I wrote a short story called Johnny Heartbreak for my pal, the publisher Dennis McMillan, specifically for his anthology Measures of Poison commemorating his 20th year in publishing. I met Dennis for the first time in 1992 or so, in Vagabond Books in Los Angeles, and we started talking about Charles Willeford. Two hours later we were still talking.
Dennis and I became friends and he loaned me some of Willeford’s unpublished manuscripts and I ended up discovering Willeford’s great “lost” masterpiece, Deliver Me From Dallas (one of those “unpublished” manuscripts), had actually been published in 1961 by Fawcett Gold Medal as a paperback original under the name of Willeford’s old USAF pal, W. Franklin Sanders, with the title The Whip Hand. I was collecting PBs in those days, sometimes buying 30 or so a week. Anyway, nobody knew the book had been published — not, that is, Willeford or his widow, Betsy Willeford, or Dennis… It was a cool, cool, cool discovery. [Click here to read the account I wrote for the Austin Chronicle, which I expanded for the new publication of the book, under the real title, which Dennis published a few years later. Here it is on Amazon.] Here’s a review of The Whip Hand by Ed Lynskey. Thanks, Ed.
Measures of Poison, published in 2002, finds me in great company, alongside such great talents as Willeford, Christopher Cook, George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, James Sallis, James Crumley, Jon A. Jackson, Scott Phillips, Gary Phillips, and a number of other fine writers. Johnny Heartbreak is about a bootlegger named Johnny in a fictional town during Prohibition years, and as I often do, I wrote a song to go with it. Which reminds me, Michael Connelly has a new novel, The Black Box. Trying to remember if I’ve sent Michael a copy of Jon Dee Graham’s song, “The Black Box.” I’m sure he’d love it. [“red meat and wreckage … knee deep in a field…” Now THAT is my idea of SONGWRITING. I’m not being ironic, either. )
Here’s the song I wrote for Johnny Heartbreak, which oddly enough is called “Johnny Heartbreak Blues.”
I just recorded this little video clip of the song as an intro to my next iBook, Grave Digger Blues. More on that later in the week.
Don’t we love ABE.com? I wonder sometimes how many thousands of dollars I’ve spent ordering books from there in the last ten years. Probably good not to know. Their newsletter, The Avid Reader, makes for fun online window shopping. The latest one, Great Gumshoes, is a subjective survey of classic detective novels. Naturally, it’s a magnet for comments, e.g, “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOUR LIST DID NOT INCLUDE [name of your favorite private eye here].” Actually the editorial comment on these is secondary to the visuals. It’s really fun to look at the cool cover art, and THEN you can click on the image and find out how many times you’d have to mortgage your house to buy a first edition of, say, The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, etc. (If those aren’t among your favorites, don’t hold your breath, I’m not mentioning any others.) Anyway, I like these blogs. A few months ago there was one on woodcut books, really great looking stuff. Did you know that the art of woodcut printing is called xylography? Look it up on wiki if you don’t believe me. I always thought xlography was a memoir by a xylophonist, but what do I know?
Last Tuesday the latest edition of Noir at the Bar: Austin hosted Sarah Cortez, poet, crime fiction writer, Houston policewoman, and all-around lovely gal, and I’ve been devouring her How To Undress a Cop collection of gritty and beautiful poetry. She was here at the Texas Book Festival promoting her most recent book, Walking Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston. And let’s not forget that Reed Farrel Coleman was our other big star that night, and just this Sunday Morning his new novel, Gun Church, got the big wet kiss of approval from Marilyn Stasio in NYTBR. Cool, daddy-o. Coleman gave a great reading from that book Tuesday night and I look forward to reading more by him.
I’m also really enjoying reading Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion, by my pal W. K. “Kip” Stratton. In previous books Stratton has written about rodeo, football and Sam Peckinpah, and although he always writes well, I think this may be his most powerful and compelling narrative yet. When I think about that era, the fifties and sixties, I guess I’ve always been a much bigger fan of Muhammed Ali and Sonny Liston, Archie Moore, Marciano, etc., but Patterson, like most boxers, had to claw his way up from nothing to become the champ, and that always makes for a compelling story. Plus you get the story of his manager, Cus D’Amato, whose own story is so compelling and weird that at times you can feel Stratton holding back a big so that D’Amato’s own story doesn’t overshadow his shy, unusually sensitive champ.
One of my favorite books of the year has got to be Darwyn Cooke’s new, graphic novel adaptation of The Score, by Richard Stark. As you may know, Stark was the pen name of Donald Westlake for the brilliant series of crime caper novels, starring the professional thief, Parker. These books represent a kind of penultimate achievement, a kind of perfect art form, always balancing thrills and suspense and humor and a sort of good-spirited-mean-streak, if you know what I mean. This is the third graphic novel adaptation by Cooke and these are just superb, awesome, fantastic. The action and mood and suspense just seem to explode off the page. I read this in two sittings, and I immediately started over on it again. I interviewed Westlake a couple of years before he died, and it was a great pleasure. A real gentleman, humble, funny, gracious. As you may know, sometimes actually meeting your heroes can be disappointing, disillusioning, but this experience was at the opposite end of the spectrum.
And speaking of crime capers, another of my favorite reads of the summer was You Can’t Win, a true crime memoir by Jack Black, no, not the actor, but a professional thief/grifter/slacker from the early decades of the 20th century. Soon to be a motion picture starring Michael Pitt, that studly thug from Boardwalk Empire. Jack Black rode the rails with the hobos, was a burglar, convict, opium addict, and let’s not forget, a big influence on William Burroughs. It’s a little tough to find the edition of the book with the foreward by Burroughs, so for all you Beat people out there, I have scanned the foreward from my copy and posted it here.
Also, you may note that the art on the front and back cover of this edition depicts an incident depicted in the book. Jack was in a hobo camp where everyone was getting blown out on Mulligan stew with his traveling companion and sometime partner in crime, Foot-and-a-Half George, when a con man named Gold Tooth came back to camp and told a story about rumpus he and his pals had gotten into with a brothel-keeper named Salt Chunk Mary, and suddenly Foot-and-a-Half George yells at him.
“Hey you,” said George from across the fire. “You’re a liar.” His little dead blue eyes were blazing like a wounded wild boar’s. “You was a good bum but you’re dog meat now!” A gun flashed from beneath his coat, and he fired into Gold Tooth twice. Six feet away, I could feel the slugs hit him. His head fell forward and both hands went to his chest, where he was hit. He turned around, like a dog getting ready to lie down and fell on his face. His hat rolled into the fire. His hands were clawing a the red-hot coals.
Late night update: Just found this link to the old LA Times review of Rock Critic Murders from 1989, byline Charles Champlin. Interesting things happen to insomniacs.
And just because: