Saturday, September 29, 2012

Thoughts on "The Distance" by Eddie Muller

The first and best thing I liked about The Distance, Eddie Muller’s 2002 debut noir novel, was its protagonist, Billy Nichols.

Billy is no hero, or at least not the one commonly found—and acclaimed—in genre fiction nowadays. He’s neither big nor strong. He kids that he looks like William Powell but may be more like an aging Dick Powell. He wears both glasses and dentures, stands a bit on the short side, and describes himself as a flat-footed, 4F draft reject (though a few strings may have been tugged to keep him out of World War II).

Despite these shortcomings (and a bad marriage), Billy is a champ in his world—that of a famous, respected boxing reporter and columnist for a San Francisco newspaper in the rough-n’- tumble late 1940s. Throughout the City and beyond, Billy is known as “Mr. Boxing.” Everyone in and around the arenas and training gyms has their hand out for him, hangs on every word that clacks and rolls out of his Royal typewriter, and papers their scrapbooks with Billy’s columns.

But while Billy sees himself as king round the ring, this absorbing entertaining novel tosses him on the hot skillet right from page one: One foggy San Francisco night, Billy pops by the apartment of Gig Liardi, a small-bore fight manager, to pick up a sizzling hot tip. But the only tip he finds when he arrives is that Gig’s been turned into morgue meat.

Standing over the body, his massive knuckles smeared with the dead man’s blood, is Gig’s only fighter, Hack Escalante, a gentle giant on the downslope of his career, who will tolerate anything except someone—anyone—insulting his beloved wife, Claire.

For reasons mysterious and poignant (as you will discover later), Billy decides to help Hack out of this jam by hiding Gig’s corpse in the sandy soil of Golden Gate Park and then concocting a shaky alibi so Hack can account for Gig’s disappearance when folks—especially the cops--come nosing.

However—this time for reasons I’m unable to fathom—Billy decides to pass this alibi on to his readers in a subsequent column without anyone even asking him (one of this novel’s few stumbles).

Credible or not, once this trigger is pulled, Billy’s life takes that hard turn deeper into noir alley, especially after those ocean winds scour away the sands to reveal Gig’s true whereabouts.

As suspicion slowly circles in on him, Billy sniffs out that there may be more behind Gig’s death than he realizes. Billy becomes snared in a labyrinth of bribery, blackmail, and other sordid chicanery that spans the bruising world of big city boxing. Exactly why did Hack kill Gig? Was there someone else in hiding that night? What does Claire Escalante, Hack’s lovely wife, know and when did she know it?

But this is a good novel and like all good fictions, The Distance dives deeper and travels further than its than its plot. Without the hard-boiled, know-it-all hero, we have a more human and believable book. Away from the glamor of the boxing ring and his trusty typewriter, Billy Nichols learns that he’s not the high-stepping, big-city strutter he thought he was. He may be a smaller man in the corrupt scheme of things, but he’s also more than just a boxing writer.

The novel also leads readers on a colorful, gamy tour of San Francisco’s boxing world of the 1940s, a world now pushed to the margins (though I was lucky enough to attend fights at the Kabuki theatre as late as the mid-1980s.) We get a neat Runyonesque mini-history of boxing, sports, and gambling up to that time, portraits of hangers on, hustlers and gamblers, large and small. It may not have been the best of times, but it was quite a time.

In this world, almost everyone—even Billy--has changed their birth names—Jews take on Italian names; Italians take on Spanish names, and so on, all to remake themselves and become more acceptable to the wider establishment as they desperately hustle for the big time. Most everyone shines with a sheen of sweaty desperation.

Author Muller—known in these parts as “The Czar of Noir”--is a San Francisco native and son of a famous boxing writer. He’s done an excellent job in picking which details to include and which to leave out in his loving evocation of a bygone era. Unlike some other historical genre novels, the particulars are painted in just right rather than allowed to crowd and weigh the canvas, as sometimes happens when authors get carried away with their research (an issue I’m wrestling with in my own trip into noir, Butchertown).

I also like the various clashes and interrogations Billy’s find himself in, told with all the tension of a boxing match without laying it on thick. There’s an oblique sense of life as something like boxing as characters emotionally circle each other, ducking, weaving, feinting. Accusations and recriminations come like jabs, punches, and haymakers. Unlike with other “hero” characters, you worry whether Billy can go the distance. To me, that’s suspense.

