Friday, April 12, 2013

"The Old Turk's Load"

As a lifelong writer, I like to tell myself that I’m a magpie collector of useful arcana about the language. (It’s as easy to waste a lifetime as an afternoon.) If you ask me, the sweetest four-word sentence anybody can ever hear is, "I love you, too."

But far and away—by many furlongs, leagues, and miles—the sucrosest, most satisfying, most viscerally enthralling four-word sentence human beings can ever utter is: "I told you so."

As a lifelong writer, I don’t get many chances to state this without lying. However, a couple of years ago I got a golden opportunity. This was when my pal Gregory Gibson—kempt-bearded antiquarian bookseller by day, superb writer by night, or is it the other way around?—handed me the typescript (a nearly obsolete word; of course it was a computer printout, but let’s call it a "typescript") of a novel, his first, and asked for my opinion.

Now, his three prior books are what’s nowadays termed "narrative nonfiction"—a memoir/walkabout/investigation of the murder of his eldest son, at college; a historical account of an infamous mutiny aboard a Nantucket whaling ship in the farthest reaches of the Pacific; the saga of an antiquarian colleague who stumbled on a cache of rare Diane Arbus African-American photographs and had a jolly time getting them authenticated and sold—in short, an eclectic mix as idiosyncratic and dynamic as the burly sexagenarian himself.

But a novel!

He prepared me, naturally, for the worst; and made it clear he wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t get very far. I read it in one happy, sunny afternoon, and thought it wonderful. Best of all, we were driving down to Hartford for a book fair early the next morning, so I got to savor his tension when I clambered into his van and casually dropped the news that I’d already read his book. I milked the pregnant pause mercilessly before telling him, in no uncertain terms, what I thought.

A few months later he informed me that his literary agent and her cohorts hadn’t liked it at all and felt it merited no chance in the marketplace. Therefore she wouldn’t be trying to sell it for him. (My insistence that he hold her feet over a fire till she relented fell on deaf ears; he knows better than I that it’s pointless trying to persuade a literary agent of fallibility.)

Instead he decided to issue it himself as a paperback (complete with a genuine pulp-art cover illustration) to send around to two hundred friends for Christmas. Luckily one of those friends was Otto Penzler, who started the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan decades ago and has his own imprint with Grove /Atlantic. In other words, an experienced gentleman who knows his mysteries and thrillers and recognizes real quality when he sees it.

Notice, of course, that the central point of all this brouhaha is not how terrific Greg’s novel is, but how I’m right, as usual.

Anyway, Otto loved the book as much as I did and offered Greg a full publishing contract immediately. (The Old Turk’s Load is out this week in hardback, and you’ll love it too, I promise.)

When he told me the news I got to relish the enormous joy of being able to say: I told you so. Now I mutter those words silently whenever I see him; if the book does half as well as advance reviews suggest it might, I may start leaving the phrase on his answering machine in the middle of the night just to rub it in. I’m reminded of the marvelous pianist and raconteur Oscar Levant, who—when asked if he knew Doris Day—remarked, "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." Well, I knew that TOTL was a fine novel before anyone else did, so there.

Greg’s been working on this book, off and on, since 1969. He was in the Navy then, stationed on the USS Sperry, plying the coast of California and the nearer tracts of the Pacific, reading plenty of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Frederick Exley. And starting to write. An early draft of TOTL earned a promising quasi-rejection from the paperback house of Pyramid Books and an invitation to come speak with them at their New York offices about necessary changes; he refused. Not until they came crawling, whining their miserable apologies! And he’s been rewriting it ever since, shaping and improving it as life altered him. There’s a special flavor that belongs to books worked on across the decades; like a whorled shell carried on an animal’s back, they have the vibrant personality of a cottage tended, inhabited, and loved for many years.

Here’s the dust-jacket copy:

"A tight, fast, and funny crime novel set amid the 1967 Newark riots. When a load of high-octane heroin goes missing, crooks, cops, do-gooders, and lowlifes scramble to possess it. But the heroin has ideas of its own, leading its pursuers on an increasingly deadly trail through the melee.

"Angelo DiNoto, a New Jersey crime boss, supplements his ruthless gains by importing blindingly pure artisinal smack produced by an old Turkish farmer. After a five-million-dollar shipment disappears, DiNoto can think of nothing better than to go on a murderous rampage.

"Richard Mundi, in whose lap the drugs landed, is a burned-out Manhattan developer who plans to use the unexpected windfall to revive his crumbling real estate empire. His gorgeous daughter Gloria, in bed—literally—with a band of wannabe revolutionaries, sees the heroin as a way to escape her father’s influence and impress the woman she loves.

"The Mailman is a longtime postal clerk who’s survived the worst life has to offer—until throat cancer robs him of his voice and all will to live. The drugs are his ticket to a better place. Topping off the chase is Walkaway Kelly, a private eye and Hell’s Kitchen barfly teetering on the brink of redemption.

"Stir in Kelly’s lovelorn sidekick, a pair of closeted gay hoodlums who work as DiNoto’s enforcers, Mundi’s conflicted protégé (a slab of muscle with a conscience, who also serves as Gloria’s nanny), and you have an Elmore Leonard-esque cast of characters running rampant in a convincing historical setting. Gregory Gibson weaves a twisty noir romp whose disparate threads converge in a thrilling showdown for the Old Turk’s Load."

Sadly, the dust jacket is missing a telltale phrase that bannered the original. (By the way, my copy of that "true first edition" is not for sale at any price; however, for $10 I’m willing to let visitors look at it.) That phrase? "A Walkaway Kelly Mystery." It positioned the book correctly, let us hope, as the first in a series about a hero we can believe in— a private dick with, in Greg’s piquant description, "the body of a God, the spirit of a tiger, and the brain of a 2 x 4".

The operative phrase in all this dust-jacket copy is "noir romp". Personally, I’ve never been much of a reader of mysteries or thrillers (despite a profile and appreciation of the master, Eric Ambler, that I hope to include in this space eventually). I’ve never managed to care whodunit; for me only the journey and not the arrival matters. And "noir" as a literary genre now seems utterly airless, a closed room crowded with the moldy furniture of clichés in which there isn’t space to swing an original thought. Whenever the cinematic formulas outweigh the literary possibilities, writers need to find another mineshaft.

I always feel that the noir romp has far more appeal, by dint of its tongue-in-cheek approach, than the works whose tough-guy style seems to be admiring its own trench coat and dark fedora too strenuously in the mirror. (The fake hair on the chest that e.e. cummings noted about Hemingway.) Some works I can thus heartily recommend which Greg possibly hasn’t read but which, in my limited mind, his marvelous noir romp evokes: The Tooth Merchant, by C. L. Sulzberger (one of the best opening lines I know, not suitable for a family blog); The Game of Thirty, by William Kotzwinkle; The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman; and the first book in the Mortdecai trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli.

Get to them when you can; but read Greg’s new book first!



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