Friday, July 29, 2011
I’m still biding my time on the veranda of a thatched-roof cottage overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, drinking bitter coffee, tapping my feet on the floorboards waiting for my next case to begin. Think I’ve mentioned how much waiting ticks me off. I watch the white waves curl into foam and tickle the sandy shore, but I’m not really here as a tourist and even with Kyoko stretched out, naked and still asleep beside me, I’m fast getting bored. Please don’t tell her I said that. She’d take it personal, which means she’d take it wrong. She does that, on occasion; takes an innocuous comment personal, giving it a new and hurtful edge not intended, and I then have to exhaust myself apologizing for an offense never really committed. Truth is I’m delighted that she was able to sneak away for a week to join me on my rest cure between jobs. She needed a break every bit as much as I did, and I usually don’t spend as much time with her as I should. She’s one hell of a lady — in or out of her black leather bodysuit.
Of course, Kyoko would prefer I take a permanent holiday from freelance work and spend my time painting, period. She’s been venturing down that thorny path with greater frequency lately, as my cases have become more complicated and the people I’m tracking more dangerous. She was elated when I decided to leave the force for that very reason; she thought freelance investigative work would be less dangerous. Well, I thought so, too, at the time.
That’s how we met, you know; when I was still a detective with the NYPD. I was working on a special task force looking to close down a major sex-trafficking ring smuggling illegals in from China; usually young, naive girls from the provinces eager to come to the dream that was America but not realizing just how expensive the passage there would be. Once here they’d have to work as sex slaves in message parlors and escort services until their debt was paid. Most might never live long enough to settle accounts, so the cost of the ticket was steep indeed. On this particular occasion I was on a stakeout in Flushing, Queens with Stan Cummings; an old friend and fellow NYPD detective on loan to the task force. We were nursing cups of coffee in a dark car in the parking lot by the Marina, waiting for a small boat full of raw conscripts to arrive. It was cold, misty night in late April, at around two in the morning, when we noticed a shadow stalking the boats in the Marina. It was dressed in black, like a ninja, and we thought it might be a lookout for the smugglers, working the Marina to make sure the coast was clear so they could make their drop unnoticed.
Just then word came over the radio that the boat loaded with illegals was about a mile away, so I decided not to take the risk of any of our people being spotted by sneaking up on the shadow in black kneeling at dockside. It wasn’t until I got closer that I noticed the figure was clad in a form-fitting leather bodysuit. The moon was nearly full that night, and the suit caught the light in all the right places for me to quickly realize the occupant was a woman. In her hands was a camera on a strap with a zoom lens, and she was photographing the rough bob of the boats in the water and the gentle pelt of rain dissolve into the choppy sea, in the opposite direction from where the smuggler’s launch was arriving.
As I drew closer the figure seemed oblivious to everything save what she shot through her lens, and I took my eyes off her for a second to glimpse the boat drawing close to the nearby shore. In that instant the woman, who had been lying prone on the Marina plank way, bolted to her feet, stepped in front of me and starting photographing the boat as it made shore and started to disembark.
“Are you here for me or for them?” the woman asked, completely unfazed by what was going on. She didn’t seem connected with the smuggling action, but I couldn’t be entirely sure.
“Maybe both,” I retorted, gently pushing her to the side, then behind me. “And you?”
“I shoot whatever comes to mind,” she said, calmly, and was more inclined to move when I discreetly flashed my badge and drew my gun. “What about you?”
“I tend to shoot whatever gets in my way,” I told her. “So please, stay down and out of sight if you don’t want to get hurt.”
“Mind if I continue taking photographs while I cower?”
“Knock yourself out. Just be sure to catch my good side.”
“I don’t know you well enough yet to be sure you have one,” she said, grinning.
It was the ‘yet’ that made me sure I’d see this woman again. Once we got things under control, arresting everyone who had come in on the launch and the two guys in a van that had quietly slipped into the parking lot nearby, I got a chance to see the woman’s face under a streetlight, and started to think this was too good to be true. She was beautiful, mixed, just like me, only she was half Asian, half White, with long dark hair and darker eyes that were hard not to look into, but it was her poise under pressure that struck me most. She wasn’t fazed by the situation. She was also as graceful as she was tall, and moved with a cat-like precision that made her all the more alluring. I asked her to come to the precinct so we could look through the pictures she had taken with her digital Nikon. Some were good, very good, and could be useful in our case. She gave us permission to use them as evidence, and made a point of writing her phone numbers and address in the release form we asked her to sign.
