Saturday, December 29, 2012

Friend of the Devil? No friend of His!

"Friend of the Devil" was one of the most universally popular songs in the Grateful Dead songbook. It tells the story of a man running from the law who gets briefly helped by the Devil, who lends him twenty dollars, only to come back later, taking it back and vanishing in the air. That's most of the story right there, other than the fact that after the Devil loaned him the 'twenty bills,' he spent the night in Utah in a cave up in the hills.

My novel "Friend of the Devil" definitely takes its inspiration from the Dead song. The protagonist, Herber T. Barrow, is also running from the law and he also runs into the Devil. But this time it's Herbert that does the Devil a favor, not the other way around. Without wanting to, he puts the Devil in his debt, and then refuses to let the Devil pay him back. And in a way, that's where the fun starts.


The Grateful Dead song seems to take place sometime in the mythic Old West. My Friend of the Devil takes place in 1930s Texas, Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas. Even so, it's still an age of desperados and lawmen. Herbert, in accordance with time-honored Western tradition, is skedaddling for the border. There, he believes, he'll be able to hide out, albeit in plain view, while working as a singing cowboy on XER the mega-powered "Border Blaster" radio station that sits just across the Rio Grande in Mexico.

Getting there is no easy feat, since neither God nor the Devil is a friend of his!

Following is an excerpt from Friend of the Devil, a novel: 

"From the corner of my eye, I can see him reaching back into his waistcoat pocket, pulling his watch back out and popping open the lid. “All right now,” he says. “Exactly how fast are we going?”

I take a quick look at the speedometer. “Ninety,” I say.

“Ninety,” he says back as he fumbles with the stem on top, turning it and at the same time pulling it up and down. I take another look in the mirror and see that ty he white light has nearly caught up with us, but that it’s already broken up into an array of colors from the rainbow, only they’re all glittering and changing.

Stevens holds the watch up with his thumb on the top button. “Okay,” he says, “get ready. Here we go!” He presses down the top button and immediately it’s like we’re in a small boat carried along by a giant wave. I feel the car lifting from the back and we’re rolling and swaying and the blackness has turned to light, only now it’s like we’re on a river inside a bank of fog.

“All right,” says Stevens, turning around and facing forward on his seat. “That’s that!” He smiles like he’s very satisfied with himself.

“That’s what?” I ask. “Where are we?”

“We’re neither here nor there,” he declares happily. “It might just be a good time to light up one of them reefers you got in your shirt pocket.”

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Godsend for Bonnie and Clyde

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker both knew they were going to die. There was no doubt in their minds that they would meet their end in a hail of bullets. All they asked of God was that they'd go down together.

Dying was fine by them. What made it worthwhile was knowing that they were on the front page of the newspapers. They were celebrities. The public loved them. The public hated them. It really made no difference to Bonnie and Clyde, because at least the public knew who they were. And for a couple of kids from a nowhere place like West Dallas, that was quite an accomplishment.


Herbert T Barrow, on the other hand, did not quite share their enthusiasm for celebrity. Having been a Marine in France during the Great War, he already knew more about killing and dying than either his young cousin Clyde or Bonnie ever would. All he really wanted in life was to play Jazz, smoke reefer and love him some women. Herbert didn't ask anything of God, because Herbert was an atheist and he had no doubt that the whole idea of God, the Devil and the Sweet Hereafter was a giant crock of shit. As for his bloodthirsty young cousin and his alleycat girlfriend, Herbert didn't see why he couldn't just keep out of their way as he high-tailed it from Knoxville Tennessee to the Mexican Border with the laws hot on his trail..

But fate and/or the collusion of the deities soon forces Herbert into their arms and before he knows it, he has unwillingly become the newest member of their criminal gang and also the focus of media attention. To Bonnie and Clyde, Herbert is a godsend.  Before he appeared, Bonnie was wounded, they were in hiding, and the public's interest in them seemed to be fading with each passing day.  It didn't matter that Herbert refused to carry a gun when he carried the crippled Bonnie in with him whenever they knocked over gas stations and grocery stores. Having Herbert there with them, sparked the public imagination and got them back on the front page of newspapers. Without them ever announcing it, folks already knew that the Barrow Gang's newest member was Clyde's older cousin and, technically speaking, its original founder, since, as the papers were now reporting, Herbert and Clyde's late older brother, Buck, had been breaking into stores and warehouses back when Clyde was still a kid.