In addition to my issue with the plot trigger, there are a couple of other stumbles along the way. Scenes dealing with such meditative matters as faith, Catholicism, and God feel like a couple of stitches too many and the plotting, while not overly baroque and elaborate, does seem to get a little misty now and then.

But ignore those quibbles. The Distance is a novel worth going the distance for.

(re-edited 9/30/12)

Copyright 2012 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.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Butchertown Chronicles: Annals of Research

Despite the shroud of illness that has weighed me down in recent months, I haven’t been entirely mummified in blankets upon my bed.

For example, the day before Elizabeth and I took a recuperative holiday in September, I limped to the end of the first draft of my next novel, Butchertown.

More I won’t say—give me a week or two—but I‘ll tell you about some of the background reading. I’ve been fairly lucky here, in that the last three books I’ve read have also been good ones, worth finishing, worth both my times and yours.


First and best was The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War, by David Laskin (Harper Perennial), a beautifully written story, both intimate and epic, of twelve European immigrants who, after arriving on U. S. shores around the turn of the 20th century, found themselves signing up and shipping back to Europe to fight in World War I, with one of them fighting his own countrymen.

Like the thousands of immigrant soldiers who served—many of whom knew not a jot of English--the dozen Laskin focuses on came from all over Europe: an Irishman and Norwegian; Jews from the ghettoized world of Russia’s Pale of Settlement, poverty-stricken Italians, and an Austro-Hungarian.

Many immigrants came to escape conscription in their countries’ armies. All came to America in search of a better life as people have for half a millennium. Whatever their reasons, the last thing these men expected was to soldier up and ship back home to fight a war.

None of them resisted the draft call-up in 1917. In fact, draft resistance was rare, an alien notion to our resistant age (though Laskin does relate a couple of grim cases involving the fatal persecution of pacifist German immigrants). This becomes especially poignant in the light of how especially vile and pointless World War I was.

All these men served bravely, under the most ghastly circumstances imaginable and, except for a couple of Medals of Honor, little thanks. Even so, many of those who made it back alive felt a pride in their service to their country they carried with them for the rest of their lives.

This a beautifully written book, richly and movingly detailed. If your curiosity ever leads you back to those days, this is one to read.


You Can’t Win by Jack Black (not the comedian) is the best true crime book I’ve read in years and certainly the most thrilling true crime autobiography.

Jack Black was born in 1871 in British Columbia and grew up in Missouri. As a teenager he took easily to a 30-year career as a professional criminal, burgling and stealing his across the fading Old West. Fifteen of these years he spent behind bars in the U.S. and Canada. It wasn’t until he hit bottom as an opium fiend (and kingpin) facing another 25 years that he met wealthy San Francisco newspaper publisher and editor Fremont Older in the 1910s and broke his downward spiral.

You Can’t Win is an amazing read, a mostly candid, compelling, and hair-raising story of life on the lam and underground, packed with vibrant sympathetic characters, roller-coaster adventures, and hair-raising exploits.

Woven all through it, though, is a grimy despondency and fatalism, tarred with many episodes of brutality, by both crooks and cops. Black illustrates with exacting detail how it takes as much brains and skill to be a “successful” criminal as required in most other professions (including burglaries that take all night, as the thief sits waiting for his victim to turn over in his sleep.)

As livings go, it’s not much of one; by Black’s account, only one in five burglaries could be counted as “successful”; the rest of the time is spent in fear—of getting caught or starving—or a relentless boredom and aimlessness that ends in alcoholism and drug addiction).

Surprising too is the camaraderie among underworld denizens in those days, with comparatively little of the self-destructive ultra-Darwinian mentality that seemed to arise with the enormous wealth and power spurred by Prohibition and the War Against Drugs. As Brian Burroughs also demonstrated in his classic Public Enemies, Black experienced a tentative “honor among thieves” that, while not ironclad, and contingent on circumstances, was essential to the survival of both body and soul. Crooks were never honest to us law-abiders, of course, but they had to be square with each other if they hoped to see another day. Their lives were short and brutish enough as it was.