“I’m something of a moving target and don’t often answer my phone. I do freelance modeling and photography.”
“Ah, so that explains the Catwoman outfit.”
“It’s really closer to Irma Vep,” she replied.
“The original Louis Feuillade Les vampires series or the Assayas take-off staring Maggie Cheung?”
She gazed at me for a minute, and then smiled. “I’m surprised you know either, and impressed you know both. You may have a good side, after all. I’m Kyoko. Texting is usually the best way to reach me.”
That was nearly seven years ago, and I’m not at all sure what prompted the recollection. It’s a bit random, and actually hasn’t even been written about anywhere before. Guess that’s what boredom and this sort of free-form forum will do to a character and his alter-ego author. “Leapfrogging images and piggyback meanings” was I think how he phrased it in another work, long ago. I honestly have no idea what lily pad we’ll jump to next.
Let’s play if safe for a change and get back to my waiting game here in Mexico. What’s the holdup, you ask? The guy at the controls is still working out the basic plot and structure of the story, and is the type of writer who likes to embark on his literary journeys with at least one foot on solid ground. Given the methodical way he usually works — he prefers to steep himself in research, rough-sketch the whole story and then peck out an opening paragraph that can stand up and set the pace and tone for the pages that follow — I might need to order in a carton of smokes and a fresh supply of liquor, especially my preferred single malts. Kyoko says I should be using this break as much-needed R & R, a respite in which to mend the wounds and bruises of my last case before rushing out to start the next one, but she knows I’m not built that way and will probably wind up doing everything but resting.
You see, it’s really the action that grabs me; the cases I work are convenient excuses for me to spend my time on an endless safari hunting human game. Like any self-respecting gumshoe, I’m always in a breakneck chase to find the ever-elusive ‘what’s it’, and it’s really irrelevant what’s inside the box that all the fuss is about. Sound familiar to whether or not Kane’s paintings could do the things some claim? Hitchcock called it the “MacGuffin’, the elusive thing that every main character has to have and that propels the story forward but which, in and of itself, may not be clearly identified, well understood or very important.
I call it what it really is: an excuse to deal the cards. It stands to reason that I’m more of a gambler than the guy who writes me. He’s more of a safety-first, careful risk versus rewards type personality, whereas I like to improvise on gut instinct and play for much longer odds. We’re both clad in the armor of detachment, but he’s more cerebral in nature; observing from a distance, assessing the direction of the wind with a wet finger and gauging the temperature of the water with a dry toe before easing himself in.
I don’t like getting wet in stages. I’m a jump in the shit kind of guy.
Hold that thought for a minute. Someone’s at the door. With any luck its room service with my bottle of scotch. I asked them to bring the best bottle of single malt they could find. What was I saying about me being a gambler?
Sunday, July 24, 2011
I was explaining why I had such a bug up my ass about Daniel Kane when I went on a tangential rant about the relationship of talent to success. Before I knew better I was questioning my own line of thought, not entirely uncommon, and then I abruptly ran out of gas and nodded off. My apologies for not conducting my train of thought to station. It was late at night, I was tired and working on one hell of a headache, and my glass of scotch was a desert past bone-dry. Worse still, I ran out of cigarettes and had to run down to the vending machine at this seaside resort to buy some. Gotta kick my nasty habits, but I have so many I'm not sure which one to tackle first. Kyoko was sitting on the veranda to our cottage when I got back, and we spent the next hour or so quietly watching the moonlight shimmer off the ocean. When I finally got to bed I didn’t go there to write. So allow me to finish my rant here, after bacon, eggs and coffee.
The more I think about it the more I’m convinced talent alone isn’t and has never been decisive. Too many instances come to mind where very gifted individuals have never seen the light of day and conversely, where individuals devoid of recognizable talent have become icons of their age. So, if talent wasn’t at the core of my dislike of Kane, what was? Maybe it was the cult of celebrity that Kane exploited and made so fashionable; the doting public and undiscerning ‘critics’ who lavished him with attention and praise. Maybe it was that he demanded we be complicit in his lie; not the lie about the alleged occult power of his paintings — more on that in a minute — but about the intrinsic value of his work as art. From where I sat Kane was all hype and no substance. Like Detective Thorn’s sobering realization that Soylent Green is people!, Kane passed off the hackneyed tripe he painted as USDA Grade A fillet. Some forget that he became a celebrity not on the quality of his work as an artist but on the strength of his being a media bad boy whose antics made good copy and colorful lead stories on the nightly news. Everyone was too busy making money off his antics and bullshit to worry that the emperor wore no clothes.
Ultimately, of course, if you call enough shit steak then sooner or later you devalue everything beef. Why go to the bother and expense of bringing anything genuine and authentic to market when people will buy the knock-off and pretend its real? The cut of meat isn’t important so long as people buy the sizzle. Kane’s propensity for theatrics and bad behavior made him ideal for exploitation by others even as he was exploiting them. His entire career was a pillage and burn sort of campaign that Sherman or Attila would be proud of; he went out of his way to achieve his ends at the expense of others, and I’ve already mentioned how much that pisses me off. Maybe we should say it was the price his celebrity exacted on those around him that offended me most about Kane, and why busting his ass became such a personal vendetta once he left me for road kill in his ascent to the top. I warned you I have an attitude and a long memory.
The rest is bullshit. I honestly never cared whether the rumors that his later paintings possessed occult properties of some kind were really true. Could Kane actually paint pictures that could somehow steal the essence of a living thing — its soul if you will, for want of a better term — and come to life, or was that, too, all smoke and mirrors?
Does anyone really give a fuck? The answer changes nothing.
That may explain why the guy who writes these stories left things somewhat obscure at the close of the tale. Oh, like other authors, he enjoys pulling the reader’s chain now and again and prefers to keep his future story options open, but more importantly he was making a statement that Kane’s mumbo-jumbo about the occult properties of his art was, like so much else concerning him, little more than the skillful misdirection of a stage magician. Neither one of us are about to reveal any tricks of the trade.
I’m a skeptic by nature and so the wrong person to ask whether Kane’s paintings can spring to life or not. Some of the evidence suggested he had actually managed to pull it off, but that’s more circumstantial than cold, hard fact, and as Nietzsche repeatedly cautioned us, there are no facts, there are only interpretations. I genuinely don’t care either way. You could argue that, if Kane could paint canvases that came to life that would be a supreme example of the transformative power of art, replete with the ability to transform others, but I won’t buy it. Kane’s twisted career wasn’t really about transforming others so much as victimizing them. Kane’s art, even in its most bizarre extreme, benefited only himself. If you’re trying to persuade me that changing a living person into a burned out shell was ‘transformation’ in the higher sense of my using the term then you haven’t been paying attention. That sounds like an argument a Neolithic shaman might make, like a hunter eating his prey to take possession of its qualities. I do know that Kane’s works took, they never gave; they mimicked but almost never truly created. The only thing Kane strove to transform and enhance was himself, and he used his talents to cloud genuine insight into him and his work so as to propagate a mystique about them instead. He deliberately obscured everything about himself and his art, and he sought to destroy what he couldn’t appropriate or distort.
It might sound odd, but to me what Kane’s paintings could or could not do has no bearing on what they intrinsically were. Not surprisingly, I remain somewhat conflicted and non-committal on the issue. Besides, let’s be honest. Why would you expect a clear and concise denouement to a story the author has taken considerable pain to paint in grayscale and shadow, and that has a central theme the reminder that nothing is ever what it seems? And why would you expect clarity, of all things, from me — a strung-out fictional character that lives — if you can call what I do actually living — in nebulous twilight, fending off the assaults of conflicting extremes and struggling to hold his shit together long enough to make some sense of it all?
I hate to break it to you, but if I took violent exception to carrying Kane’s luggage what makes you think I’ll carry yours? I don’t wear a redcap. You’re going to have to figure some of this shit out for yourself.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
I’m suffering from jet lag in a change in venue and some unwanted down time while the boss struggles with the plot points of my next case. I wish he’d work a little faster. It’s not easy lying back on a beach in Mexico sipping lollipop drinks when you’re a life-sized made-for-action figure. I don’t do nothing especially well. I’m more the shark type — got to keep moving — and I start getting stir crazy when I’m idle for too long. I’m much better at following the bouncing ball from page to page, pointing out glaring omissions, pace-killers and missed opportunities in my cases. That’s part of the give-and-take I alluded to in my last entry. There’s really more than one spider weaving this web.
