"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of The Big Reap, The Wrong Goodbye and Dead Harvest.

"Bagley's got the poet's eye, but that doesn't mean everything is prettier in his work. It means the ugly stuff is more vivid. More intense. Like a sudden switch from analog to HD. And that's a trait to very much admire in his work." --Anthony Neil Smith, author of Hogdoggin', Yellow Medicine, The Drummer and Psychosomatic.




Sunday, May 17, 2009

HOGDOGGIN' Virtual Motorcycle Rally Day Three

Guest blogger Anthony Neil Smith continues to let us roll around in the pure noir nastiness that is his latest novel, Hogdoggin'.

In the Last Episode, Kieran “Irish” Shea beat the shit out of The Wolfman, then reminisced with Fry about the bad ol’ days.

When Detective Grieg took the assignment going undercover with the Unholy Bastards, he mostly got what he expected--small time meth and heroin operation, brutal rivalries, and hedonism that really pushed the envelope, especially considering he’d always been heavily active in his church until the divorce, his wife running off with Grieg’s former partner. They weren’t even much of a gang anymore, and the Head Bastard had even stashed the bike.

But they were still pumping out the fresh-baked meth. So Grieg figured why not push himself. A solid undercover gig was a surefire way to pogo on up the ladder a few rungs at a pretty young age. Leapfrog right over that bastard ex-partner Lee and his rugged bullshit fa├žade. Lee was as metrosexual as a three dollar bill.

But it meant having to drink, snort, and smoke whatever the rest of the gang was imbibing. Meant he had to sleep with some women he would’ve avoided with a ten-foot pole back in his married days. He justified it, saying It’s just a job. It’s for the greater good. Jesus understands.

Then out of nowhere, the Head Bastard--Christian name of “Bagley”--gets a call from some guy talking about Steel God and a Rally, and the next thing Grieg knew, the old crew of Bastards was on the highway, heading for a small town on the border of Minnesota and South Dakota. Turned out to be he flattest hell he’d ever seen, like the Wild West but without the stagecoaches. And the Rally, well…he actually started to see the appeal of meth after staying up forty-one hours straight.

He watched as men he knew turned into stone-cold lunatics. He watched men and women gangbanging on the streets. He heard more gunfire in one day than he had in eight years on the force. The fumes from all the bike exhaust seemed to exhilarate his fellow Bastards, but it just made him nauseous.

But then he saw someone he had never expected to see. Maybe the hair was longer, beard covering most of his face, but those eyes and that grin were famous. He was staring at Public Enemy Number One. Billy Lafitte.

He’d heard about it on the news--Lafitte a corrupt lawman who may or may not have had ties to a terrorist cell, becoming an overnight celebrity before he beat a Homeland Security agent nearly to death before disappearing into the Midwestern prairies.

And here he was, apparently one of Steel God’s men, from the jacket. Laughing and having a good time at the expense of all the brave law officers he wouldn’t have had one moment’s pause over before mowing them down. Drinking a beer, listening to a band on one of the side stages, relaxing with his lady, a young girl must be fresh out of high school--or even in high school, the way these guys work.

If Grieg could get close enough. If he could call in for help without blowing his cover, this would be the one to make his career. Picture in the paper, face on TV. A book deal. A veritable buffet of career advancement. Maybe he could even go Hollywood as a consultant. He did have this script for a Christian cop show, maybe for TBN.

All he had to do was keep it together, not blow it. And step one was to stop staring straight at Lafitte.

Problem was, while he was thinking all that, Lafitte had already found him in the crowd.

Oh Jesus. Oh…damn. Damn it. Sorry, Jesus. Help me.

Striding over. Eyes locked. Guy had beefed up since the photos on the news last year. Ragged, tired, but still like a panther with his reflexes--locked in on Grieg but still able to avoid a couple of wild punches and wild dancers.

Face to face, nearly the same height. Lafitte mushed his lips around like her was chewing on a thought.

Then just said it. “You’re a cop.”

“Fuck off, man, you’re a cop. Fuck, you want to say that to my face again?”

Lafitte said, “You’re a cop.”

Grieg had worked really hard to penetrate this group and keep his cover deep, which wasn’t the easiest thing to do in rural Maine. People know people there. So unless his cover had been see-through from day one and the Head Bastard just didn’t care, he was still cool.

So how did Lafitte pin him right away?

Easy. Grieg hated the answer, but that’s the only one: if you can’t sympathize with the ones you’re in deep with, then you’ll always stick out.

He got right in Lafitte’s face and growled. He said, “You want to end this, let’s go out there on the prairies and end this. You and me, like men.”

