Thursday, August 26, 2010

Murder, mayhem in Joel Brown's Port City

Caught up with Joel Brown at Fowle's. He's a regular, stops in every day after an solo sunrise bike ride on Plum Island, and, closer to home, a bit of exercise with his dog, Buffy. Yes, named after the vampire slayer. He confesses to being “a little uncomfortable on this side of the pad.” You know, answering the questions instead of asking them. He's an old-school ink-soaked wretch. Moved to town in 1998 after landing a gig as television editor at the Herald, became executive arts editor, got voted off the island about five years ago, another casualty of print journalism's sad, long-running decline. He's still in the game — freelancing, poor bastard. Running a blog, Hub Arts, which has a wider view than its name might suggest. We're sitting at a table on State Street. Everybody seems to know him. Then again, he is a regular and this is Newburyport, or Libertyport, as Brown calls a somewhat fictionalized city in “Mirror Ball Man,” his first mystery. It's an “old-fashioned New England small town where everyone knew everyone else, an idyllic vision straight out of Norman Rockwell, but gay-friendly, with hybrid cars and flat-screen TVs.” That vision is shattered when Jules Titward, a local developer who has stirred up a lot of ugly emotions in his bid to build a hotel on the central waterfront, turns up dead, face first in the gravel parking lot, the proposed project site, next to his Beemer, in a pool of his own blood.

So, there we are at Fowle’s — Foley’s in the book, and contrasted with an evil corporate coffeeslinger, possibly allied with the devil, located just a couple of doors down the street. A guy, another regular, eyeing me wearily, comes up to our table, asks if the book has come out. It has. Hit the virtual shelves last week. The Kindle-iPad editions are set, probably available this week — about the same time as “Mirror Ball Man" finds its way into local concrete and mortars. “That's great,” the guy says. Bit of a buzz about it around town, he says. “Everyone's curious to see if they're in it.”

Short answer? They’re not.

The book is a virtual map of the city — geographically, historically and sociologically. Locals, even newcomers, which in Newburyport, of course, means people who came to town — doesn't matter how long ago  — instead of being born in it, which is Brown's sad misfortune, will know where they are every step of the way, although a couple of places, most notably the Grog, um, Rum House, a local watering hole and music venue, turns up in the "wrong" place. The cover of the book is a photo of Plum Island Lighthouse, for goodness sake. And the history of the city's transformation from hard-luck, hard-scrabble seaport to arty outpost and, ultimately, a Starbucks coffee-drinking kind of place, is dead on. And he captures the eternal conflict in the city for the past three decades — townie-versus-outsider, arty-versus-working-class — and has some fun at the established social order along the way, like in a wary gathering of the anti-hotel tribes at the, um, Rum House, where arty and townie come together to celebrate a victory sparked, in part, by an anthem penned by local folkie/singer-songwriter and one-hit wonder Baxter McLean. Usually the two groups keep their distance, but they have a common enemy and, you know, any port in a storm. "Everybody wore jeans, and it was hard to tell them apart without knowing the players," he writes. "In Libertyport, if you saw a guy in a faded Red Sox cap driving an old pickup with a tangle of driftwood and fishing net in the back, you couldn’t be sure if it was a dump run in progress or the beginnings of a gallery installation."

You'll recognize familiar landscape, situations, attitudes, worldviews and character types — gruff townies and fishermen, opportunistic real estate slingers and sexy young moms in sports bras pushing jogging strollers with the same relentless drive they’d use later at the office. All types of people you "know" from around town, but real people?

Absolutely not, he says. It's meant to be fiction, not journalism. He says it with a straight face. No real reason to doubt him, even though he has confessed to being a reporter. No evidence to convict him after a thoroughly enjoyable week with the book.