It wasn’t always that way. I started my career on shaky ground. It was less a full partnership and more of an uphill challenge because I came so late to my role. After hanging in mothballs for longer than my author or I would care to remember my number was finally called. Embarrassingly, I staggered out of the gate, stiff and rusty and blinded by the bright lights when the opportunity finally came. It took me a while to gain my sea legs and start acting like the hardass I was intended to be.
Kane, my chief antagonist my last time out, did his best to take advantage of the situation until I set him straight. He was used to being the center of attention and didn’t take kindly to being demoted to second-string in his own story. But then it wasn’t his story anymore. It was mine! I had to work my butt off — and my author's — to finally displace the arrogant bastard and claim pride of place as my own. Kane and I ultimately struck a deal. He became the story’s irresistible force and I settled in as its immovable object. Something and someone had to give when we eventually collided. Damned if that was going to be me. But give Kane credit. He still haunts the story despite being dead when it starts.
My author will candidly confide to anyone who’ll listen that a key progenitor of the character Daniel Kane was Conrad’s Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, with support from Coppola’s film adaptation of Conrad, Apocalypse Now and in similar fashion Laura from the 1944 Preminger film of the same name. I warned you the guy mixes his drinks! Anyway, the common denominator between the characters Kurtz and Laura, and the element author-dearest was trying to capture was what I call the black hole effect; Kurtz and Laura, like Kane, dominate their stories from the outset, bend memories and motives, if not time and space, despite being ‘dead’ or at least gone native and missing at the time. Neither step live onto the stage of the story until it’s nearly all told. That gravitas in absentia, that mystery and validation by proxy is what gives these characters a greater weight and importance than what they might otherwise possess. You, the reader, can’t help but grant them exalted stature because you’ve waded through more than half the film or book marveling at the way they’ve shaped and changed the lives of those around them. In a very real sense, they are the black holes of the story, the relentless maws churning, like a wormhole in the distance, inexorably pulling you closer despite your repulsion by the raw violence of the ever-expanding event horizon sucking you in.
That, friends, is Daniel Kane, and that was an act I simply couldn’t match at first. Holding my own against such a force of nature required I become one of my own. Suffice to say it took several drafts to build up my voice and my muscle to get to the point where I could trade blows and barbs with the bastard without getting my butt thoroughly kicked. My face-off with Rio in Portrait was a cake walk by comparison. Rio was Death dancing a samba; dangerous, but only to proverbial life and limb. Kane was a far deeper threat, to my sense of self, my sense of order, justice and balance, my sense of trying one’s best to do right.
It was probably my lady, Kyoko, who first posed the question: why? Why my obsession with Kane? What about him drove me so crazy? Why did busting his ass become, for me, a veritable mission from God?
There’s a reason the Norse AllFather, Odin, forbids the asking ‘why’? He hung upside down and gave an eye for the wisdom to understand there’s never a satisfactory answer to that question, so I won't waste my time by asking. All I know is that I’m supposed to be professional about my cases, not take them personal, but I couldn’t manage that when Kane was involved. Ours was a personal grudge match from square one, and it’s not all that easy to explain.
The son-of-a-bitch knew how to get under my skin, of course, and the ease with which he did it pissed me off all the more. A good part of the agitation was what I felt was the unjustified cult of celebrity that Kane so actively cultivated and made popular. I can remember a time when you had to earn your celebrity stripes by being especially good at something; great leaders, inventors, artists or visionaries who could touch the rest of us in some essential way, enlist us in a cause greater than ourselves and transfigure us to the point where we’d never be quite the same again. The operative word in this context is ‘us’, not ‘them’. People usually aren’t deemed great and worthy of notoriety if the only one they influence is themselves. The latter more typically profile out as recluses or hermit sages; they may be geniuses or they may be manic depressives, but whatever they are isn’t our problem because they usually keep what they do to themselves. To be worthy of celebrity used to imply you possessed the ability to shape and influence others. In short, you had to be contagious of something. That holds true for serial killers as much as it does messiahs. To earn the wings of celebrity you had to be very, very good at something that could either influence or affect others. That’s the kind of celebrity I can understand and respect.