That grin again. “You’d like to try, wouldn’t you? Make your big bust. Got a hard-on just thinking about it, I can tell.”

Grieg stood there another moment, nostrils flaring. Fight or flight? He couldn’t keep up the bravado. Others would start to notice. They would join in. A full-fledged gangfight. Not that. Couldn’t afford that.
Didn’t matter. He didn’t get to make that choice.

Lafitte said, “Here’s the deal. I’m giving you ten minutes. A head start. Say because I still have a soft spot for the job. Then I tell the Head Bastard about you. If it ere me, I’d try to see how much space I put between me and this town. I wouldn’t even go back home. Just run. Run forever.”

“Ain’t no one going to believe you.”

“They don’t have to. As long as I plant the seed of doubt, your days are numbered.”

Grieg felt his throat burn. A pain deep in his eyes. Mouth going dry. What else could he say? “Please, don’t.”

Lafitte shrugged. “Choice is yours. I’ve made mine.”

Grieg didn’t get it at first, but as Lafitte turned and walked back over to his girl, the real meaning of Lafitte’s warning struck him. Lafitte didn’t want Grieg killed. He was trying to save the guy. Give him a fighting chance. So maybe it meant that really, if Grieg stayed to do his job, Lafitte would respect that.

Yeah. Another swig of awful tasting beer. But Grieg barely registered it this time. He’d just gotten a confidence boost. He wasn’t going anywhere.

*

It was long after midnight and still a long time until sunrise, Grieg staring at the cell phone in his hand while sitting in a tattered lawn chair out behind the Dive Bar. The smoker belched out smoke and the aroma of brisket, sausage and ribs. Everyone else was either asleep, having sex loudly in car hoods, pick-up beds, or out in the fields, or wandering around on a speed fix, looking for something constructive to do.

He was staring at the phone trying to decide if he should turn in Lafitte to the Feds, the cops, or the national news. It wasn’t a question of “if” anymore. It was just how to pull it off, stay alive, and make a name for himself.

Grieg barely heard the Head Bastard come up beside him dragging his own lawn chair. He unfolded it and took a seat to Grieg’s right, exhaling like a slit tire.

Bastard pointed at the phone. “Forgot to call Mommy?”

Grieg shrugged. “We’ve all got someone back home. They’ll be worried.”

“I thought you was divorced?”

“Yeah, but it’s still my turn with the kids this weekend. I forgot.”

Bastard slipped his arm around Grieg and gave him a squeeze. “That can be tough on a man, having to decide who he’s loyal to. I mean, all you’d have had to say was ‘It’s my kids, man’ and you think I would’ve made you come all this way for meat, booze, and pussy? Shit, you can get that in the KFC parking lot at home most weeknights.”

“Maybe I just wanted to. I mean, she left me. So if that ruins her weekend palns, me riding with you, then so be it.”

Got a good chuckle out of the main man. A strong clap on the shoulder. “I hear you, I do. That’s too bad. All of this is. And now she’s going to have to find a sitter every weekend. Her mom live close?”

“What do you mean? We’re going home in a couple of weeks, right?”

Bastard’s eyes got wide. “We are. You ain’t. Like I said, it’s hard choosing sides, so I hear. But…” He leaned over and plucked the phone from Grieg’s palm. “Seems to me it’s not as difficult for you as for others.”

No. He couldn’t know. Lafitte couldn’t have told him. It was mean tot scare him off, give him a head’s up. Lafitte wouldn’t actually go through with fingering a fellow lawman, would he?

Grieg caught a glimpse of someone on his left flank. These minutes he’d been buddy-buddy with Bastard, someone had sneaked up on him. Grieg jumped and turned his head. It was Lafitte, alone, hands in his pockets.

Grieg pointed. “This one? This one’s a fucking traitor, man. You’ve seen him on the news.”

Bastard said, “Steel God trusts him. That’s enough for me.” He reached behind him and pulled a small pistol from his waistband. A .22. Just enough. He stretched out his hand to Lafitte while keeping the other one gripped tight on Grieg’s shoulder.

“You figured it out. You take him down.”

Lafitte didn’t take the gun. Took a step back. Grieg was trying to meet his eyes, plead, beg, anything. Lafitte wouldn’t look him in the face.

Lafitte said, “Not my problem. But if no one else was going to tell you…” Hunched his shoulders. “I’m cold. I’m heading inside.”

And he was gone.

Bastard clapped Grieg on the shoulder again, then pushed out of the chair, dragging the undercover cop with him. Almost like a brotherly embrace, these two. Grieg could’ve sworn he heard the big man sniffling a bit.

