked around and said, Yeah, I do understand it, and you know what? It was the same as when I had arrived after two days.’

“Sure enough, I wound up staying for five years, and I pretty much had that same conclusion, that my first impression of India was largely correct. So my advice is, if you’re going to go to a place like India, go for three days or five years. But it’s really dangerous to go for six months, because you’ll think that you know something, but after six months you have learned nothing but lies.”