That’s not the kind of celebrity Kane wrapped himself in, however, and it isn’t the cult of celebrity we’re so totally obsessed with today. I’m stretching a point here to lay the latter development at his doorstep, but he’s as worthy a suspect as any other, and more so than most. Kane, like Warhol, changed the name of the game. Never mind one was purely fictional. My point is that , after Warhol, after Kane, raw talent was no longer as essential as the ability to promote its absence. The people we now make overnight stars and viral sensations would seem to have exceedingly little to offer in the way of transformation or enlightenment. Embarrassment, even more than entertainment, seems more their calling card. We’re beset by a locust-like plague of new-age celebrities, vapid, would-be stars and starlets who’ll unabashedly masturbate their way into your favorite media conduit in the desperate hope you’ll confuse their come-on squeals for notable quotations. They’re living, real time caricatures who buffoon and pimp themselves in whatever media peepshow will have them, and they race into the hot-lights of the public stage predestined to melt and fall on their face.
That embarrassing fall, too, seems to be part of their charm. In the not too distant past it took us a while to discover the clay feet of our heroes, and some actually seemed worthy of admiration and belief for a brief while before they tripped over their own excess and indiscretions. The rabid media, eager to peddle its intrinsic importance in our lives as if it were deodorant or beer have collapsed that interval and begun to mistake their ‘Gotcha!’ cry for honest journalism. Our new-age would-be celebrities come to us now already naked and lame, wearing their fatal flaws on their sleeves like neon booster buttons. Exposing themselves in public is part of their nature. Like Kane, they’re alchemists of the infinitely-fertile ether and can turn an embarrassing moment into a mythic rite of passage or cry for attention, spin a blatant lie or distortion of fact into indisputable gospel, and build the complete absence of discernible talent into a lifetime career and thriving cottage industry.
When did we stand logic and value on their heads and feel that the shocking absence of talent was as worthy of recognition than its abundant presence? Or have we become so jaded we can no longer tell the difference between the two?
Then again, what if talent is as ubiquitous as shit, and what really matters is not how much you have but what you're willing to sacrifice for and to it?
Be afraid, friends, be very afraid...I'm beginning to sound like Kane...again.
Then again, what if talent is as ubiquitous as shit, and what really matters is not how much you have but what you're willing to sacrifice for and to it?
Be afraid, friends, be very afraid...I'm beginning to sound like Kane...again.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
I left off the last time warning you how hard it sometimes is to distinguish me from the bad guys. While that’s true, there is one sure point of distinction: I carry my own bags. I don’t expect anyone else to pick up my tab, and I’ve got a bug up my ass about those who think I’m here to pick up theirs. If you’re trying to get off and get over at my expense or are intent on flying now and paying later then you and I are going to have a serious disagreement at some point, and I’m one badass motherfucker you don’t want perched above your door. I don’t forgive, I never forget, and I like to stir the pot and play with fire. It’s a game I play. I like to compete against myself and everyone else. Competing against myself is usually harder.
Given that attitude and my peculiar skill-set, finding dragons to slay usually isn’t difficult, but the guy who writes me thinks my antagonists and my personal demons — not always one and the same — aren’t enough to keep your interest. He’s determined to mix-in the demons of others for good measure, which probably explains why the cases I work invariably entail not just lost and stolen art of some kind but also tend to have an occult or supernatural strand running through them. The degree and the clarity of that strand varies — maybe the art is considered to be a religious relic by some, maybe the artifact is thought to be imbued with occult qualities, or it could be believed to be the missing key to a larger puzzle or the quest for fame, wealth or power — but whatever it is it’s always there; a recurring theme that muddies the waters and raises the stakes of the game.
I’ve cautioned my author that such fusions of otherwise distinct and accepted genres are not necessarily the recipe for success in today’s blockbuster-driven market, which much prefers formulas that are safe and oft-times proven. In this regard one could say I’ve been dealt a bad hand. My author’s penchant for the epic and the esoteric has been known to keep me awake late at night! The ancient Greeks would say he’s guilty of hubris; an overbearing confidence that he’s a puppeteer gifted enough to actually pull off such lofty ambitions. The jury’s still out on that one, but I do know that his aura of self-confidence is pure smoke and mirrors; the son-of-a-bitch is every bit as haunted as I am — just by different things. Truth is he’s not at all sure of himself in this or any venture, and to make things worse he lacks my hard-boiled skin. Hell, I’ve known him to suffer each and every one of his rejection slips — he’s got folders full of them, filed by title — where I’m inclined not to give a rat’s ass about the opinions of others and would use that depressing correspondence to light my fireplace.
