A Mile or so, Less as the Crow Flies
In Knuckledragger, published recently by Shotgun Honey, I tried to avoid most of what I had previously relied on. In my novel, Ridgerunner, also republished recently in a handsome edition by Shotgun Honey, I spent a lot of time in environs I know well, Appalachian Pennsylvania. I took a great deal of pride in presenting my home with appropriate detail and a gimlet eye concentrating on the criminal undercurrent I’d always sensed there and that has only now become a prominent part of the daily news. With Knuckledragger, I left all that behind.
In Revere, MA, my adopted home, my new home, you could say, though I’ve spent more time here than I have in Pennsylvania, I didn’t feel as if I knew enough yet. So I took to the streets, and my kids and I began walking up Shirley Avenue past the Cambodian market and the Mediterranean bakery, down Revere Beach Parkway, down Bennington Street past the Belle Isle Marsh and the D&M Auto Doctor, and into East Boston past the Animal Hospital, and the old Public Library, down past the liquor store on the way into Winthrop. We walked everywhere. And everywhere, I learned things.
I listened to the people openly where I could and eavesdropped on other Revere Beach conversations between cruising volleyballers and the old men talking smack on the sidewalk. I observed the crowds at the Revere Beach Sand Castle Festival where a huge fight broke out one night. I met my friends Ken & Nadine at the Shipwreck Lounge for drinks, saw the hand-printed signs on all four walls that read “no verbal bets.” My friends and I drank bottled Bud under a low ceiling, the TVs showing simulcast horse-racing from all over the states. I wrote a poem whose details I had to change before I published it, for fear someone might read it and get the right idea about what went on there. I sat on the bench at the Suffolk Downs T Station on the East Boston/Revere line and read. I stealthily watched lost-looking men in hoodies and ballcaps shuffling off the train and boarding the shuttle to the track, in cycles, for hours.
A mile or so away, less as the crow flies, the ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donuts at the end of our walking route from Revere into Winthrop never looks quite as good as when the wind’s blown my knit hat off my head twice along the way and the ocean spray mixes with gravel and comes spasming over the seawall into my face. That’s neat.
Jason “Candy” Stahl is a guy born and bred on the outskirts of Boston, always part of the scenery in Revere, MA but never someone you’d remember. He’s the real red-headed stepchild, a big man with big hands and busted-up knuckles, a compulsive weightlifter and chaser of women. The only thing he’s ever done is beat people up and play video games, and so he’s found himself on the shady side of the law more times than he can count. In the novel, he’s had some success as a low-level enforcer for the local bad seeds. He does what he’s told, does it well, and doesn’t harbor any illusions about himself or his place in the world. Sometimes, though, events go well beyond what he can control and he’s forced to operate in the playgrounds of some very bad men, like Otis, and trouble comes knocking in the form of his sometime girlfriend Rosario, and most of all, Otis’s girlfriend, Nina.
I used the same criteria I always do when creating characters. I ask myself, would I want to spend time with this person? What could I learn from them? More importantly, is he or she interesting enough for readers to want to spend time with? I think Candy is the most interesting character I’ve ever written about. Though he’s my size, and we both have vaguely red hair, there the similarities end. Where I’m fairly sober, he’s impulsive; where he’s a physical terror, I’m cuddly (I’ll own it); where he is brutal, I try to be gentle; where he is calculating, I am a raging emoticon. I haven’t created my opposite, though, but more a doppelganger, and as such, he’s an amalgam and amplification of what I fear my worst traits are combined with some of my more positive traits: loyal, persistent, somewhat libertine. I hope people enjoy reading about him.