End-of-Summer Reading

My consolation for seeing the summer come to an end is the imminent publication of my essay collection Let the Devil Speak. Meanwhile, NJ Spotlight is running an excerpt from American Dictators for its Summer Reading List. Thanks, guys.

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On the Beach

 

From the book Blue Mind:

We are inspired by water — hearing it, smelling it in the air, playing in it, walking next to it, painting it, surfing, swimming or fishing in it, writing about it, photographing it, and creating lasting memories along its edge. Indeed, throughout history, you see our deep connection to water described in art, literature, and poetry. “In the water I am beautiful,” admitted Kurt Vonnegut. Water can give us energy, whether it’s hydraulic, hydration, the tonic effect of cold water splashed on the face, or the mental refreshment that comes from the gentle, rhythmic sensation of hearing waves lapping a shore. Immersion in warm water has been used for millennia to restore the body as well as the mind. Water drives many of our decisions — from the seafood we eat, to our most romantic moments, and from where we live, to the sports we enjoy, and the ways we vacation and relax. “Water is something that humanity has cherished since the beginning of history, and it means something different to everyone,” writes archeologist Brian Fagan. We know instinctively that being by water makes us healthier, happier, reduces stress, and brings us peace.

In 1984 Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University biologist, naturalist, and entomologist, coined the term “biophilia” to describe his hypothesis that humans have “ingrained” in our genes an instinctive bond with nature and the living organisms we share our planet with. He theorized that because we have spent most of our evolutionary history—three million years and 100,000 generations or more — in nature (before we started forming communities or building cities), we have an innate love of natural settings. Like a child depends upon its mother, humans have always depended upon nature for our survival. And just as we intuitively love our mothers, we are linked to nature physically, cognitively, and emotionally.

 

From my novel Echo:

Lines of muscle strained along Theresa’s bare arms. Lisa pretended to hold the brim in place as she watched the men slouch off. Theresa’s hand, still tight in hers, stopped trembling after a few minutes.     She shifted in a way that Lisa recognized without thinking. She let her sister settle her head in her lap, then she stroked her hair back from her eyes. Theresa stared out at the waves.

     “I always loved the beach,” she muttered.

     “The beach loves you back. You looked fantastic out there in the waves. I thought you were going to ride off on a dolphin and we’d never see you again.”

     Theresa laughed – a gravelly sound. “A whale, maybe.”

     “Bullshit.”

     Another laugh, this one clearer.

     “So, you don’t like this? It isn’t working for you?”

     “It works, all right.” She sighed, and her breath puffed across Lisa’s leg. “The sound of the ocean always puts me right. I probably wouldn’t want to be here if you weren’t here, but I love this.”

     “That’s what I want to hear about. Things you love.”

     “What is it about that sound, I wonder.”

     “We were all floating around in water before we were born,” Lisa said. “All that sloshing along with mom’s heartbeat. It probably makes you think of the womb, before you were born.”

     Theresa laughed. She twisted around to look up at Lisa. “Where did that come from?”

     “I dunno,” Lisa said. “It just popped out.”

     Theresa sat up and hugged her knees. She squinted after the two men, who were a few yards away but seemed in no hurry to move along.

     “That was nice, what he said.”

     “It was,” Lisa said.

     “I shouldn’t have freaked like that. I still get caught off guard sometimes.”

     The sun was setting behind them, and the evening haze was full of pink and purple light. A couple of hundred yards away, four young girls were climbing an overturned lifeguard boat and jumping off. A couple in their twenties walked past, holding hands and bumping shoulders. The man’s arms were a dense weave of tattoos. The woman had a neon pink feather in her black hair. The plumage changed, but the rituals stayed the same.

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Book the Next

Cover LTDS 7-10-14More details will come in due course, but this is my next (nonfiction) book, due out later this summer. Check out the nice things Rick Perlstein and Michael Gray have to say on the cover. Do I need to say how much I love the cover?

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The Birthday State

So today marks the 350th anniversary of the signing of the land grant that awarded John Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret the lands between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. The property transferred via this very lucrative real estate deal was named after Carteret’s ancestral home, the Isle of Jersey. In other words, it’s New Jersey’s 350th birthday.

I wouldn’t want to be accused of crass commercialism or anything like that — heavens no! — but I can’t think of a better way to mark this by occasion than by buying a book or two that’s related to New Jersey history. Do I have any suggestions, you want to know? Funny you should ask! I can think of at least two, right off the bat!

