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Year of the Cat 

Author Mark Salzman gets by with a little help from a friend

In Mark Salzman's hilarious 1995 memoir, Lost in Place, he describes his adolescent attempts to emulate David Carradine of television's Kung Fu. Salzman took to wearing a Halloween "bald wig" and began taking kung-fu lessons from a hyperaggressive alcoholic American called Sensei O'Keefe. In the book, Salzman describes how his teacher would routinely strike his own students viciously during their lessons. At one point, he wrote, Sensei O'Keefe "hit me so hard on the side of the head that I crashed into a wall and brought a whole shelf of trophies down with me." Sensei O'Keefe also arranged for his pupils to spar at night in a cemetery, also known as "the field of honor."

"I tried so hard to find myself by trying to make myself someone that I wasn't," says Salzman, "and that always, inevitably, leads to failure, I suspect, and failure generally makes for good humor."

Salzman is swinging through town to plug the paperback release of his latest novel, 2000's Lying Awake. The somewhat more grave storyline concerns a cloistered nun who experiences moments of what she believes to be deep communion with God, only to discover that they're most likely seizures induced by a brain tumor. "The question for her," says the author, "is, 'How do you move forward when you're not even sure where you're going anymore?'"

Salzman reports that he experienced his own confusion during the six years of endless rewrites it took to complete the book. At one point, he says, he had grown so sick of sitting at his desk that he spent an entire year working on Lying Awake in the passenger seat of his Honda station wagon. His cat often chose to lounge atop the car's moonroof, and the humble author occasionally pondered the meaning of it all while "staring up a cat's ass."

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