“How come you haven’t posted a new blog entry in a month?”
“I’ve been finishing up another novel.”
“Yes, a novel. Sometimes I write novels.”
“That’s pretty weird, Greg.”
“Well, here’s how it happened… I graduated college in 1967 with a broken heart and no academic prospects. Vietnam was raging and I soon found myself on a ship in the U.S. Navy, sailing up and down the west coast of North America. The term of my enlistment was about what you’d get for a class E felony – involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, that sort of thing. I had plenty of time on my hands, and I resolved to use this time to improve myself – something I’d neglected to do previously.
I undertook the study of Homeric Greek, in order that I might read the Iliad and the Odyssey in their native tongue. And I studied the works of the poets Ezra Pound and Charles Olson. And I studied the works of those three great modern masters – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain – who, during the entirety of my four years in a prestigious east coast liberal arts college, had never once been mentioned by any of my professors. Nor were their works available in the college library or the campus bookstore.
It happened that, since I was the only sailor in the ship’s Repair Division who could read, write, and operate an IBM Selectric typewriter, I was given the task of compiling the daily watch bill for the Division. This job came with certain benefits. Specifically, in exchange for a soft spot on the watch bill, my shipmates would render compensation in the form of goods or services. One of my clients was a 2nd class Machinist’s Mate named Ellis, a fine fellow who was tragically fat. The man just loved to eat. It got so bad that the Chief sent him to the infirmary, where the medic prescribed diet pills, which Ellis would deliver to me every week, in exchange for a favorable place on the watch bill – hatfulls of diet pills. Also, at about this time, I came into possession of a brick of hashish roughly the size of half a salami. These chemical enhancements, I hoped, would contribute to my studies of Homeric Greek and of the works of Ezra Pound and Charles Olson, and of those three great modern masters, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain.
Well, it didn’t take long to realize that I’d never learn Homeric Greek, nor had I much understanding of whatever it was that Pound and Olson were talking about. But the three great modern masters – Hammett, Chandler, and James M. Cain – spoke to me. Indeed, it was as if I’d heard my native tongue for the first time. I sat down in front of the IBM Selectric typewriter, and resolved to create an homage to the three great modern masters…
A guy wakes up from a blackout drunk, in bed with a gorgeous blonde, her honey-colored hair flowing over the pillow. He has no idea how he got there, but he thinks, “Boy, I must’ve done something right!” And he leans over to get a look at her, and he sees that she’s a… she’s a guy. A hippy, with a beard and long hair, and he’s got a bullet hole in his chest, and he’s dead, and sirens are wailing outside, and someone is pounding on the door…
I don’t remember what happened in that story, but I do remember that it was 18 ½ single-spaced pages long, and that my shipmates loved it.
This was encouraging. It inspired me to hope, to dream, that I might someday be able to create a work worthy of the three masters. So I sat back down at the IBM Selectric and started typing. But all I could get were scenes – a guy at a bar, a guy answering the telephone, somebody meeting somebody else. And they were pretty good. I mean, I thought they were good. I thought of each of these little scenes as pearls. But the problem was, they were unstrung.
I lost my Selectric typewriter when I got out of the Navy but, undaunted, I set about trying to string those pearls. I worked hard at it, and at some point I had what I thought was a novel. I named it after The Dangling Man, a best-selling book by Saul Bellow, only my detective novel was called The Dangling Dick. I had many copies made down at the local office center. I remember that the guy down there, the guy who ran the Xerox machine, got a peculiar sort of smile on his face, like, Oh, I know what you’re up to…
I sent my manuscript out to every publisher I could find in those magazines about how to be a writer, every publisher who seemed to me to publish books that might resemble, in one way or another, The Dangling Dick. I sent copies of my manuscript to these publishers, as they say, “over the transom,” meaning just cold, with no introduction, no pitch, no nothing, as if my pages, in plain newsprint wrappings, inside their carefully addressed manila envelopes, had been tossed through those little windows that used to sit atop doors in offices for ventilation. Of course, I didn’t know then, but I know now, that nobody ever reads things that arrive in such a manner.
It was almost miraculous therefore, that some months later I received a letter from Pyramid Publishing, a big pulp outfit in New York. They told me they liked my writing and that they thought I had talent, but that they couldn’t buy my book because the American public would never accept a detective hero who was an alcoholic. However, they invited me to come down to New York and discuss with them the realities of the publishing business.