Still, I have affection for him. We’re too much alike in ways for that not to be the case. Like me, he tends to do things the hard way, a rogue agent provocateur working behind enemy lines to restore some sense of grand cosmic order. He sometimes doesn’t stop to think that what constitutes order to him and, by extension me and a handful of others equally twisted is probably terrifying heresy or anarchy to everyone else. Maybe that’s why, like me, my author is given to fighting windmills and shouting at the moon. We're a pair of updated Big Daddy's of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof fame, railing away at mendacity! Trouble is the level of lies has increased dramatically since Tennessee's time, and it could easily become a full time job. So, like it or not, I’ve become my author's mouthpiece — to invoke the ancient Greeks again — the dramatic mask employed in his theater of our collective absurd. It’s a role I’m well-suited to play. When he steps out of his own skin he slips into mine, and vice versa, so in more ways than one we’ve got each other covered. We haunt the crap out of each other.
Piss off if you think my waxing philosophic is out of character for your average gumshoe. When I want your opinion I’ll grab you by the lapel and shake it out of you like loose change. The guy at the controls fashioned that part of me in his own fractured image. Typical of all creator’s, don’t you think? They say power corrupts, and the ability to conjure something out of nothing has been known to go to one’s head. Just ask Zeus, who fathered Athena, fully-formed, out of his skull.
That’s sort of how my author hatched me — a composite of this and that all sown together in a great ball that’s one roll short of unraveling. I prowl the surreal seam between daylight and dark energized by the danger and promise invariably released whenever opposing worlds collide. I live in a netherworld painted in varying shades of gray, strung out in a tenuous split between polar extremes. If you still don’t get the idea suffice to say that for me it’s always twilight time no matter what the hands on the clock say. That might explain my fixation with balance and, by extension, my personal insistence that justice is ultimately done. It's my only way of keeping score. I ride the edge of the razor, and when I see something wrong I get the urge to fix it out of sense of grand cosmic order. Some call me a Quixote-like figure. To others I may seem to have more in common with Yudhishthira of Mahabharata fame, determined to uphold Dharma and always do what’s right. Still others simply call me an avenging angel with an attitude and a long memory. Who am I to argue on any of those accounts? I’m a wise-cracking son-of-a-bitch at war with myself and a fucked-up world I largely disprove of, wearing a chip on my shoulder as big as Gibraltar and an antenna for attracting trouble the size of Arecibo.
My clients seem to like it that way. They pay me well to mix it up and get my nose dirty following up their pathetically poor excuses for leads. I’m a specialized bounty hunter racking up the frequent flyer miles stalking lost and stolen art. Smashing faces and splitting heads just happens to be perks of the job. Just about any art —and any head— will do. I’m not at all particular. I’m a ‘Have Case Will Travel’ kind of guy, and there’s a healthy splash of Paladin in me. We’re both fond of inventive solutions to problems and have our own personal sense of honor and justice that we like to impose upon the world.
The cases I’m on are simply the backdrop to that ongoing mission. I’m not fussy about which ones I take. I just follow the money and the lead of my author. If truth be known I have a decided preference for the kind of old, even ancient art they’re not making much of anymore. Some see this as a decidedly anti-modernist, multicultural bias, but those, like so many others, are meaningless labels I can’t use. Maybe that’s because I have an issue with labels in general, or because I don’t really have a tribe of my own, no insulated racial or ethnic stereotype to wrap around me, like a great woolen blanket, when the world gets cold and dark. I’m a high-wire aerial act and I don’t like people who are too much of one thing and not enough of everything else. I was made more complicated than that. We all were, but we’re usually taught to cut ourselves short into trivial, bite-sized morsels for the sole purpose of mass consumption, playing it safe, running with the herd and acquiescing to majority rule before we know better.
My author prefers to keep us both honest with such sobering asides tossed into this salad we’re writing as if they were seasoned croutons. But like I said, it’s all cool. Unlike a lot of authors I can think of, at least mine let’s me out of the box the written page can become and leaves me free to play. As long as that’s the case I won’t dispute him his claim on some of my time. He envisions me as some sort of recurring fictional character that leaps from story to story, case to case, with the nimble deftness of Nijinsky. He muddies the waters with all kinds of crap — convoluted plot lines, twisted characters and the dark lure of deadly obsessions — then tosses me in to clean up his mess and make everything turn out right in the end.
