The Story Behind the Novel ‘Hell City’

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was my debut thriller, “Hell City.” The Rap Sheet just published the story behind the novel. It’s all about how a boy with a car made of kitchen chairs drove around the world in his mind, then took his imagination on the road of life, steering it through stints as a poet, a newspaper reporter, a musician and, finally, a novelist.

“…half cows, men with blood-smeared aprons…”

Let’s go back to the era when this author was 5 years old, standing on a rooftop in West Harlem, marveling at the hard dark and light of the Meatpacking District while on a trip to my father’s bookkeeping office–trucks with half cows, men with blood-smeared aprons, crows wheeling under the vaulted girders of the West Side Highway viaduct. Then came the poems, during my college days and beyond. Poems that refracted the chiaroscuro of the city’s façades, the dolor of her teeming but lonely streets. Poems that found their way into many a small-press magazine, into chapbooks. Poems that caused Library Journal to cite my work for its “startling imagery.”

Along the way, I worked in the city’s warehouses, drove her cabs, wrote for her newspapers, and sang in her nightclubs. Her underbelly was my beat, forging a gritty, cinematic prose style.

Note: as part of a special promotion, my novel, “Hell City” can be downloaded free from the Kindle Store on Nov. 14 and 15 only.

My Novel Will Be Free for a Day — Oct. 17

Hell City” is part of a special Amazon Kindle program that allows me to offer some free days, when you can go to the thriller’s Kindle page and download it free of charge. You heard right. Should I say: “an offer you can’t refuse.”

The date is Oct. 17. Just visit the page anytime that day and click. And if you don’t have a Kindle, no problemo. Amazon offers a free reader app you can download for your PC or Mac. You can also read it on an iPad, an iPhone or a Droid.

In “Hell City,” you’ll encounter unforgettable characters, an unlikely love affair and a race against devastation. “I was mesmerized,” writes one Amazon reviewer, who goes on:

I couldn’t put this down. I totally got into the characters, Jack and Annette. If this is his first novel, definitely can’t wait for his second.

Has Al-Qaida Been Reinvigorated?

In the lead story in today’s New York Times, senior terrorism correspondent Eric Schmitt — who recently wished me luck with my 9/11-launched novel “Hell City” — writes:

The attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens has set off a new debate here and across the Middle East about whether Al Qaeda has been reinvigorated amid the chaos of the Arab Spring or instead merely lives on as a kind of useful boogeyman, scapegoat or foil.

There’s a great debate going on in Washington and the Middle East over whether al-Qaida (I use the AP-style spelling) is operational or whether newer insurgent groups are simply deploying its terrifying brand. That’s kind of where the term al-Qaida 2.0 comes from.

One thing is certain: there is no shortage of entrenched, sophisticated insurgent groups, the Haqqani clan in the Af-Pak region being one of the most dangerous. They have been responsible for most of the attacks on embassies in the region and many attacks on our troupes. It’s possible they are behind the recent deadly bombing in Kabul, another protestation over the Youtube-posted film under the name of “Innocence of Muslims,” although so far a branch of the insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami has claimed responsibility.

Consider this: it was the Kabul bombing, taken together with the other attacks across some 40 cities in the Middle East and North Africa, that led the U.S-led coalition to curtail operations with Afghan security forces, the very core of what remains of our mission in Afghanistan. Talk about decimation. Man, what do we have left?

Image

So, the idea that organized, sophisticated insurgency, jihad, has somehow been defanged in the Middle East and beyond is simply nuts. The entire region is on fire and is coming apart at the seams.

Which brings me to the plot of “Hell City.” As the protagonist, counterterrorism commander Jack Oldham, believes: “Al-Qaida isn’t dead — yet!” What Jack believes is that we can’t go to sleep on the “new gen” al-Qaida as he and his comrades call it, which is why they track American-born insurgents and their connections to various groups in Af-Pak and Yemen. Among them, by the way, is a fictionalized version of the Haqqani tribe. Can the reconstituted Qaida pull off another “big one” in New York? Well, that’s what reading (click for Kindle page) is all about.

New Terrorist Group at Center of Thriller

A fictionalized version of the Haqqani tribe, a Pakistan-based organization the U.S. State Department just added to its list of terrorist groups, is at the center my thriller, “Hell City.”

The novel casts the group as part of a metastasizing al-Qaida that is bent on pulling off another “big one” in New York.

Fiction aside, the thriller is a wake-up call on the true threat of al-Qaida and its affiliates in the post-bin Laden world.

A Haqqani fighter.
Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for the Guardian

Think organized crime. You cripple the New York Mafia and the Russians, the Jheri Curls (Dominican), the Latin Kings and other, fiercer groups, take over the town.

The Haqqanis are entrenched, widespread, connected and virulent. They’ve been behind many of the recent attacks on our troops and diplomats in the Af-Pak region.

Let’s face it. The guy on the subway figures al-Qaida is broken, and he can’t keep up with the parade of threats and new groups. So he turns off, goes to sleep.

To Jack Oldham, the protagonist of “Hell City,” sleep is the enemy. The vigilant commander on New York’s Joint Terrorism Task Force never forgot how the country went into hibernation soon after the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993.

The novel’s narrator makes the case:

But the city had come a long way. In her own rugged fashion, she had gone from Trade Center trauma to annoyed indifference, her alligator skin shielded against the seemingly endless terror alerts and aborted plots of the new-gen jihad of the day. The first attack on the towers rocked the city to its core, but it was soon seen as a botched plot by militants who couldn’t shoot straight. They were viewed through the short-range, next-quarter glasses of the West — What? A blind cleric operating out of some storefront mosque in Jersey? Boneheads with names so long they blurred comprehension. What’s this? The Three Stooges? You gotta be kidding me.

Now, with bin-Laden — and other al-Qaida leaders — dead, our country is lulled into thinking that all the insurgents can manage stateside is the one-off, the lone-wolf attack. The airline bomber over Detroit. The Times Square bomber.

But they’re not looking deeper into the landscape of insurgency. Yemen and other African nations have become hotbeds of development for insurgent groups. And then there are the Haqqanis. They’ve been operating with impunity, deep and wide and under the radar — for a generation.

My Debut Thriller — About al-Qaida 2.0 — to be Released on 9/11

Yes, it’s fiction, but my first novel, the thriller “Hell City,” just may foreshadow al-Qaida’s ability to pull off another “big one.” The book just might sound a wake-up call for a city (New York) and a country that largely has gone to sleep on the issue?

“A striking read that will leave you looking around the corner in fear,” writes Kirkus Reviews in a review of the novel.

A news release, announcing the 9/11 release date, went out yesterday nationwide.

Terrifying as today’s headlines, “Hell City” tumbles Gotham toward devastation yet again as it tracks the newest breed of jihadists bent on a major attack.

Beginning on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, the e-book edition of the novel will be available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. For now, I’m pricing the e-book at $0.99, to encourage new readers.

I will post regularly here on the novel — its backstory, its genesis, its characters. You can also “like” me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter for the latest news.

Catcher 22: Holden Caulfield Today

“The Catcher in the Rye” was as singular a novel as the voice of J.D. Salinger, who passed away on Thursday. To my generation – The Who, Woodstock and all that – it was the bible for the disaffected, misunderstood teenager, who was ready to flip from Peter Pan.

Of course, the flipping continued. After high school, there were new discoveries on the road, so to speak, to self-discovery: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Hemingway, Dylan, the Beatles, the Williamses (Tennessee and Hank), the Millers (Henry and Arthur), Lorca.

But today’s youth don’t have time for such protracted processes. As Jennifer Schuessler put it, writing in the New York Times last June:

Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry (Potter) — not the beautiful losers who reject it.

Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents.

Since the 1980s, I’ve been saddened by the fast-track trajectory of college students. Pressure to choose a gilded career flattened any chance for soul searching during its ideal developmental period. No doubt many college students in recent times have bounced from major to major, from career to career, and have fallen under the wheels of life a few times. Yet something still seems lost in today’s culture.

Nevertheless, I’m convinced there’s something inherent in human nature that seeks its own inquisitive level despite the “so now” pressures and distractions of the times. Our three-year-old grandson, Russell is as spoiled with store-bought toys as many, but I was heartened to see that his favorite play thing of late is an empty chewing-gum box — the best gift his pappy ever gave him.

The soul lives on.
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“Robert Frank’s The Americans” at the Metropolitan

I just saw the exhibit “Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’” — centered on the photographer’s seminal book by the same name  — on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through Jan. 3.

Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank took pictures in Europe and South America during his early career, but it wasn’t until he crisscrossed the seductive roads of America that Frank felt he was finally making art with his lens. With his U.S. travels in the mid-1950s, his work reached a new level, and 83 of his road images were arranged into the book “The Americans.”

It’s no surprised that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the first U.S. edition of “The Americans (1959).” It raised eyebrows in the media for its brute black and white candor. But “The Americans,” like Kerouac’s own masterwork, “On the Road,” opened the door to the loneness of the country’s heart and spirit and, together, they inspired a generation of artists, musicians and thinkers.

Robert Frank's "U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho"

It’s interesting how foreign image makers like Frank, Mechelangelo Antonioni (“Zabriskie Point,” 1970), Louis Malle (“Atlantic City,” 1980) are able to capture the essence of the land better than most native auteurs. In fact, with the stir made by “The Americans,” Frank was compared to America’s original outsider observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 book “Democracy in America” helped to define the young nation’s unique character (Is it what America brings to you or what you bring to her?).

I believe a great artist is a conduit for “place.” His subject somehow finds him, speaks through him. The artist ultimately “sees” through time as the French photographer Eugène Atget described it. I believe such artists also see through other dimensions, some of which elude us, some of which speak through intersections of light and shadow, artifact and art, quietude and cacophony, moment and mystery.

It’s hard to describe “The Americans.” Language could illuminate it, could degrade it. Perhaps it’s like the stuff of dreams, the magic of which begins to disappear upon transfer to the conscious mind. So much spills from the bucket on its ascent from that deep, dark well.

But I try. Actually, I thought poetry might somehow have a special access pass to the world within photography. So I offer up the following images from my forthcoming chapbook “America, I’ll Have My Way With You”:

I MISS YOU ALREADY AMERICA

I miss you already America
and you’re not even gone

leave me your messages
by the grimed phone booth
how you joke of the truth
hat tossed to eternity
leave me your hay bales
in the sweat hum of the field
waiting on farm hands
and wayward girls
leave me your Ford grillwork
idle at the company house
preaching at the two lane

leave me your truck’s whine
at the crossroads
singing that heaven
is elsewhere in the night
leave me your green trailer
singular at the corner
monument to guts
leave me your shag heart
dusting the television night
with boredom and blood

You might view the video of my song “Miss America,” too.

I was surprised and pleased to see Frank himself link the worlds of photography and poetry in his description of his work:

When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.

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