First there’s American Dictators, my dual biography of the notorious political bosses Frank Hague (ruler of Hudson County for three decades and a national player with enough clout to intimidate presidents) and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (who controlled all graft and bootlegging in Atlantic City during its heyday in the Roaring Twenties). Nucky, of course, is the inspiration for the hero of the highly fictionalized HBO series Boardwalk Empire, in which any even more heavily fictionalized Frank Hague makes an appearance every now and then. Personally, I find the nonfiction versions far more interesting, which is why I wrote the book.

Then there’s The Last Three Miles, my first nonfiction book, which covers the construction of the first superhighway project in the United States, and the bloody labor war that erupted during the completion of its final phase, now known as the Pulaski Skyway. If you’ve ever driven that not-quite legendary span, you might think it was designed by madmen. In fact, it was designed by extremely competent engineers who were working on the cutting edge of new technology, and who saw their work undone  at the last minute by political interference. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the sensational murder trial. Murder, politics, and traffic engineering — all the things that make the world go ’round.

Since none of this would have happened if Charles II hadn’t signed that piece of paper, I think it’s safe to say these books have been 350 years in the making. How’s that for a cover blurb?

 

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Baxter

BAXTERJBOYBaxter, the last of my original Westie clan, is gone. Truth to tell, all the qualities that had made him such a distinctive personality and entertaining companion had vanished long before I took him to the vet. He wasn’t even a shadow of himself, but I wanted him to hear his name and feel loving hands stroking him right up to the end. I could do that much for him.

Among the original members of Clan Westie, Baxter was the instigator, always up for a tussle or a game. If things got too quiet, he was happy to get something going. His signature move was to walk slowly through the living room with a squeaky toy in his mouth, dropping it every now and then, looking around before picking it back up, getting the other dogs wound up as he made it clear he was holding the greatest toy in the known dog world. It almost always worked. When it didn’t, Baxter made his own fun. On several occasions I saw him leaping and lunging around a treat or a toy, pretending it was trying to get away from him.

Sadie, his consort and sparring partner, preferred to tussle outside, usually from underneath a chair where she could leap out and snap at Baxter as he ran past. (Ever the strategist, she knew that out in the open Baxter would roll over her through sheer momentum.) That was during the day. At night, Sadie could turn the tables on him. Many a night I would step onto the back deck and see two little white blobs dashing back and forth through the yard, occasionally coming together, then splitting up and running circles around each other. This was their pattern right from the start. When we were deciding if we should get them, we went into a playroom and from the second their paws touched the floor they were scrapping. Baxter would chase Sadie, Sadie would chase Baxter, lather, rinse, repeat.

Baxter was funny even when he was demanding. He had a way of pushing his snout at people’s ankles or hands that became known as Baxter Bumps. One of my oldest daughter’s friends thought Baxter Bumps were so cute, she would deliberately interrupt a petting session in order to get a few.  His round black eyes communicated innocence, even when he shredded rolls of paper towels that had been left on the floor or deck.

And yet, for all his scalawag ways, Baxter was the sweetest, most even-tempered dog you could ever hope to meet. I don’t think I ever saw him bear his teeth at any person. He really did want to be everyone’s friend. Once he broke away and trotted to the sidewalk to greet a woman walking her dog. When it turned and snarled at him, he was so upset he needed three days to recover his usual happy-go-lucky demeanor.

But he was a Westie, and that meant he was a hunter. A very ruthless one. We only knew a nest of skunks had been established under the tool shed when dead kits started turning up. When he spotted a snake crawling in the neighbor’s wood pile, catching that snake became his obsession. One afternoon in the back yard, a friend squinted and said, “Wow, Baxter sure loves his snake toy.” He loved it so much I had to collect it with a shovel for disposal. I was relieved to see it wasn’t a poisonous snake, but sorry to see it was a pest-catcher — a garter snake, maybe. It was hard to tell.  

Baxter was seventeen years old. He outlived Sadie by a year or so, but his decline was shockingly abrupt. He had been chugging along as an old campaigner, slower and a bit fatter but still game, always on patrol in the yard. Then something happened. Some switch was thrown, and Baxter was gone. No more bumps, no more grand morning entrances to demand to be carried downstairs and then served breakfast. The round eyes turned squinty, and when he wasn’t napping he was wandering around the house like a little lost soul. When I picked him up I could feel his muscles jumping. Pain? Probably, but Baxter was a stoic. He never complained.For two days he ignored his food and water. Even when I placed some liverwurst in his mouth and held it shut, he didn’t swallow.