Well, fuck him on that note. I’m no one’s housekeeper. I take care of the heavy lifting but leave the bright work to him. It keeps him busy, out of trouble. I always make a point of leaving a loose end here and there just to keep it real. I’ve got more important things to do than flash cue cards every time you get stuck and flub your lines. Babysitting isn’t my business. Besides, those loose ends are functional; they’re the threads I use to weave myself in and out of the fabric of my cases. Each case always foreshadows the next one. I’d like to think that helps propel the action forward, and it also prevents the son-of-a-bitch who writes me from locking me out of my livelihood. After all, a man’s got to look out for his future — especially if he’s a work of fiction.
I’m not talking about any aspiration to take a place at the dead-end of a very long line of hard-boiled private dicks, shamus’s, gumshoes and PI’s. He might harbor that kind of idea, whimsically thinking of me as some sort of Twenty-First Century Philip Marlowe, but that’s his load to carry, not mine. He can try to reinvent noir and give it a fresh setting, contemporary themes and a new bag of tricks, but I’ve got my hands full dancing with the bad guys and trying my best to survive from one case to the next.
As I see it, you can root for my success or my failure; it’s no skin off my ass either way. My reputation is that of being a mercurial claims adjuster who, despite the cultured trappings of all the art, eclectic tastes and appreciation for culture can become an explosive force of nature once he gets rolling. Feel free to raise the ante whenever you like; just go easy on yourself — my threshold for pain is greater than yours.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
My author thinks he knows all about me, but in truth he doesn’t know shit. Oh, he can write a decent game on occasion and turn a catchy phrase now and again, and he does try his best to come up with nasty predicaments for me to get myself out of, but in a way that’s exactly my point. When push comes to shove it’s not his ass that’s on the line, taking a beating. He’s sitting safely at his computer, listening to Miles and poking out a four-fingered tune on his keyboard while I’m locked in mortal combat with an endless parade of psycho heavies hell-bent on doing me harm.
But it’s all right. I don’t begrudge the guy who writes me his cushy back seat. Hell, that’s why he created me; to go where he doesn’t, say what he can’t, do things normal folk only dream of. I’m the badass instrument of his bizarre sense of order, the fearless front man to his anger who insists that justice be done. That seldom happens in the so-called real world --- less and less all the time from what I see and hear --- so allow me to rant and ramble in the hope the right scores are being settled and the appropriate piles of bullshit are being offered on the menu. It’s a necessary relief for someone who lives on the edge and doesn’t have much margin for error. A fictional character has got to slip out of his skin once in a while and get out from under his author’s ink-stained thumb to keep sane. Besides, what does any author really know about the characters he brings to life on the page? Does he write us, us him, or are we all really writing one another?
Such are my quiet ruminations while sitting in my Greenwich Village study staring at wall-length cork boards that, aided by an occasion cigarette and glass of single malt scotch, come alive. At least that’s the general idea of what happens when I’m lucky. To these cork board walls are pinned the puzzles that are my cases: a photo here, a flimsy lead there, a frail, orphaned hunch that I need to run down stuck off to the side like a footnote. Police reports, insurance policies and their related inventory catalogs and other assorted tidbits arranged in no particular order. I try to determine which, if any, has some meaningful relationship to another, and begin to build on that; one piece at a time. I sift through the detritus left behind by others, examine the abandoned shards and discarded remains, make note of their peculiar shape and composition and put that info in cold storage as I move on to the next hunch, the next piece of garbage in hope of solving a much larger puzzle.
My author would probably say the wall is a metaphor for writing, and he’d probably have a valid point. Even he has a good idea every once in a while, so let’s not be too critical of him. He would go further, of course — he often does — and say that is his way of stepping into the living world he’s creating; breathing the same air, wearing the same skins, seeing the same colors as his characters in his quest to fully animate them. Like me, or am I mimicking him — I’m horribly conflicted on this point — he picks up one piece of the puzzle at a time, tests, probes and polishes it until he Goldilocks his way to find the one that’s ‘just right!’. Like a painter using colors to paint a mood or feeling or a jazz musician using the opening bars as a springboard into the interior of the riff being played, that one piece soon connects with another, then another, as if cerebral Lego's, and these constructs in turn become his beachhead onto which he lands boatloads of plot lines and characters and employs a host of devices and technical sleights of hand to build the story's spine and structure. That initial impetus in turn propels him and, ultimately us, towards that inexorable end looming ahead in the distance.