Much as Clyde might like their big boost in media popularity, it rankles him no end that the people believe that Herbert is the outfit's new "criminal mastermind." Herbert, of course, wants none of it. He can't imagine how anybody could know anything about the anonymous midnight breakins that he and Buck Barrow had pulled off more than ten years earlier. The last thing he wants is fame. He's happy to be a faceless street musician. To him, his celebrated hosts are nothing but a couple of two-bit hoodlums, vain, vicious, and both mean as snakes.  He's already seen enough violence and killing in the war. He's made his peace and would personally rather die than carry a gun again. 

What Herbert doesn't understand is that God and the Devil have their own plans, none of which involve him refusing to pick up a gun when the time came.

Following is an excerpt from Friend of the Devil:

"Clyde creeps back and forth from window to doorway, checking on the disposition of the enemy. Then he crawls into the kitchen to see how I’m doing.

“That was some good shooting, Boog,” he says.

I don’t say anything.

“Is that what you did in the war? Shoot like that?”

I don’t say anything to that either. In my mind, I’m a Marine, back in France again with the trenches and the mud and the barbed wire and all the dead lying out there, day in and day out, and remembering how they were the first things I taught myself to stop seeing. And I think about all the other things I had to get good at doing so’s I wouldn’t end up one of them corpses myself; things like knowing exactly when to duck, keeping low and crawling through the mud like a rat; killing without mercy and loving the feeling of grabbing someone and holding them close enough to feel their breath when you put a knife into them. And I learned about switching off all my human feelings so that I wouldn’t be howling and crying with grief every time one of my buddies got killed. I did all that because that’s what you had to do if you were going to survive. Most couldn’t and most didn’t, but I did and survived only because I’d let myself become as ugly and horrible as a man can be. Then one day I couldn’t do it anymore. I made a promise I wouldn’t do no more killing no matter what. And I told that to the sergeant and the sergeant told the captain and the captain threatened to shoot me for cowardice and I told him to go right ahead because I’d rather that than have to kill any more German boys. And maybe they would have shot me, except next thing was the Armistice and instead of shooting me, they slapped me on the back and gave me a medal.

“Boog,” says Clyde, “Now, you know I’m a proud man, but dang it, when I’m wrong, Imo stand up and let the world know. Now, all this time I thought you was a coward, but you showed that you’re a real man. So for that I apologize to you. Do you hear me, Sis?”

I hear a loud sniff from the parlor. “Oh, Daddy,” she says. “I’m just so...” and her voice chokes with emotion.

Clyde looks at me jovially. “So what do you say, Boog?”

I don’t know that I’m going to say anything, but it just comes out. “Clyde,” I say, “you and Bonnie think that just because they write about you in drugstore picture magazines, you all are something special, but you’re really just a couple of lousy, two-bit punks.”

I watch Clyde’s jaw drop. His surprise turns to fury and suddenly he and I are staring bloody knives at each other. I guess I must be smiling at him from the way the corners of my mouth feel bunched up, and I got my finger on the BAR’s trigger and I know he’s got his on the Thompson’s. Come on Clyde, I’m thinking. We can do it. Just make your move. I’ll kill you, no problem at all.

“Hey, you two, what’s going on in there?” demands Bonnie sharply.

Clyde and I continue to stare at each other. But then he takes his finger off the trigger and very deliberately lets his hand rest on the drum magazine. My hand stays right where it is. Clyde looks at my like he’s not sure what he could have done to make me angry. “Well, then, in that case, I’m very sorry you feel this way, cousin,” he says quietly, and starts crawling back into the parlor and Bonnie’s waiting arms. I can hear them going into their tearful, oh Daddy/aw Sis, bill-and-cooing. A minute later, the shooting starts up again, but this time it all seems listless, like dinnertime ain’t for another two hours and this is the only thing they know how to do.

But then Hamer’s men start shooting again and Clyde’s got the Thompson back in his hands and he’s back at the window firing at them, cursing them, calling them sons a bitches and taunting them to come on out and attack him fair and square. I run to the front door and empty the rest of the clip at them, put in a new one and use most of that up, too. They shoot, we shoot and it goes on like this for a few more minutes and then it stops and the three of us are left in silence.

