More 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?
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?
Baxter, 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.
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 Michael 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 fixed 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?
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.
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 deliberately 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.
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.
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.
I watched the first episode of the HBO series True Detective with low expectations. Very low expectations. The promos made it look like yet another Thomas Harris knockoff; even the standard-issue baroquely defiled murder victim, a woman displayed with antlers bound to her head, was anticipated by Hannibal. The tormented genius detective (Matthew McConaughey) threatened to be a photocopy of Will Graham in Red Dragon, and the idea of pairing him with a stodgy by-the-book partner (Woody Harrelson) went from moldy to mummified round about the first Lethal Weapon flick. The pyramidal twig thingies brought back unfortunate memories of The Blair Witch Project. Somebody even stood over the corpse and said, “He’ll do this again.” (At least he didn’t use the term “unsub.”) Did I say “low expectations”? Try sub-basement, dungeon-below-the-bottom-of-the-barrel expectations.
I hope you haven’t fallen asleep by now, because True Detective turns out to be a master class in bringing fresh, vigorous life to fossilized tropes. A big part of it is the Louisiana setting, all swampland menace beneath merciless sun, with a dash of Flannery O’Connor as the investigation brings in a revival-tent huckster with a pompadour that could have been applied with frosting from a box of Betty Crocker cake mix. But the salty byplay between the two leads gives the show its hammering pulse. Three episodes into this season, McConaughey’s detective is entirely believable as a bunch of shredded nerves that defy all attempts at self-medication, and Harrelson’s good old boy persona is flaking away to reveal a picture of quiet desperation. The framing device — an after-the-fact investigation of how the detective solved their case — promises all kinds of interesting revelations.
The second episode gave me a pleasurable surprise with a shout-out to The King in Yellow, an 1895 story collection by Robert W. Chambers that influenced H.P. Lovecraft and, through him, a host of other horror writers. (You can download it for free from Project Gutenberg.) The title refers to a fictional play Chambers suggests has been banned because of its disturbing power; the play appears only as fleeting excerpts used to introduce the individual stories. The murder victim in True Detective turns out to have kept a diary that refers to the King in Yellow and the city of Carcosa, which also figures in Chambers’ work. Chambers was a fan of Ambrose Bierce’s supernatural stories, notably “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” and he swiped the name Carcosa along with other bits of Bierce-invented nomenclature. Lovecraft, in turn, admired The King in Yellow and emulated Chambers’ technique by salting his stories with vague references to forbidden works like The Necronomicon. The Bierce-invented deity Hastur also turns up, much mutated, in Lovecraft’s weird cosmology, where he has remained. As the saying goes, talent borrows but genius steals.
How all this will play out in True Detective is anybody’s guess. The yellow deity is absent from the third episode, which ends with a glimpse of a meth-cooker as monstrous as anything in Lovecraft. We are almost halfway through the first season, after which — assuming the ratings are good — the series will reset in its second season with a new story and a fresh set of characters. Maybe it will turn out that Cthulhu is slumbering off the Louisiana coast. After the BP oil spill, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.
ADDENDUM: Art of the Title, one of my favorite Internet time-sucks, has an informative piece on the very cool title sequence for True Detective.