While it may be seen as an “anti-crime” book, You Can’t Win is also an “anti-punishment” book. Once out of prison and cleaned up, Black, with Older’s help, became a noted public figure, speaking out not only on crime prevention but also as a full-throated advocate of prison reform. As has been noted time and again, prison never made an honest man out of anyone. It wasn’t prison that reformed Black, but the realization achieved with the help of others, that there were choices beyond the bad ones he made.

Even if you’re not interested in the social issues Black discusses here, you’ll have a ripping time following along on his exploits, more edge-of-your-chair thrills than you’ll find with most crime thrillers. While Black obviously glosses over his later career (when he turned toward violence and drug-dealing), his portrayal of life underground is exact, vivid, unsentimental, and memorable.


Real movie and theatre buffs know all about Ben Hecht. When I was trying to be screenwriter, he was one of my heroes—maybe my only hero. Hecht was—and remains—the greatest screenwriter from the Hollywood dream factory. He wrote and co-wrote, (credited and uncredited) over seventy movies during Hollywood’s Golden Years, from the 1920s and the 1960s.

The list is fabulous—Scarface (1932; the good one); The Front Page, written with Charles MacArthur, play and screenplay); Nothing Sacred, Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind (uncredited); Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Notorious; Gunga Din.

So many scripts for so many good and great pictures, it’s hard to see how there’s any room nowadays for a writer like him anywhere but in the far realms of pay cable (Hecht would have been a natural for series like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. But shows like those don’t come along often.)

As told in William MacAdams’s readable if uninspired biography, Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend, Hecht was also one of the most celebrated, and most antic, writers and wits of his time. Born in New York City in 1894, he moved first to Wisconsin, then as a young man, to Chicago where he became a successful newspaperman, columnist and leader of what was known as Chicago Literary Renaissance, a noted novelist and poet, whose books were sometimes banned for obscenity.

Noted is all he came to be in this context, because little of Hecht’s work from that era is remembered, except for a collection of his columns, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. Some years ago, I read his debut novel Erik Dorn, a novel in the Modernist style that was just birthing at that time—inward turning, psychological, philosophical, sometimes witty, but dramatically static and barely memorable.

It wasn’t until 1926, when Hecht, his romance with being a starving artist tarnishing and wondering if he would become any more than a “notorious, noted writer,” received a telegram from fellow scribe Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) urging him to come to Hollywood and write for the movies:

“Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

Well, sadly, it eventually did get around. Nevertheless, for the next forty years, Hecht outcompeted the idiots, not only winning an Oscar (for the story for Underworld) and nominations for others, but making a large and steady living as script doctor for David Selznick and many others producers and directors.

Hecht denigrated his screenwriting career, but significantly, he was able to write, produce, and direct some movies of his own, ambitious expressions of what he thought an artistic movie should be. (I’ve not seen any of these, but Crime Without Passion, Actors and Sin and Angels Over Broadway are said to be the best of them).

In the end though, even heaped with praise from critics and serious moviegoers, none of Hecht’s films turned a dime, illustrating that eternal tension between art and commerce. The mystery of how to get their butts in the seat (or their eyes in a book) with becoming a “hack and sellout” remains forever an insoluble matter of alchemy.

As biographies go, MacAdams’s book often feels perfunctory, hurried, and undistinguished, but Ben Hecht was such a colorful and fabulous personality (even when he’s dislikable, which is often), that his story almost tells itself.

If you want more color and dash, I’d recommend Hecht’s autobiography, Child of the Century (especially his account of his newspapering days). Fantastically entertaining as that one is, though, you’ll need to down a dozen grains of salt while reading it. The fabulous Ben Hecht was also a first-rate fabulist, not only in the movies, but in telling his own life story.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Sick Box

A long-term illness is like living in a cardboard box. I’m looking out through a proscenium of dusty brown corrugated walls, flexible, but strong and thick enough so they can’t be torn apart, only weakened. There’s a dry mustiness about everything.

The illness filtered into me during twilight, on July 4th; a low fluctuating fever, near-constant fatigue, low energy and a strange tottering frailty. Since then, it’s been mistaken for one thing or another. I feel like I’m in an episode of House, but my much-vaunted, health-care program has been nudging the mystery down the road like a collie nosing a drop cloth. The fact that I was taking two BP meds may be a factor—I’ve slowly slowly improved since I stopped taking one of them . . . but . . . we can only shrug for now.