I go back to my post in the kitchen and, for a long time, I sit motionless watching the golden reflection of the evening sun fading upon the kitchen wall. Okay, so maybe my life hasn’t exactly been exemplary. Yeah, I’ve boosted things here and there and robbed a couple stores. I vowed never to kill again, never vowed nothing about sticking to the straight-and-narrow. But, of course, none of that’s got anything to do with why I ended up in this situation. If there is a flaw in my character what got me in this situation, it ain’t that I pulled a couple stickup jobs, it’s that I gave a ride to an old hairy-face country preacher, when my better judgment told me to just keep-a-going right past his sorry self."

Written by Brendan McNally

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On the 50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination, We Ponder; What Was the Great Dallas Novel?

They came back to Dallas to film it and record all its craziness. By accident they film JFK's killers. They try to tell the world, but a friend leaves a goat in their bathroom. It gets out and eats the film.  Dang! with a Big D! Bud Shrake's acid-enriched epic Strange Peaches might just be the Great Dallas Novel. Or maybe it's Brian Wooley's November 22, or Peter Gent's North Dallas 40. By rights it should be Doctor Strangelove, by Terry Southern, only Doctor Strangelove was a movie not a novel, and it wasn't about Dallas at all, though actually, it was.

There's more to Dallas, Texas than Football, JR, and the Kennedy Assassination.  There is Bonnie & Clyde, West Dallas,  rampant sex and drug use through the years, interference by Hindu gods, extreme rightwing nut jobs, extreme wealth and power, football, and, what the hell, the Kennedy Assassination.  In eleven months it'll be fifty years and the city fathers still haven't quite gotten past it.  Somewhere in the course of all of it,  some great books got written, that are mostly forgotten, but all worth remembering.

The Book of DallasHere is an article I did for D Magazine on the "Great Dallas Novel,"   I start off talking about Terry Southern, the great, Dallas-born satirist and hipster-king.  His life should have been the Great Dallas Novel.  Go watch Doctor Strangelove and know how completely it was informed by his growing up in Big D before the war.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing

I've been invited to participate in the Next Big Thing blog series by my friend and colleague Victoria Dougherty:

The point of this is to connect writers with each other and to build up a cross-publicizing synergy. Here are my answers to the questions about my writing and my current project.

1. What is the working title of your book? 
"Friend of the Devil."

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
From a song by the Grateful Dead and also my endless interest in 1930s music, the blues, early "hipster/viper" culture, and Bonnie and Clyde. I also wondered what would happen if a staunch atheist ran into the devil and God first-hand and still refused to believe.

3. What genre does your book fall under?
Historical fiction, dark comedy, crime, thriller, paranormal.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Johnny Depp.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Atheist bluesman on run from the law gets entangled with Bonnie, Clyde, God and the devil.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
A year.

8. What other books would your compare this story to within your genre?

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Having lived in the South, including time in the Appalachians, I was familiar with the "Jack" stories about a man meeting the devil at the Crossroads, where he'd either outsmart the devil or have picked up powers from the devil.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Blues, reefer, Mexican Border Blaster radio, and goat glands.

And here are links to my fellow writers' blogs who have answered questions about their work: Stewart Moore, a graphic novelist and painter, who is known to sometimes paint in wine, , Victoria Dougherty, an author of paranormal, Cold-War spy novels with a black, sassy heart, , and Charles McCain, author of An Honorable German, a great WWII adventure novel that takes you from the pocket battleship Graf Spee to a commerce raider to a U-Boat to a POW camp in Alabama .

Monday, December 3, 2012

100 Baby Chicks (John R. WLAC)


John R. never worked on the Border Blaster. But he had all the hallmarks of a great old-time radio announcer. He talked like he was black, and he was endlessly enterpreneuring. Just like that greatest Border Blaster DJ of all times, Wolfman Jack. Listen as he sells 100 baby chicks, which is one of the things that Border Blaster guys were always selling. Herbert Barrow, the hero of my novel, Friend of the Devil, would
definitely have ended up sounding like this guy, given a couple of more years behind the mic. Enjoy!