I was so innocent, and so full of testosterone, and so stupid that, instead of being overjoyed, I was furious. Who were they to fuck with my deathless prose? Did they think they could turn me into a New York hack? Think again! So there it went… my career as a New York hack. In fairness, my wife and I had just had our first child and I knew I needed to do something more remunerative than stringing pearls. I would’ve let the whole thing go, except right about that time I had a religious vision. A spiritual experience.
It was February, early in the morning, and it was cold and dark and sleeting, and I had a hangover. I was standing on a corner waiting for a guy to show up with a truck. He had hired me to help him move some furniture, but he was late, and my toes were getting painfully cold. I searched for him down that long, dark street, and all at once became suffused with a strange warmth. A magnificent idea came whole into my head then, as a complete understanding, as a vision of the world. And the substance of this vision was that we are born, and that we suffer, and that we die, and that life is fucking hard. And I saw that if… that if somehow I could do anything with the meager talent God had granted me, my writing might provide for my fellow human beings just a few hours of relief, a momentary distraction from the misery and suffering that is our lot.
From that moment of inspiration, I went on to write and sell a memoir about the murder of my son, then another one about the grisliest mutiny ever committed on an American whaling vessel, and then another one about a guy who went crazy and commenced a relationship with the photographer Diane Arbus, who’d been dead for more than 20 years. These, I should add, were nonfiction books. So, I can’t say I was fulfilling the precise terms of my vision, but I felt I was working toward it.
Sometimes, I dared to imagine that, when my life was over, I’d arrive at the pearly gates and Saint Peter would say, “What are you doing here?” And I would reply, “I wrote books that provided a few hours of relief for millions of my fellow beings – fated to be born, to suffer, and to die.” And Saint Peter would say, “Actually, Greg, only a few hundred of them ever read your books. But I’m not forgetting that, in 2018, you spent an entire day with your wife shopping for kitchen appliances and household goods. So, come on in. You did the best you could with what you had.”
Still, my failed crime novel, The Dangling Dick, dangled before me as a last hope, as the last possible way to honor the terms of my vision. I kept coming back to it, tinkering, trying different things. I knew I it needed to be bigger. And the plot… oh, plots are horrible. Like trying to repair a machine while it’s running. And I had all these characters come through, like a Broadway producer auditioning actors for his next play. Of course, most of them washed out, but there were some terrific ones. Like the two thugs, Turk and Eddie, from the Tenderloin district in San Francisco. Most of the book went by – I mean it took years before I discovered that these two tough guys were in love with one another. You spend enough time with these people, and you get to know them. And by this time, I’d been working on the book for quite a while. We’re talking, 1969, ‘79, ‘89, ‘99…
It wasn’t until the Millennium rolled around that my old friend Fred Buck straightened me and my book out. He was a retired mailman, and just at the beginning of his retirement, he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer, which pretty much ruined his retirement plans. But, because of his postal career he knew everything about Gloucester, Massachusetts, our hometown. And I realized this was just what the book needed – that if I put Gloucester in there, and Fred, and his cancer, the book would attain the scope it needed.
So I asked Fred if he’d let me borrow his persona, and he said he would work for Scotch whiskey. He specified the brand, and I assented to this arrangement, then went out to procure some. And it turned out to be hideously expensive. So expensive, in fact, that each bottle came in a wooden box. I remember asking the clerk at the high-end liquor store if it was any cheaper without the box, and him just looking at me like I was an insect. But I got the stuff to Fred, and he helped me so much that I vowed to dedicate the book, which was now called The Old Turk’s Load – a less salacious title – to him.
Sometimes you work on stuff and you could work forever, and other times there comes a moment and you know you’ve finished your job. Thus it was that, one happy day in 2012, I knew my book was finally finished. I sent it to my agent, and she said, “I can’t sell this. It sounds just like Hammett, or Chandler, or James M. Cain.” But it eventually found a publisher, and it got some good reviews. I was proud and happy to think that a few hundred more people might find a moment’s relief from their difficult lives.
Then, in 2015, I had a dream. In this dream, I was having a dream inside a dream, dreaming that I’d gotten lost in Manhattan, and then that it wasn’t Manhattan, and that I wasn’t dreaming, but was awake and had gotten lost in some strange other place, and that it wasn’t me in the dream, but someone else, and that it was time to write a book about that other person, and about the strange place that wasn’t Manhattan in 1970, but something very like it, which is how my latest crime novel, Bad Actor, came to be.
Now all I’ve got to do is find a publisher.