Not immediately fatal = low interest, for everyone except me, my long-suffering wife, and a few friends.

My mind fluttered like a tired moth on a muggy, overcast moonless night, fluttering haplessly in search of pools of light. These pools of lights are made of tangled balls of thought, both angry and muddled, that burst, and burn like an old-fashioned photographer’s flash bulb, fading with a crackling hiss.

When I announced that I was closing this page down for a while (along with my editing business), a kind and faithful reader suggested that I lower my voice instead; say, posting brief amusing comments on the Internet’s constant outpour of  “news.”

Obviously, I would be missed by some and it saddened and frustrated me to take such draconian action—especially now--but I’ve been at this long enough that I like to think many of you have come to expect a certain standard. Anything less is just that—less. (“Oh yeah. I used to like his columns and stuff. Now he’s just haranguing Obama to invade Rhode Island as soon as possible. Tch-tch. How the semi-mighty have fallen.”)

And besides, most of the balls of thought that burst and roared around my tired, often confused, mind were either excruciatingly banal or as bloody-minded and delirious as a gangland sewer, and may have resulted in my posting a year’s worth of apologies (“I’m sorry,  Mr. Romney, for declaring that you and Snooki would make an adorable couple. Oh and for posting those photos of the two of you . . . never mind.”)

Anyway with my mood so swampy, I struggled to hide from the world’s din of violence and despair. The Internet is particularly ugly and infuriating in this regard. I’ve often shoved my i-Pad aside, enraged at my compulsion to keep pushing that button like a lab rat happily conditioned to constant bonking over the head with a hammer. (“Damn it, it’s only making you sicker . . . .”)

Some might suggest I read Roger Ebert or Christopher Hitchens for perspective, but this misery doesn’t want any company. I’d rather spend all my sick hours with Laurel and Hardy than with them; with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn than the likes of Beckett and Bill Maher; with the Light of Hope than the caped counsels and crusaders for a cold, dead, meaningless Universe.

To keep my mind semi-greased, I’ve taken to handicapping the Saturday horse races at Golden Gate Fields, a more challenging task than it sounds. No betting and no risk of loss or embarrassment. No, there’s no meaning to it and it sounds stupid, but it keeps me from going completely stupid.

The point is to get well. How do I get well huddling around the drain as though it were a pillow? Only Nihilists find the smell of the sewer romantic, tiresomely so.

The most “socially responsible” thing I’ve done while ill was watch Bill Clinton’s speech at the DNC (this while recuperating in a hotel on the Lost Coast), but only because I figured it would entertaining. I recall none of it now—except for Clinton’s long, bony index finger--and nothing of Obama’s. I don’t feel bad about that. Just politicians talking.

Mostly, these last couple months, I’ve only sat, stared and taken breaks to nap, then woke up to sit and stare some more. Reading has been difficult, sometimes impossible. I’ve have to start over bedside books because some nights I was simply too tired to read and lost track of what was happening.

When I went outside, my eyes felt clogged and encrusted with mud. The sunlight blinded me and the blue sky startled at first, but astonishment passed. It hurt my neck and shoulders to look up for too long and a smile was heavy lifting. I shuffled along, a question mark with legs, my eyes on the concrete at my feet. Sometimes people recognize I’m sick and let me get on the bus first or offer me their seat. These are among the things—Elizabeth being the best and most important--that keep me going.

My lungs feel tight and I tire easily. I can walk downhill to Grand Avenue, but have to take the bus back up. I use to stride up these hills. How long ago was that?

It’s been two-and-a half months, but feels like four or five. Time, measured by events, has stretched, like huge, soft, heated rubber band.

But now that I’m here, I guess it means I’m getting better. Good periods are coming more often, lasting longer, sometimes a whole day, signs that the damage within, whatever it is, may be healing. I may slump again tomorrow, but be up again the next day. Elizabeth and I worry that it’ll be gone before my distracted doctors track down the cause, so we won’t know what to do to keep it from coming back, if it wants.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

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.