Homeless No More

updated 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

SITTING IN THE TINY LIVING ROOM OF his Austin, Texas, apartment, Lars Eighner is reflecting on life's little ironies. An "uncommonly stout"—his description—homosexual whose literary reputation was once based entirely on the erotic short stories he had published in obscure gay magazines, he currently finds himself lionized by book critics all over the country. But while Hollywood mulls over a $100,000 deal to have him write a screenplay of his life story, Eighner is still so poor that he occasionally resorts to "Dumpster diving"—scavenging trash bins for food. A street vagrant just two years ago, he is now a celebrity. "It does give me a good feeling," says Eighner warily, "but it's kinda scary in a way."

The story behind Eighner's success is Travels with Lizbeth (St. Martin's), a riveting memoir of the down-and-out life of a highly literate supertramp and his dog. Less a diary than a collection of anecdotes, the book chronicles three desolate years for Lars and Lizbeth, his beloved, mostly Labrador mutt, describing their inexorable slide toward homelessness, their misadventures hitchhiking, and the kind souls, kooks and thieves they met along the way. Praising the book's "lavish, patient detail" in The New York Times, reviewer Jonathan Raban wrote, "If there's any justice in the world, it should guarantee its author a roof over his head for the rest of his days."

Eighner, 45, wrote the sketches for his own amusement and chose homelessness, he writes, "as an artist paints a still life, not because he is especially fond of fruit, but because the subject is readily at hand." His language is deliberately stately and old-fashioned, his tone deadpan and weirdly funny. ("I am a scavenger," he writes. "I think it a sound and honorable niche.") Though his erotica had appeared in gay magazines for years, Eighner says, "This was the first piece I knew was going to outlive me."

For Eighner, life began in Corpus Christi, where the future traveler was born to a naval air mechanic and a housewife. His parents divorced when he was 2, and Lars and his mother moved to Houston, where she worked as a teacher of the deaf. In 1966, Eighner enrolled at the University of Texas, where he majored in ethnic studies but dropped out after three years and became a counselor at an Austin drug crisis center. In 1979 he got a job as an attendant at Austin State Hospital; in 1987, when he was transferred to a ward for the profoundly retarded, he quit. "I wasn't really trained for that," he says. For the next year and a half, Eighner survived by selling his pornographic stories (he had been writing them since 1983) while living in a cottage in Austin's Hyde Park neighborhood.

But he soon fell behind on the rent and could neither find work nor qualify for welfare. His homosexuality had already alienated him from his mother and younger brother, so for several months Eighner traveled and imposed on friends and strangers before hitchhiking to Los Angeles in search of editorial work. Travels begins with that trek, during which Eighner and Lizbeth nearly died of exhaustion and hunger when they were stranded outside Tucson. That trip ended when Dallas Matsen, a charming drifter, desert rat, thief and alcoholic, drove them to L.A. before police impounded his car. Eighner found one job—writing a script for a pornographic movie director—but no more, and headed back to Austin.

There were many perils—Eighner's 1lth-hour rescue of Lizbeth from certain death in the dog pound and his horrifying stay at a public hospital, where staffers thought he was insane and wanted him institutionalized.
Eighner's pride was a handicap; he refused to panhandle, though he did accept gifts of cash and food. (Mostly subsisting on Dumpster finds like sausages, cheese and pizza, the 6'3" Eighner ballooned to a massive 360 pounds.) His savior was the loyal Lizbeth, who served as watchdog. "She had her disadvantages," he says. "But there are places I would not have slept, or slept as comfortably, without having her along."

Eventually, Eighner made camp in an abandoned building in Austin and began writing Travels. He sent the essays to friends, including Bay Area editor Steven Saylor, who urged Eighner to make them a book and became his agent. Before Eighner completed the volume, an old roommate returned to Austin and rented the cramped one-bedroom apartment in Hyde Park where the two men and Lizbeth, 9, now reside. "She expects to eat when people eat, and she runs roughshod over my roommate," he says. "She's become incredibly spoiled."

Having received a modest $10,000 advance, Eighner still lives precariously. He wants to keep writing—erotic novels and perhaps detective fiction—but no more about the homeless. Having fallen through the cracks once, Eighner says the terrors of that life will never leave him: "I expect every day to end up on the street. I'm never going lo really feel secure again."

PAULA CHIN
ANNE MAIER in Austin

From Our Partners