“Please, you don’t have to. You and me, Bagley. We can take down Lafitte. That would forgive every bad thing you’ve ever done. Come on. Have I ever given you any reason to doubt me before?”

Bastard clamped his hand over Grieg’s mouth, shushed him. Then said, “I promise it won’t hurt. As easy as I can. No sir, it’s not right to suffer.”

Grieg was going numb, like all the energy he’d had during the day was now zapped. Not even training to fall back on. Crashing on the meth, sleep-deprived, like a rag doll in Bastard’s arms. They continued out into the corn field, the stalks barely knee high this early in the season. Behind them, a cleaver and hatchet slung over one shoulder, followed Gorilla Gowran.

Grieg tried to talk again, but not to Bastard or Gowran. He was talking to his Lord. Bastard even loosened his grip on the man’s mouth as he prayed for forgiveness, for a miracle, for God to touch the Bastard’s heart.

Bagley laughed. He said, “Amen. I been asking for that all my life, too. When I get to Hell, I hope I find out why he never did.”

They kept on walking…

*

Country noir writer. Check.

Poet. Check.

Put those together with the man from Maine with the blues in his heart, and what to you get?

Some mighty Bitter Water. And damn good writing.

When you’re a poet, you think about language more than most people. You look for the perfect word for the perfect moment. You break down language and glue it back together in never before seen combinations. You tell the story with the most impact in as few words as possible. And it’s got to have rhythm.

So listen to Patrick Shawn Bagley (and the rest of the Lineup crew, too. Good stuff) read his poem “110 MPH in a Stolen Pickup”, and see if that doesn’t jazz you to the possibilities of crime as poetry: “When I saw those flames, I thought my Jesus Freak foster parents were right and I’d gone to hell.”

Check out how he gets you into the story in Bank Job:

She says she’s afraid of death, but we’ve only been together two weeks now, and I’ve figured out she’s only scared of dying a nobody.

Or this description of a living room from Pandora:

The air smelled bad in there too, a commingled funk of stale pot smoke, body odor, incense, cat turds and patchouli. A big-screen TV dominated the room, stacks of DVDs and videocassettes rising from its top like battlements. More trash bags, duct-taped to the window frames. Maybe that was why they never took out the garbage; all the bags were being used as drapes.

Bagley’s got the poet’s eye, but that doesn’t mean everything is prettier in his work. It means the ugly stuff is more vivid. More intense. Like a sudden switch from analog to HD. And that’s a trait to very much admire in his work.

When asked by Brian Lindenmuth what he values in fiction, Bagley answers, “The best fiction, regardless of genre, is an exploration of what it means to be human. Most of the time, that entails a great deal of loss and suffering peppered with small moments of hope or contentment. More than one person has pointed out that I don’t write happy endings. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as happily ever after. I prefer happily for a little while because some other problem or some new desire always comes along. We’re all restless. Once we get what we thought we wanted, it’s never long before we want something else. The desire for the thing is greater than the thing itself. That’s what keeps us reading and writing.”

I understand exactly what he’s talking about.

Hogdoggin’ felt like a rural noir to me as I wrote it. I’m in my fourth year of learning what it means to live in farm country, vast stretches of prairie surrounding our small town. Even growing up in the South, it wasn’t quite as isolated. So I think I know why Patrick, living in a “one-stoplight town”, focuses on the characters in his work. It’s because they’re the ones you can’t help but see when there aren’t so many people around. I think of Flannery O’Connor, when asked why the Southern writers focus on the “freaks” of society, answering, “It is because we are still able to recognize one.” Not just recognize, but empathize. They’re part of the great swirling stew of life, not a sideshow. So deal with them.

Lafitte had to learn the truth about himself in order to hang with Steel God. So does Deputy Colleen and Special Agent McKeown. And in order to save their marriage, Rome and his wife must do away with the masks and protective walls and deal with each other, no frills, no flinching.

But you’ll find out more about those folks in Hogdoggin’ when you put your order in on June 1st (HOGDOGGIN’ Monday) or pick it up at the indie bookstores I’m dropping in at in May and June (see Crimedog One for the dates).

Next up, Hawaiian Dick author B. Clay Moore crashes the party. Literally.

ON STAGE TONIGHT: Steve Earle, “To Live is to Fly”

2 comments:

Frank Bill said...

Great writing and high praise. Much deserved.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I should note that it was actually Richie Narvaez who did such a great job reading my poem (and some others) for the CrimeWAV podcast.