So why should you read a self-published novel by a writer you’ve never heard of? Why should you get to know over a dozen characters, learn the history of an imaginary city, and follow the twists and turns of a complex plot over the course of 140,000 words? It won’t make you smarter, get you laid, or teach you how to be a better person. Why is it worth your time?
Not an American is written for the general reader. The plot is complex but straight-forward. There are no unreliable narrators. I go out of my way to make everything as clear as possible, but it’s a still a 140,000 world novel, not a short story or a blog entry. It would still be 14 hours long if I recorded it as an audiobook. It still takes about as much time and effort as it would take to read Tale of Two Cities or Lord Jim. So why not just read Tale of Two Cities or Lord Jim? Better yet, why not watch Girls or listen to Serial? That’s what everybody else is doing. That’s what will get you laid, get your blog entry read, and give you something to talk about around the water cooler at work.
The honest answer is “I don’t know.”
But let me give you the book’s genesis. My father grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania, just outside of Scranton. In the summer, we would drive up to visit relatives. There I got to know the landscape, the Ashley Huber coal breaker, the mine fire at Centralia, the seedy hotels that dot the Poconos, that corner of the Northeastern United States that was so similar, yet so different from my hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. In 2008, I drove up to the University of Scranton to photograph a rally for John McCain. I chatted up a group of conservatives. Clean coal, Obama’s birth certificate, the anti-abortion movement, Northeastern Pennsylvania is still Blue America, but these people seemed to be from a different country.
Fast forward to 2010. They’re everywhere. Obama has already revealed himself to be a bought and paid for Wall Street whore. Chris Christie is governor of New Jersey. The Tea Party is terrorizing congressional town halls for the Affordable Care Act with the corporate media cheering them on. And I’m reading Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.
Barnaby Rudge, which Charles Dickens wrote when he was 28 years old, is full of the rough passion and anger of a young man just entering his prime. It’s not as great a novel as Tale of Two Cities, but it might be a more honest novel. Dickens slandered the French Revolution in the figure of Madame Defarge. In Barnaby Rudge, he comes back home to London, to the Great Gordon Riots of 1780. If the mob that stormed the Bastille fought for democracy, for liberty, equality and fraternity, then the mob that attacked Newgate Prison wanted to take peoples’ rights away. It started out as a controlled pogrom against Catholics. But it got out of control. Under the cover of “No Popery” the London mob attacked the established order, freed prisoners, burned down the houses of the wealthy, and rocked the social order down to its foundation.
I will never be able to write as well as Charles Dickens. This is not self-deprecation. God can’t write as well as Charles Dickens. But when I read the fictional description of the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge, my mind went back to Northeastern Pennsylvania, to the Centralia Mine Fire, to the McCain supporters I met in Scranton. Somehow, in my imagination, the fires of the Gordon Riots, the 50-year-old Anthracite coal fire under Centralia Pennsylvania, and the racist, far-right wing passions of the Tea Party came together in Poison Springs. If Joseph Conrad invented a whole country, I thought, surely I could create my own small city.
In 2011, I wrote a first draft and set it aside. It didn’t work. I knew how I wanted the novel to end. I just wasn’t sure how I wanted it to begin. When I looked at its villains, it felt like I was “punching down.” Scranton and Hazleton aren’t New York and London. Lou Barletta isn’t Michael Bloomberg. Northeastern Pennsylvania is a run-down corner of the Northeast, not the Jim Crow South. In the fall of 2011, however, I participated in Occupy Wall Street in NYC. I witnessed the insane amount of police repression and state power that came down on a non-violent protest movement. I watched the media slander idealistic young people as “rapists” and “hippies who needed jobs,” and I had the rest of my story.
Imagine two young malcontents in their early 20s. Imagine a corrupt city government and a brutal, repressive police force. And imagine a spark that sets off the conflagration that brings it all down. If you think you’d enjoy seeing any of this, then by all means, download my novel, and take the 10 or 15 hours you need to read it. I may not be Charles Dickens or Joseph Conrad, but if you hate cops, hate bigots, hate corrupt politicians, hate the media, and want to “stick it to the man,” if only in your imagination, I actually think you’ll enjoy Not an American so much you’ll probably read it twice.