AURORA | Billy Ray Schafer is down on his luck. An aging stand-up comedian, Schafer used to have a shot at stardom, but burned up his chance at fame a long time ago along with a lot of people’s goodwill. Divorced, estranged from his ex-wife and his children, and battling a fierce cocaine addiction, Schafer is on a stand-up tour of the American Southwest, peddling his jokes to bemused crowds across Colorado in exchange for an envelope of cash and free liquor.
Schafer is the hard-to-love protagonist of Colorado comedian Sam Tallent’s debut novel Running the Light, which he self-published into the pandemic. It isn’t a real story, but it could be: all the gigs described in the book Tallent says he’s performed at least once.
The messy world of stand up has received quite a bit of attention in memoirs and autobiography, but it’s rarely had the literary treatment. “Self-published novel by someone in a different art form” doesn’t have the ring of literary genius, but it’s there that Tallent defies expectations. (Denver Post critic John Wenzel called it “surprisingly good”.) What could be just another Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas knockoff is a touching novel, one that doesn’t shy away from it’s protagonist’s flaws or bleak future.
“I like very high stakes with very little reward,” Tallent said of his writing modus operandi.
The book follows Schafer for seven days of his tour as he travels across the small towns and big cities of Colorado. Schafer doesn’t have much purpose besides where he can get his next score of cocaine, but he still finds himself drawn to reconnect with family and friends along the way, to mixed results.
The Centennial State looms large in the book, almost as present as Schafer himself. Tallent said the book is as much a love letter to Colorado as it is to stand up. He started writing it while living in Las Vegas with his wife, who was finishing medical school there. A born and raised Coloradan who described Vegas as “an empty bleak place without any culture,” the story grew in part out of homesickness.
He wrote thousands of words while he was there, letting Schafer’s story develop organically without an endpoint in mind. The book’s final destination won’t be much of a surprise to readers, but you’ll have to pick it up to find out.
Running the Light is an Odyssey of sorts. Schafer is “a man of twists and turns,” channeling the muse of comedy but adrift in most other parts of his life. Separated from his family, he travels from place to place, having adventures that range from bizarre to life-threatening. He’s a man out of time even in the comedy scene, standing still as the world turns around him (at one point he asks a young comedian what a podcast is).
“I look at this book as a cautionary tale,” Tallent said. Schafer is “the guy I don’t want to turn into.”
Though he wouldn’t want his life, Tallent said he had a lot of fun writing Schafer.
“I like books about broken men who drive around in pickup trucks drinking whiskey,” he said. He cited Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy as his greatest literary inspirations, as well as comedian Norm MacDonald (who makes a cameo in the book, along with some others from the real world).
Not being able to go on tour with the book was a disappointment, but Tallent said that the book, which he sells on his website, samtallent.com has surpassed all of his expectations. He wonders if the lack of real comedy during the pandemic has boosted sales.
“Maybe this was kind of like morphine for the heroin addict who missed live stand up,” he joked.