Even on the table at the animal hospital, Baxter didn’t seem aware of his surroundings. The vet administered a sedative as I held him, and after a few seconds he slumped heavily against my arm. “Go to sleep, little man,” I whispered to him as the final shot was administered, and his body unclenched. The curled forelegs relaxed and his head fell limp. The Baxter I had known was already gone, but at least now the pain was gone, too.

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The Four Questions

And the voice of J. D. Rhoades was heard throughout the land: post four questions relating to yourself as a writer, along with an image and link for your latest book. Then invite three other authors to do likewise the next Monday.

1. What am I working on?

I’m in the middle of polishing an essay collection called Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements. (Historian Rick Perlstein and music writer AMERICANDICTATOTSFRONTMichael Gray have given me the most awesome cover blurbs.) I’m also plotting out a sequel to my first crime novel, We All Fall Down, that will take the heroine to some pretty harrowing places. I’m also doing preliminary research on a couple of likely nonfiction projects that will be a decisive break from the political boss/political machine orientation of my first two nonfiction books, The Last Three Miles and American Dictators.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I like to think my fiction is distinguished by its level of realism, its intensity of emotion and its preference for unconventional protagonists and points of view. A big part of the impetus for writing We All Fall Down was my wish to create a woman cop who reflected the ones I’ve met on the job. With that in mind, I decided to complicate the picture by making Karen McCarthy an unattractive woman who under regular circumstances would probably be ignored by most men. Giving someone like that a job that makes her impossible to ignore opened up lots of intriguing possibilities.

3. Why do write what you do?

That question assumes I have a choice. I go in for crime stories, partly from taste and partly because newspaper work and the things I observe on the job provide fuel for my imagination. Part of the inspiration for We All Fall Down was a trial in which a jeweler was accused of using an armed robbery at his store as an excuse for killing his wife during the gunplay. (The novel’s opening chapter has nothing to do with the case, I was just struck by the idea of using a crime to cover up another, even bigger crime.) Echo was in part an angry response to some sexual assault cases I knew about, as well as a local sex-crime case in which many locals (smart people I had never suspected of Neanderthal tendencies) sided with the aggressor, a local pillar of the community. I like fantasy and science fiction but I have no gift for writing either. I tend toward hyper-realism in my fiction.

 4. How does your writing process work?

My pattern with fiction is to start with a scene and play with ideas and plotlines that lead to and away from it. Once the novel’s first quarter and final scene are Cover 2a - 5in 72dpi - front for screenfixed in my mind, I start writing in earnest. I don’t work with outlines in fiction — I like to surprise myself. (Nonfiction is a different matter. Structure is your best friend when writing a large nonfiction work.) While working on something I usually develop odd fixations on certain pieces of music that have no obvious connection to the project. I let them play themselves out, because writing is a conscious and subconscious activity. Once a project is finished, I put it aside to cool off before revisions. There are always revisions, and coming back to the project after a brief interval allows you to see things and make new thematic connections.

This past fall saw publication of my latest nonfiction book as well as my second crime novel. American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine (Rutgers University Press) is a dual biography of two men I consider the ultimate political bosses in terms of power and influence: Frank Hague, master of Jersey City and Hudson County, and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the preening Boardwalk peacock of Atlantic City. (He is the inspiration for the heavily fictionalized Nucky Thompson in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.) The book has gotten some very good notices and even rated a mention in the New York Times. Echo (Black Angel Press) is my black diamond: the darkest, most hard-edged novel I will probably ever write. It’s proved to be much less popular than We All Fall Down, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s a much harsher book, but I think its heroine and her sister are the two best female characters I’ve written to date. It’s also produced the most extreme reactions of any novel I’ve written: some thought it was a knockout, but one friend resolutely refuses to say anything about it one way or the other. (She’s still willing to associate with me, so I guess that’s a positive sign.) Joyce Carol Oates was the presiding spirit for the project.

As for tagging some other writers and authors — any volunteers? Bathsheba Monk, any irons in the fire? Anybody else?       

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Game of Shout-outs

Game of Thrones is a class act. Yes, the show is so eager to display the naked female form engaged in sexual acts whenever possible that I sometimes think Paul Verhoeven took over the camera to make a medieval version of Showgirls. Yes, the previous season’s depiction of how Theon was transformed into Reek (which took place mostly offstage in the novels) played like outtakes from Salo.

But in the second episode of the new season, King Joffrey (aka Caligula Bieber) brandished his new sword and wondered aloud what to name it. “Stormbringer!” someone shouted off camera. “Terminus Est!” someone else shouted, just as another called out the name used in George R. R. Martin’s novel — Widow’s Wail.

