Ah yes, 1979. I remember it all too well.
A gallon of gas ran you 90 cents. Saddam Hussein became the president of Iraq (he’d show up again a couple decades later.) Ex-Playboy bunny Blondie scored a hit with “Heart of Glass.” But there were no cell phones. No texting. No WiFi. No digital crap existed. People didn’t jab a hand to their ear. They didn’t gawk into a tiny screen. No, 1979 had the slick marvel of 8-track tapes. G-r-r-r. I can’t tell you how many of those mothers I bought, chewed through, and cursed like a rap star about. The good, old days—yeah, right.
Also in 1979, I graduated from a state university with a B.A. in History, worthless except I could write a decipherable English sentence, so I got hired on as a tech writer in President Reagan’s defense industry buildup. Actually, I’d worked in a gun factory (we made .357 and .44 Mags) for a few years, so I wasn’t a total rookie. The point is my salad days came in 1979. Everybody recalls (or will recall someday) their salad days, hopefully, with a fond regard. I do.
When I set out to write my new Appalachian noir Lake Charles, I wanted to place my young protagonist Brendan Fishback at near the same age I was in 1979. Write what you know, see? But that’s where the parallels end since Brendan and I are little alike. I think he’d make for a solid pal if I ever faced the same jams he runs up against while knocking around Lake Charles. Plus I like him fine.
When Lake Charles opens, Brendan is a pothead. Subsequent to his wrongful arrest for the murder of his girlfriend Ashleigh Sizemore, he turns over a new leaf, so to speak, by getting clean and sober under his own steam. Fortunately, I never had to battle his drug addiction. Flushing the marijuana’s chemicals from his system provided me with a way to include his unusually vivid dreams (a side effect of the pot’s withdrawal). Ashleigh’s spirit materializes and eggs him on to nail her actual killer.
Maybe there’s more to the young me in Brendan’s psyche than I care to admit. He also acts unsettled, restless, impatient, and inquisitive. He’s aching to split for the Alaskan oil pipeline (a big ado in 1979) to find his wayward father. He’s eager to cast off his small town’s provincial moorings and launch a new, exciting life. If only he can get past his troubles on the banks of the polluted Lake Charles, he can go on with his young life.
Somebody with a mean streak is tending a pot farm at Lake Charles. The erupting violence—death results—threatens to overwhelm and do in Brendan. At this point while writing the narrative, I hit a snag, and it almost derailed the project. Maybe that’s why it took me a long ten years to finish and shepherd it into print.
You see, Brendan is just a kid. He packs plenty of gutsy grit, and he won’t back down from a fight, but he comes up short on the world savvy to shape a favorable resolution. Enter Cobb Wheeler, a Korean War vet and ex-government operative. 1979 was early enough to bring in a Korean War hero who could give Brendan a leg up. Wheeler is a crusty son of a bitch who knows how to put the right moves on Brendan’s enemies and level the playing field.
By the climax of Lake Charles, our young hero Brendan emerges battered and bruised, but he’s gained a few smarts. The Ashleigh dreams have ceased. He’s ready to carry on. Like every young person, he confronts a big decision: does he stay home or go to Alaska to seek his fame and fortune? Leaving the picturesque Smoky Mountains won’t be easy for him. Will his mentor, the warrior Jerry Wheeler, offer him any sage advice on the matter? Well, the car lines at the pump were long in 1979, and gas wasn’t cheap then either. As we all know, money is the big driver of the choices we make. Then again Brendan is a determined young man.
Before I close, I want to thank Elizabeth for letting hang out on her blog today. It was a lot of fun. Parting words: remember to pick up Lake Charles. My cat Fanny has to eat, and so do I.