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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sleazy is as Sleazy Does

Sleazy is as Sleazy does.

And little lambs eat ivy. Oops, wrong song.

It’s a funny thing about book reviews—especially when someone is turning a critical eye to your own work. Often, you realize that other people don’t always view your characters in the same light you do. An example:

Steve Moore just wrote a nicely-crafted critique of my hard-boiled mystery Shotgun Start for Book Pleasures dot com. He liked the book, for which I am grateful, and gave it a generally positive review and recommended it. All good. But he had an interesting take on my protagonist, Neal Egan, a former cop who is eking out a living as a golf hustler. Steve says: “Egan is a jerk, cad and misfit.” My immediate reaction: “A cad? A jerk? Is not.” The misfit part of the equation, I’ll concede. But a cad? Steve, this isn’t a Noel Coward play. You might as well have called him a bounder.

But then, I began to think about it. Neal was tossed from the police force because of anger management issues. He makes a living fleecing rich suckers out of their money on the lush country club and resort golf courses of the Albuquerque area. His P.I. partner is a serial adulterer. Now past his 40th birthday, he still drives a vintage muscle car and listens to headbanger music turned up to the bleeding ears range. He withholds evidence from the police. Estranged from his mother, he hasn’t talked to her for ten years.

He doesn’t call his mother regularly? Okay, maybe he is a bit of a cad.  A bounder even. But, I would say, Steve understood the changes I was trying to bring about in Neal’s life and outlook. He notes: One thing I will give him, though, is that he stays away from drugs, something hard to do in his sleazy life where drugs seem to be all around him. “Sleazy” refers more to his obsessions with drink and women—his roomie calls him Slick many times in the book and the name is appropriate.

Sleazy? Sleazy? Okay, I was willing to admit Neal is a cad, but sleazy? Does sometimes starting his day with a Negra Modelo, sharing a house with a beautiful bohemian painter of erotic art, occasionally sleeping with strangers and busting into a biker bar, handgun at the ready make his life sleazy? I think not.

A conversation with my wife revealed that she agrees with Steve about most of these observations about Neal. This made me think about context and frame of reference. As a teenager and college-age whelp, I was one of those kids your parents warned you about. I stayed out late, hung out at pool halls, learned how to French-inhale Marlboros and, had testosterone slapping through my arteries like the Rogue River funneling through a narrow slot in the rocks and would have pretty much slept with anyone of the female persuasion unwise enough to encourage me. My favorite pub featured a bartender nicknamed "Dirtbag" who earned his moniker on a daily basis. I also may have inhaled some marijuana, although Arkansas Bill asked me to deny it. Is it any wonder I drifted into a career as a disc-jockey and professional ne’er do well?

Carolyn, on the other hand, earned a 6.45 on the 4 point grade scale, treated her parents with respect, worked hard at part time jobs and flew through the University of Arizona with flying colors. After that she joined Volunteers In Service to America and helped improve the plight of poor people in Little Rock. I’m pretty sure she was overqualified for sainthood. From what I can gather, she also stayed away from boys like me.

Here’s the point. Because of the direction I steered at that stage of life, Neal’s lifestyle doesn’t seem sleazy to me in the least. In some ways, it mirrors my own experience. I too popped a top while watching Mr. Rogers in the morning. I, too, gambled on the golf course. (Mostly losing). I too, had consensual sex with people I hadn’t been properly introduced to. The people he hangs with are very much like the folks I chose to surround myself with. For Carolyn, (and apparently Steve) Neal and his gang (we’re not a gang, mijo, we’re a social club) were people you crossed to the other side of the street to avoid. That’s too bad. You probably would have enjoyed having a cad or bounder in your life.  

I’m not suggesting that writers should change their approach to characterization to cater to the predilections of the more innocent and naive among their potential readership. I do think we need to keep in mind that the impression your characters make on readers may not always be what you expected.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

DISTANT VOICES, INSTANT MEMORIES


My son, Rob just turned forty, two weeks before my sixty-third birthday. I spoke to him the other day, teasing him gently about the inexorable march of time. His response was good-natured, but still, I could hear in him the tone of disbelief that his youth was a distant dot in his rear view mirror and that middle-age was more than something to await, poke fun at and dread. It is, instead, his present reality. He has transformed from the straw-haired gamin-bodied boy of the fading photos in my album to a bald (a gift from his mother’s side of the family, I think), somewhat thick through the waist, hard-working globe-trotter of the first order. His job, coordinating webcasts for Intel studios sends him all over the world. Sometimes, it seems like he spends more time in airplanes than his apartment in Hillsboro. Recently, for the first time in his life and mine, he got a raise and moved into an income category I never attained in my forty-three years of broadcasting. This is a good thing, and I reminded him of the many times he slept on our couch and occupied our spare rooms during the student/multi-hair colored thrash rocker/between jobs phases of his life. “Buy a king-sized futon,” I advised him. “You never know when Carolyn and I will show up at your door.” He laughed, but I detected an uneasy quality to his guffaw.

Coincidentally, about a week before our conversation, I’d discovered an unlabeled flash drive in the glove box of the Prius. It moved to a counter in the living room for a few days and finally, I took it down and plugged it into my computer. When the menu came up with the contents, I remembered where I’d gotten it—a birthday gift from last year’s birthday from Rob.

When my son was nine or ten, a small portable cassette tape recorder became his toy of choice. At the time, I co-owned and operated a four-track recording studio and creative advertising concern with my friend Rick Huff. Rob spent quite a bit of time there and even voiced his first paying commercial, a cute testimonial for McDonalds that padded his Chuck E Cheese arcade game contingency fund by $25. Soon, he was “laying down tracks” of many of the events of his life.

The flash drive contained dubbed-to-digital snippets of Rob, in a quavery sing-song boy-soprano commenting on our day to day life in Albuquerque, spinning stories about imaginary super heroes and editorializing on the “weirdness” of his dad and his partner Rick. This last part is hard to deny—it’s a matter of record with dozens of eager-to-testify witnesses. He also invents and sings songs—about his pets, about school and makes the random joyful noises only a kid knows how to generate. There are also clips of the television shows he was watching, including running commentary and several minutes of me, co-hosting the local segments of the Jerry Lewis Telethon.

I’m not overly sentimental about the past (Who was it said nostalgia’s not what it used to be?), but hearing his voice (and the younger version of my own) put a lump in my throat the size of a ruby-red grapefruit and dampened my eyes. He was a great little kid, a difficult, but still quality teenager and young adult. Now he’s a middle-aged man I’m proud to call my son and my friend. The flash drive is a sobering reminder that I don’t see as much of him as I’d like to.