The plot rolled on and I rolled with it, but not before I had my little glow of appreciation for the shout-outs to Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe. What is turning out to be the greatest fantasy series ever made for television took time to give props to two other fantasy greats. Terminus Est is the massive sword used by Severian, the apprentice torturer in Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.  Stormbringer is the soul-devouring weapon featured in Moorcock’s long-running series about Elric, the semi-human albino who needs the sword to keep himelf alive.  So — a class act.

If someone had also called out “Graywand” or “Scalpel,” thus referencing Fritz Lieber’s classic Lankhmar stories, the episode would have scored my personal heroic fantasy trifecta. Maybe another episode. I’m sure they’ll get around to it. This show is, after all, a class act.

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The King in Yellow and the Herring in Red

Now that the final episode of True Detective is out of the box, it becomes clear that all the time we adepts spent delving into Robert W. Chambers and The King in Yellow would have been better spent doing . . . well, just about anything else. With its elaborately unsatisfying climax and ThePledgedeliberately hokey wrap up, True Detective brings to mind not The King in Yellow but The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “Requiem for the Detective Story,” which used the genre’s tropes to cock a leg over the very concept of the detective story.

In other words, I got suckered, just like you. Turns out that True Detective was meant all along to be nothing more than an eight-hour piss take. Rust Cohle’s nihilistic mumbo jumbo and the ominous hints about Carcosa were just bread crumbs leading us to a dead end. Throughout its eight-episode run, True Detective deliberately used the most hackneyed mystery story devices — the mismatched partners, the tormented genius detective, the perpetually angry supervisor — but burned through cliches with doomy swampland atmosphere, hints of something bigger and scarier just around the next corner, and, above all, the forceful acting of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. 

With the season finale, series creator Nic Pizzolatto trotted out every standard move from every serial killer tale you’ve seen since The Silence of the Lambs. The killer’s isolated house. The detective chasing the bad guy into his dungeon, when years of police training and simple common sense would have dictated securing the area and calling for backup. The bad guy’s disembodied voice taunting the detective as he picks his way through the chamber of horrors. (Nice set design, by the way.) The tormented genius getting a chance at inner peace and redemption. Even a cheesy joke at the end to show us the combative partners are now BFFs. When Marty’s family showed up in his hospital room, their fixed smiles and robotic stares had me expecting some kind of last minute explosion of weirdness. But that’s not what Pizzolatto was after.

Durrenmatt’s story showed a brilliant police detective who becomes obsessed with finding a serial child molester, long after the case is officially closed, and loses his mind when his foolproof plan to capture the killer goes unresolved. Durrenmatt’s point was that the random workings of chance played a bigger role in life than the insights of genius detectives. Point taken. I guess Pizzolatto’s point was that viewers may be intrigued by hints of real evil, but really what they want is a formulaic resolution and a cup of warm milk before bedtime. Point taken. Now go bug somebody else with your postmodern narrative critique.

There’s some undeniable nerve involved in creating a series that ends up giving its viewers the back of its hand. But if there is a second season of True Detective, I’m not so sure I’ll be around to see how it turns out. Fool me once . . . you know the rest. Or maybe you don’t. In that case, have fun with the second season.    

 

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The Frighten Side of Me

I’ve been a lot of promotional work on my latest nonfiction book, American Dictators, including a March 8 appearance at the Secaucus Public Library that should be fun.

But when I’m not writing about political bosses and labor wars, I write crime fiction of the dark, gritty variety that inhabits a territory where John Sandford, Patricia Highsmith, Georges Simenon, Jim Thompson, and Joyce Carol Oates overlap.

Those of you who are Kindle compatible will get a chance to download my two novels We All Fall Down and Echo as ebook freebies, from Monday through Wednesday. The first is a police procedural about a troubled woman police officer named Karen McCarthy, who will be making a return sometime next year. The second involves an even more troubled heroine, Theresa Costanza, and the story is a dark psychological thriller modeled after Simenon’s romans durs, or “hard novels.”

Download them with my compliments, for three days, at any rate.

 

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Back to the swamp!

My February calendar is clear (so far) but I’m back on the American Dictators promotional trail in March, when I’m set to appear at the Secaucus Public Library on Saturday, March 8, at 11 a.m. They love Frank Hague stories in those Meadowlands towns, and listeners of a certain age often have stories of their own to tell. Read all about it here.

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