Richard Hoyt's Outrageous Thrillers Are Quite a Trip

updated 08/31/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/31/1987 01:00AM

Richard Hoyt is conducting a tour of Portland, Ore. nightlife—an oxymoron if ever there was one. He is hurrying to the next venue, but it's clear he isn't going to make it without incident. The signs are unmistakable. His eyes gleam dangerously. His mustache twitches expectantly. His shoulders hunch preemptively. And then, it happens. Richard Hoyt begins to laugh. This is no mere chortle, no grade-B guffaw. This is a world-class, wake-up-the-neighborhood, call-out-the-cavalry cackle, the kind a hyena would envy. The convulsions last more than a minute, eventually dissolving into tiny titters. "F___-a-rooney-oh-dear," he concludes, dabbing at his eyes.

What strikes Hoyt as so funny? Anything and everything. Hoyt is an author, a writer of mysteries and international thrillers, and, as such, he is a perpetually bemused student of the human condition. Hoyt's books are far-flung, farfetched and, more often than not, pharmaceutically aided. Long a favorite of reviewers, Hoyt, 46, is gradually acquiring a wider readership.

Last month saw the publication of Hoyt's 10th novel, Siege (Tor, $16.95), a fast-moving tale in which Gibraltar is taken hostage by a group of Palestinian terrorists. The most memorable character is a bulimic ape named Max. Untroubled by modesty, Hoyt says that Siege "turned out so sweet that I shocked even myself."

Like many of Hoyt's books, Siege benefits from personal research and experience. In Seville to do background for the book, Hoyt caught pneumonia, so he took the bus to a hospital in Gibraltar. "I felt like Ratso Rizzo," he recalls. In Siege CIA agent James Burlane also catches pneumonia and retraces the author's bus ride. Under the guise of research, Hoyt also has ridden the Trans-Siberian Express, smoked ganja with reggae singers in Jamaica and dined with prostitutes in Amsterdam. All of these experiences showed up in a Hoyt novel sooner or later. "All my heroes—flaky detectives, quirky adventurers, outrageous spies—are my alter egos," he wrote recently. "One way or another, they're all versions of an educated, mischievous kid from Umatilla turned professional Walter Mitty."

The Umatilla of which Hoyt speaks is a small town in eastern Oregon where he grew up on a farm. His father made moonshine and traded horses, and his mother ran the school cafeteria. At Umatilla High, Hoyt remembers filling in at quarterback with the plays taped to his wrists, and, if pressed, will reveal that his classmates honored him with the Best-Looking Nose award.

After graduating from the University of Oregon, Hoyt enlisted in the Army and served three years as a counter-intelligence agent, which has proved useful in his current calling. He wrote for a couple of newspapers in Hawaii and then taught journalism and communications for 10 years. Along the way, he married twice, the first time for 10 years, the second for about a year. "I don't remember what year," he admits.

One day in 1971 a fishing companion looked up from his Dick Francis novel and suggested Hoyt try writing a book. Nine years and some 30 rejections slips later, a mystery called Decoys was published. Decoys brought Hoyt an advance of $4,000 and featured a detective named John Denson, whom the book jacket describes as a "soft-boiled sleuth for the '80s." Since then, Hoyt has been turning out books at the rate of roughly one every nine months. "I don't want to do anything but this ever again," he says earnestly.

When he's not off researching his next project, Hoyt lives alone in a spartan $400-a-month apartment not far from downtown Portland. He works seven days a week, putting in eight-to 10-hour days. He often smokes marijuana when he writes and claims that parts of seven of his 10 books have been written under the influence of some mind-altering substance or other. Hoyt's imagination is matched only by his confidence. "I always think I'm writing the hottest goddamn book ever to come down the pike," he says. When he finishes a novel, Hoyt is torn between elation and depression, or, in his elegant words, "I don't know whether to shit or go blind."

By turns cocky, introspective, profane and madcap, Hoyt is a character worthy of his own invention. But there is another side to the author. He actually is modest about his pre-novelist accomplishments, like his Pulitzer Prize nomination. Friend and fellow writer Katherine Dunn points out that he is "devastatingly generous to his friends and family." Hoyt spends a lot of time with daughter Laura, who lives nearby with her mother. Laura dotes on her father, although she readily acknowledges that "he's weird."

Hoyt currently is working on his 11th novel, The Woman From Liberia, for which he received a $75,000 advance. Although his research trip down the Amazon River earlier this year was cut short by respiratory problems, the writing is going smoothly, so smoothly that Hoyt happily informed his agent that "the muse has got me by the crotch on this one, lovely thing."

On the rare occasions when the muse loosens its grip, Hoyt rises from his study and goes for a walk. Sometimes he'll browse through Powell's bookstore, and sometimes he'll duck into a topless bar named Mary's Club to watch the dancers. Or he'll wander into the Blue Moon, order a beer and head for the dart board. Hoyt is a very able dart thrower, and, as he's quick to tell you, he wields a pretty mean word processor as well. In fact, he figures, "I'm the best dart-throwing satiric novelist in the United States." And with that, the laugh that rivals Mount St. Helens erupts again.

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