Portrait of the artist
Brown grew up in Exeter, still has family there. Didn’t have much real life experience with the Port City as a kid, just the get-to-Plum-Island-as-quick-as-possible rides on the bus with YMCA Camp Lincoln during the seedy ’70s. He moved to western Mass, worked as a reporter for the The Recorder in Greenfield. That's where he met his future wife, a librarian in Turners Falls. He wrote a story about her. They moved to Chicago, where he worked at Daily Southtown, as a news guy, then as TV columnist and all-around arts guy. Cool city, Chicago, but after a decade, they really wanted to get back home. Landed the Herald job, bought a little house on the edge of downtown, lives there with his wife, Buffy and two cats. Loves it here. What's not to love? "It's a pretty nice place to live, and hardly anyone ever gets murdered here." Until he started writing about it, that is. He started freelancing when the Herald job evaporated, started HubArts — the usual frantic freelance hustle.

Like most print journalists, Brown nurtured the idea of writing something more substantial than the news-of-the-moment. "There's always a better story than the one you just put in the paper," he says. He decided to take “a serious run” at actually doing it in 2006. The reluctant hero, Baxter McLean, a musician, one of those one-hit-wonders who had a taste of success and has been trying to recapture it the rest of his life, had been in Brown's notebooks for years — even figuring in a short story.

He spent a year at it, got some critical feedback and spent another year on rewrites. Then came the hard part — selling the damned thing. First step, probably the hardest, these days, landing an agent. He sent out lots of queries, got a lot of responses, "but no takers,” he says. “Maybe I write a better query letter than a book," he says. He'd get back comments like “funny, well written, no” or “Not in today's market,” or “too mid-list, — “whatever that means,” he says. After getting two bites in a single day, he thought he was in. But no. “At some point you throw it in the drawer and forget about it,” he says. Friends and family were bringing up the idea of “indie publishing,” the hot new name for self-publishing, once called, sneeringly, vanity press — long the domain of certified crackpots, or "the tin foil hat people," as Brown puts it. But publishing, like the music industry, has changed: You’ve got to have a blockbuster or the corporate door gets slammed in your face — repeatedly, though usually with respectful flip-offs. In the new marketplace, "blockbuster" may still be the dream, but you can survive on less — and get the work out there. “It’s  about artists taking control of their careers,” says Brown. And big-ass success is still possible. Just think Brunonia Barry, the Salem writer whose self-published "The Lace Reader" became an underground sensation and was picked up by a major for a ride to bestseller land.

No reason it can't. It's a great read, a fun ride. It sucks you right in, makes you laugh out loud and will leave you guessing up to the not-so-bitter end — even you hardcore mystery readers — as Baxter stumbles on two brutal murders, becoming the prime suspect in both, with good cause, and having to solve them himself, while periodically getting the snot kicked out of him. It certainly screwed up my schedule for a week, as I kept promising myself "one more chapter, just one more chapter."

Having a crime-fighting folksinger might seem ... well, odd. "He doesn't win fights, doesn't have a gun, he's just some shlub in a coffeehouse. Maybe as preposterous as a matronly school teacher from what turns out to be the blood-soaked streets of Cabot Cove, but who knows? He may make a comeback. “I've got numbers in my head,” Brown says. “There's a 'I'm satisfied' number and a 'Worth doing another' number. We'll see. But it's gotta be more than a friends and family plan.” Besides, he could always turn to Abigail Marks, the blogger and former English teacher with withering look and predatory grin who serves a kind of Undertoad function in the story. There's gotta be a story about her somewhere. Besides, he says, the streets of Libertyport are teaming with stories and characters. Just in the course of a half-hour, we encountered one of those crazy, distracted arty types stopping short on State Street to have a bit of an out-the-window conversation, nearly causing a pile-up, and a much-too-sedate stranger coming up to us and asking if we wouldn't mind watching her dog while she popped into Fowle’s for a bit of Joe — and witnessed a high-octaned, German-engineered pissing match as two guys in showoff BMWs battled for a parking space, because, as Brown writes, while Libertyporters are “unyieldingly polite to strangers, even jaywalkers,” precious downtown parking spaces change the whole equation. 

“C'mon,” he says, “It's easy. It's like shooting fish in a barrel he says. I just sit here.”

JUST THE FACTS: “Mirror Ball Man: A Libertyport Mystery,” a trade paperback by Joel Brown, can be purchased through CreateSpace, or at local booksellers


1 comment:

  1. i think the rum house is the black cow, not the grog