Rumor has it that’s the way I was created. I say ‘rumor’ because I wasn’t present at my creation. The truth can be a painful thing, and the embarrassing bitch about it is that I was an afterthought, a new character grafted onto a preexisting story and belatedly cast in the starring role. Maybe that’s why Kane can’t stand my guts! I wasn’t in the original short story, Abraxas that formed the basis of the full-length adventure Portrait of Deadly Excess. Daniel Kane was the central figure who dominated the action despite never being an actual, active participant in the tale. Just his kind of mind fuck! He sprung to life through the fevered Conradian flashbacks within flashbacks of David Latimore, an overly-ambitious young artist who harbored a twisted artistic obsession of his idol, Kane. Curtis Huntington was their mutual manager, and Latimore told his bizarre tale to the ambitious reporter, Karen Greene.
Where was I? Not even the proverbial gleam in my author’s eye!
Mine was a different dawn, born of a writer’s germinating interest in creating a character he could use again and again in a series of different adventures. Parts of me, of course, have roots in the broader hard-boiled tradition: the resourcefulness of Spade, the wisecracking toughness of Marlowe, and the unrelenting attitude of Hammer, the demons-in-the-closet of Holmes, even the humorous edge to grisly violence of Gravedigger and Coffin Ed. I’m even man enough to admit to having a trace of feminine DNA in my makeup. The character of Vicki Anderson from the original film, The Thomas Crown Affair — the one played by Faye Dunaway — served as prototype for my being a high flying, stylish insurance freelancer who works largely on instinct.
Stir them together and you almost have me. Almost. I’ve always suspected isolated chromosomes here and there only explain so much. Like all our features, it’s really the way those chromosomes and traits are put together and influence one another that makes us who and what we are. Social engineering is every bit as important as genetics in shaping that. My world was painted black on one side and white on the other, in black and white striped pattern, but the lines of distinction never quite held and daily melted into a hazy gray. Suffice it to say that it didn’t take me long to see that neither extreme had a monopoly on intelligence or stupidity, poverty or wealth, wisdom or foolishness. I also saw that, no matter how much I’d try, none of my friends and no one in my family beyond my parents accepted me wholeheartedly into their ranks. They all said they did, of course, and tried to put on an embracing face, but there was always a bitter edge to their syrupy welcome that made me suspicious. What do the Temptations caution us about Smiling Faces Sometimes? There was nothing genuine in their embrace, except perhaps their fear of me and what I represented to them. I was a freak, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic abomination that reminded them that some dared to break the rules they so stubbornly clung to. I was a stranger, not of their body, not of their kind, and so became something alien and alarming, not to be welcomed or encouraged. I would be left to fail by virtue of my own alienation and estrangement, a warning to others not to break the same, age-old prejudices and taboos.
I’m not sure exactly when I started to piss in their faces to display my disappointment and displeasure, but piss in them I did, and do. In short I refused to choose. Like my father, the loner detective with the NYPD and my mother, who cultivated a new career for herself as a writer so she could home school me, I saw no compelling reason to choose one extreme, one identity, one world over the other. We defiantly straddled them both, defended both, and we’re all still standing.
In my case it took a while for me to gain my bearings as a fictional character. My pedigree was too much of the hardass strain on both sides. I seem to have made a career out of doing things the hard way. It took me time to become who I am, and so I was put in mothballs; a character abandoned while still rudely stamped, to paraphrase misshapen Richard III, cheated of feature and left unfinished to wallow in a dusty file folder to age and ripen.
And age I did, like a wheel of cheese, while my author was off breathing life into other characters in other stories. Fortunately, I'm not the jealous type, but I am a persistent bastard. Just ask any one of the characters I track down in my cases. I was genetically-engineered as an offbeat pit bull, a volatile protagonist admittedly as flawed and as dark as any villain. You’ve got to pay attention and look real close to tell the difference between me and the bad guys. Usually, there’s barely a spits worth of difference between me and the characters I hunt.
Both the guy who writes me and I like it that way. It’s only fitting that you have some skin in this game, too.