Chuck Jensvold: Writer

Biography

Chuck Jensvold (January 6, 1954-June 10, 2005) was a writer of neo-noir fiction set in the long-shadowed streets of L.A., on locals-only beaches like the stretch of La Jolla coast made famous by Tom Wolfe in The Pump House Gang, and on military bases like the ones he called home during his time in the Marine Corps.

Though the bulk of his work went unpublished during his lifetime, his short stories, screenplays, and other writings, archived on this site, bear the stamp of a truly original talent—a literary voice steeped in the hardboiled existentialism of Raymond Chandler, the dovetailed repartee and wisecracking cynicism of pre-war movies like His Girl Friday and Double Indemnity. Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown was the lodestar of Chuck’s literary sensibility. He owed an obvious debt to Hemingway, plain to see in the laconic phrasing and narrative compression of his prizewinning short story “When It Leaves” (Feast, Spring 1981). Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast: “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” Listen hard, and you can hear echoes, too, of poets laureate of hard-luck L.A. like John Fante and Charles Bukowski. Yet despite those indelible influences it’s a voice all its own.

Charles A. Jensvold III—“Chuck” to everyone who knew him—was born in Portland, Oregon and grew up in California, Washington, and Arizona. He spent two years at Arizona State University then transferred to Occidental College for his junior year, graduating magna cum laude in 1981 with a degree in something called Writing and Journalism: Fiction for Stage and Screen (an Independent Pattern of Study, as the English department called it, designed by Chuck). After Oxy, he worked as a freelance writer and photographer before enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1984. In the Corps, he attended Defense Information School, then worked in public affairs, serving as editor and photographer of the base newspaper wherever he was assigned, from 29 Palms to Camp Foster in Okinawa. He thrived in that role, twice winning the Thomas Jefferson Award, the highest honor the military awards for journalism. Honorably discharged from the Marines in 1993, he worked for his older brother Daniel’s Del Mar, California-based architecture firm, Jensvold Associates, making scale models of buildings whose fastidious attention to detail never failed to impress clients. As well, he moonlighted as an advertising copywriter and ghostwrote business speeches. He kept his hand in fiction but more or less abandoned any hope of finding a home for his short stories and screenplays—the collateral damage of one too many rejection slips. “After many years of trying to break into the business,” says Dan, “he became discouraged.”

As a writer, Chuck hit his stride during his years at Occidental, where he was part of a literary circle that included Steve Coll, who would go on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist; Bill Mullen, in time an activist scholar in the fields of African-American and working-class studies; Margot Mifflin, later an English professor and author of books about women’s history; Alex McNear, co-founder with fellow English major Tom Grauman of the student literary journal Feast; Mark Dery, in years to come a cultural critic and biographer; and “Barry” Obama, as he was then known, a budding poet wrestling with his biracial identity and awakening political consciousness.

Both Chuck and Obama took David James’s poetry class and often had lunch together in The Cooler, a student coffee shop that provided a kitschy hangout for chain-smoking hipsters, Marxist intellectuals, and what David Maraniss, an Obama biographer, calls the “self-selecting” clique of students who took their writing seriously (and themselves a little too seriously, maybe). In Barack Obama: The Story, Maraniss describes Oxy’s insular “literary set” during Chuck’s years at the college:

[T]hey all knew one another. Mark Dery...was...fixated on the bizarre and eccentric aspects of modern culture. ... Then there was the hypnotic storytelling of Chuck Jensvold, who would die young, a sort of noir Hemingway of the surf, considered the most talented writer of the group... (“I could rely on feel, on feel alone. That thing called feel. That’s what it is. Nothing to watch out for. Only water about. Water I knew. Water that carried me, carried me hard: gouging, cutting back in waves, clear black waves. They rolled and broke and tubed, without light, they didn’t need it. They had feel.”) And there was the close-to-the-bone poetry of Margot Mifflin, who was then dating [a classmate and close friend of Obama’s named Hasan] Chandoo but would later marry Dery. ... Obama was on the edge of this group, wanting in, starting to think of himself as a writer.

Older than most of Oxy’s would-be literati by a half decade and quietly serious about the “spooky art” of writing, as Norman Mailer called it, Chuck impressed his friends and professors alike with his diligence and undeniable talent. “When It Leaves” was awarded First Place in the 1981 Argonaut Writing Contest, a student competition. To everyone who knew him, it was only a matter of time, it seemed, before he made his name as a writer of serious fiction.

Chuck’s untimely death at 51 on June 10, 2005 meant that promise would never be fulfilled. When his father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Chuck moved to Colorado to help take care of him. There, while taking down the flag he’d put up in observation of D-Day, he fell, sustaining a head injury. “He thought he was OK, but two days later, he got a terrific headache and died before the medics could get there,” his mother recalls. The attending doctor gave the cause of death as “intracranial hemorrhage”; Elaine Jensvold believes the more specific cause of Chuck’s death may have been epidural hematoma, the sudden—and, sadly, treatable—intracranial bleeding that entered public consciousness when it led to the death of Natasha Richardson, the actor.

Chuck Jensvold is buried near his father in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on Point Loma, San Diego.

—Mark Dery

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