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Lars Eighner: Travels To Nowhere

5 minute read
S.C. Gwynne/Austin

If there’s any justice in the world,” said the New York Times in its 1993 review of Lars Eighner’s Travels with Lizbeth, a memoir of homelessness, “[the book] should guarantee its author a roof over his head for the rest of his life.” And indeed, in the weeks and months that followed the publication of Eighner’s critically acclaimed work, the reviewer’s wish seemed to come true. The Austin, Texas, writer soon moved into a three-bedroom house. His work appeared in Harper’s and the New York Times. He lectured in Hawaii and San Francisco. Esquire magazine even sent him as its representative to the Oscars in Hollywood. After three years of living on the streets and eating from Dumpsters, Eighner had got his piece of the American Dream. He had written a book about homelessness that had saved him from homelessness.

Except the story doesn’t end there. Late last year, to the general amazement of Austin’s literary community, Lars Eighner was homeless again, living in a tent by a creek bridge not far from where he had written his famous book, eating from Dumpsters again, destitute and with few prospects. For more than two weeks, he lived there with his dog Lizbeth and the same male companion he has been with for nearly a decade. Then some of Eighner’s friends rescued him, at least temporarily. For now, by the grace of those friends, the 49-year-old writer temporarily occupies a tiny, one-bedroom apartment.

His predicament is all the more surprising since he made $100,000 on his book. With that sort of pot, how could a man with proven skill–a seemingly perfectly sane man who is neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict–possibly find himself homeless for the second time in five years? The simple answer is that, without additional income from a steady job, $100,000 is consumed rather quickly by a middle-class life-style. For starters, income taxes took $22,000 off the top. Eighner ran through the rest in less than three years. He rented a house for $880 a month and ran up total expenses he estimates at $1,200 a month. He bought a new computer, an espresso maker, a fax machine, a stereo and cable-TV service, as well as a set of weights for his companion–“the sort of stuff anybody with a reasonably good job would have.”

In an effort to reduce his expenses, Eighner, a gentle, articulate man with a soft South Texas accent who is severely overweight and afflicted with phlebitis, migraines and arthritis, moved with his companion an hour south, to San Antonio, Texas, early last year. There, he took an apartment for $425 a month and taught a few classes in writing. He says his return to the streets in October came after an expected book royalty failed to arrive in September, and from a “miscalculation” that he would get a couple of teaching jobs. “People have said that I do nothing until things get out of hand,” says Eighner. “But what they don’t see is the number of times I did not panic and the check did arrive in time.”

Eighner is far from a conventional deadbeat. He was in his early 40s before he ever became homeless, and he has worked at many jobs, including a mostly steady decade of work at a state mental hospital. Since Travels with Lizbeth, he has published a novel, a book of essays and several books of gay erotica. He continues to write for a number of Texas publications, which brings in $100 to $300 a month. His Web page, which he designed and built himself, bristles with entrepreneurialism in its offers to sell books and give online writing courses. It’s hard to make the case that this is a man without motivation or resources. Why, then, can he not do the basic thing so many Americans manage?

In conversation, one gets hints. Decent, conventional jobs are rare enough for a 49-year-old former street person who makes a normal presentation. But Eighner has other strikes against him: his weight; his swollen ankle, which makes it difficult to move about easily; his inability to drive a car; and his lack of the “right clothes” for a “straight job.”

Neither Eighner nor his benefactors seem to know exactly what happens next, since the most money he can see on the horizon is $1,500 in the form of various advances, fees and royalties–hardly enough to sustain him for long. As a single male without a conventional disability, he can expect little help from the government. “What I really need,” muses Eighner, “is for someone to say ‘We got you covered’ for a couple of months so I can get to work on a new book.”

That’s a nice thought, and it may indeed happen. But it no longer seems likely that a temporary infusion of cash will be enough to keep this talented, hapless soul and his partner in literary fame, Lizbeth the dog, off the streets for good.

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