I admire the writerly gumption of Paul Estes, who is homeless and also the author of a new science fiction novel entitled “Razza Freakin’ Aliens.” That the novel, which will be officially launched next month, exists at all constitutes an improbable triumph. Estes drafted it longhand, mostly while sitting on a park bench on the Esplanade that commands a view across the river to Cambridge. He typed it up and revised it on a laptop that had been donated to the Black Seed Writers Group, a program housed in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul that produces The Pilgrim, a literary magazine written by members of downtown Boston’s homeless community. Estes had previously stayed in city shelters, but during the three years he was working on the novel he roughed it outdoors, bedding down in the doorways of stores in Downtown Crossing.
It’s no doubt hard enough to be homeless, but the contingency and uncertainty he had to contend with every day as a writer seem especially daunting to me. I write at home, cozily holed up among books, files, and papers, the presence of which comforts me in the same way that the all-body pressure of Temple Grandin’s “squeeze box” relieves anxiety in people and cows. I also back up and print out obsessively to forestall the unspeakable horror of somehow losing any bit of drafting or revision.
The thought of Estes going around the city with the only extant, handwritten draft of his novel in a binder in his backpack activates deep writerly anxieties in me. But Estes dismisses the constant danger of losing all of his work to theft or wet or some other commonplace disaster as “just part of homeless life; you get used to it.”
The novel itself, a space opera featuring a bewilderingly various multi-species cast locked in a theologically-inflected cosmic struggle, surges with the awkward energy of outsider art. The author’s acknowledged debts to mainstream inspirations like “Star Wars,’’ “Star Trek,’’ “Dr. Who,’’ the Japanese animated series “Voltron,” and Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” are evident, but he imposes his own loopy style on even the most conventional elements. The tone jumps around from jokiness to brutality to introspection, the plot keeps splitting and recombining like an out-of-control mutational process, and real people show up thinly fictionalized as cat-aliens or lizard-aliens with disarmingly un-alien names like Greg or Reverend Tina.
Part of the pleasure and utility of genre-fiction formulas like the space opera is that they allow us to escape from everyday life while also imaginatively engaging that same life we’re escaping. Estes describes his novel as growing from daydreams and fantasies, “a cartoon I’ve seen in my head since I was a kid.” But he also acknowledges that “the characters are people I’ve met, and a lot of it is the world I’ve been living in — from the shelter to the street to the church.”
James Parker, the columnist for The Atlantic who guides the Black Seed Writers Group, The Pilgrim, and No Fixed Address Press, says, “The character of Dave the Spy in the novel is Paul — he’s cut off, alone on a strange planet, he can’t get in touch with the Queen and the hive mind.” Dave is also fascinated by religious faith, another trait he shares with Estes. There’s a certain resonance between space opera and the Bible, which similarly lifts off from the everyday into sea-parting, corpse-reviving fantasy but also constantly returns to intense scrutiny of life as it’s lived by regular people trying to go about their earthbound business.
Estes’ wildly ambitious novel is the debut offering from No Fixed Address Press, which intends to publish more writing by homeless authors. “Going forward,” wrote Parker in a note sent out with advance copies of “Razza Freakin’ Aliens,” “the projects undertaken by No Fixed Address Press will likely be . . . lower to the ground — poetry, essays, short memoirs.” These books’ authors will offer street-level points of view that rarely enjoy serious cultural or political attention, but, like Estes, they will be uniquely situated to reveal our world to us in fresh and strange ways.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’