Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Butchertown Chronicles: Pleasures and Perils of Research

Before I started my bullet-packed crime novel, Butchertown, my knowledge of Prohibition revolved around its gangsters. (Tales of copious gunfire tend to focus a man.) I've read several biographies of Al Capone, plus crime histories such as The Bootleggers and Their Era. I am also well-acquainted with the story of New York’s Five Families, whose seed was planted by a gambler named Arnold Rothstein. My failed try at a Mafia novel (a Westlakean-Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight farce) in the late 1990s, gave me an excuse to read two shelves of books on American organized crime, though most of those covered the post-Prohibition era.

To fill in Butchertown’s dark picture, I need more. The setting alone—Northern California in 1922 —demands that I drill both deep into the past and fly high over it to see its broader scope.

Prohibition was more than gangsters and gun battles, flappers and hip flasks, tommy guns and one-way rides, jazz and Fitzgerald. A whole huge world surrounded and infused it, to American shores and beyond: There's “Context” as wonks say. As Prohibition made the world, the world also made Prohibition.

The first book I stopped at was, amazingly, A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California (Heyday) with original art and text by Laura Cunningham, an exhilarating fusion of science, soul, and an artist’s imagination. State of Change tells the epic environmental history of California, with exquisite paintings and drawings by Cunningham that take you back to the epoch before European and Russian settlers arrived, when grizzly bears roamed the oak-studded Oakland hills. It’s one of those books that transform non-fiction into art and literature.

But why would stray so far afield? Mostly because I want to expose a little of the roots of Butchertown’s setting, a highly fictionalized East Bay city, in order to illuminate the Now of the Story.

But then, I had to put State of Change aside and move on, because, beautiful object that it is, I gleaned enough knowledge for my specific task. I hope I can  finish it someday. That’s the way this writer researches—get what you need, leave the rest for later. For now, I’ll call it one of the greatest gift books you could ever give.

The next tome I took off the stack was One Eye Closed, the Other Red: The California Bootlegging Years by Clifford James Walker (Back Door Publishing 2001). This one should have gone off like dynamite, but instead turned out be a damp firecracker.

One Eye Closed presented me with a good news/bad news dilemma. The good news is that it’s stuffed to its boards with information on Prohibition in California, much of told by those enterprising desperate characters who lived through it. From time to time, it pops with wonderful anecdotes of life on the edge in Prohibition California.

The bad news is that One Eye Closed is an unreadable ram shack. Information-wise, it’s a labor of love, that, sadly, seems to have been finished and rushed to market with both eyes closed—poorly organized with, according to my professional editor’s eye, no editing and proofreading at all. It’s often a painful armchair experience.

I stuck with it to the end, but skimmed like a flat stone over a pond in large sections and sighed a loud “too bad” as I finished. Someday, someone should buy the publishing rights, tear it down, and rebuild it. Then it’ll pop and crackle with the spirits within.  For now, One Eye Closed is for real history geeks only and, for the rest, serves as a lesson about the real perils of self-publishing.

When The Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country by Vivienne Sosniski (Palgrave MacMillan), published the old-fashioned way, was much more coherent and pleasurable. Ms. Sosniski's book shines valuable light on a little-known corner of Prohibition in California —Napa and Sonoma counties, the capitals of American winemaking. It’s a colorful and pleasurable read, both sad and inspiring. 

Prohibition was not only a law-enforcement disaster, but it brought economic and personal ruin to thousands of vintners and related industries all over, ripping up an entire culture by its roots. Thanks to Prohibition, California wine, highly regarded back then even in Europe, suffered a blow to its reputation that lasted decades as the skills it took to make it were lost. (I remember, back in the 1960s, how my father, the French wine connoisseur, proudly scoffed away the very idea of California wine splashing over his tender, delicate tongue.)

Both these books also make it clear that the vast majority of California bootleggers, while technically law breakers, weren’t true criminals. And even the thugs weren’t especially plagued by the fungus that causes itchy trigger finger syndrome. The real crooks worked so deeply in the dark—they weren’t exhibitionists like Capone—that very little is known about them, nor where or how many bodies were buried--certainly, nowhere as many as in Chicago, New York, and, the bloodiest territory of all, Detroit.

Prohibition wine may have turned California’s rivers red, but Prohibition blood, not so much.

[To be continued]

(Re-edited 10/10/11; 10/11/11)

A NOTE: I’ll be gone from this tiny space next week on a soul-stirring journey to the wilds of Southern Colorado. I will return with fine photos, my spirit infused by the Greater Reality, and maybe even an account of my first attempt at fly-fishing (if I don't rip my eye from its socket). Until then, get the hell out from behind that computer and Live the Life that You’ve Been Given.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

No comments: