He came to see Bettie, not me. Everyone did. The poster of 50′s pinup Bettie Page and her male counterpart drew a lot of people to our booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Unlike the little old lady who went on about the size and shape of male thighs, Tim McLoughlin didn’t seem to be a lost soul. He mentioned a link to Akashic Books, but I was setting up and didn’t pay attention. Till he said he was behind the Noir mystery series.
That was huge. I love anything noir; it’s practically a religion with me. Tall silent men and slinky dames, dark plots that unfold in gritty urban settings where shadows lurk and doom waits around every corner. Think fate was just for Oedipus and the ancient Greeks? Check out the death-by-phone-wire scene in Detour, or watch Kathie Moffat glide Out of the Past back into Jeff Bailey’s life. If that doesn’t do it, there’s always Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark in a thrilling debut) pushing a wheelchair-bound cripple down stairs in Kiss of Death. Noir is a dark street on the wrong side of town where people, backed against the wall, confront the worst of human nature.
Though the film cycle died out in the early 60s, elements linger on in American culture like mutant spores. When McLoughlin returned bearing his novel, Heart of the Old Country, I assumed there would be traces, and there are. But like West Side Story and On the Waterfront, it’s really a poignant coming of age tale set in the rough environs of New York.
Like the divided blocks of the Jets and Sharks, and the docks and tenements that mark the outer limits of Terry Malloy’s world, the low-rent, thug-rich sections of south Brooklyn play a major role in the story. The turf is small and specific: the back streets of Coney Island and rundown parts of Bay Ridge where the trains don’t go, but car service does.
At the start, the main character, Mikey, is living at home with his widowed dad, trying to sort out his future. He’s not quite sold on the education he’s getting at NYU, nor is his father who finds him a job at the local car service.
Big Lou’s isn’t the high tech, hail-with-an-app realm of Uber. Run from a storefront, it survives on three dollar jobs: seniors traveling to medical appointments and numbers men hopping from bar to bar. The drivers are two-bit losers who crack dirty and wile away time playing cards. Two things matter: money and the “little…triangle” (lady parts, not Euclid). It’s a world so small and flat if you drive to the edge you might fall off, and Mikey very nearly does.
He’s slow to grasp the soul-destroying web of Lou’s illicit courier service, thinking that easy money comes with no strings and he can play Lou’s game on his own terms. He can’t. Like the 50′s classic, Kiss Me Deadly, there’s a mysterious sought-after box that keeps the reader guessing till the very end. Mikey snags it, though he should know better, having seen the rough justice dished out to local flunky, Nicky Shades.
Like Tony and Maria, Terry and Edie, Mikey knows more about what he’s running from than what he’s running to. He yearns for a different place with opportunity and choice, but can’t quite picture it. Yet slowly, as he threads his way through illicit jobs and rigid social expectations, it comes into focus and he begins to find the pieces of his true self.
As the world of Bay Ridge shrinks, a new one begins to form around his NYU classmate, Kathy Popovich. Neither brilliant nor wildly beautiful, she’s a decent girl with creative leanings not from the neighborhood, which is part of her charm. If it is not quite the mythic, forever after love of Tony and Maria, it opens a door to a place where relationships are based more on similar interests than shared geography.
With Kathy, Mikey experiences a sense of freedom and possibility, not the entrapment he feels with Gina, the girl he grew up with and is expected to marry. With Gina, the future is laid out and very similar to the past: shopping trips on Fifth Avenue (Brooklyn, not Manhattan), visits to relatives on Staten Island (“fun as a root canal”), with career options for Mikey that include Sanitation. In her mother’s house, an apartment waits for the couple like a cell.
Though the book flies, its sense of time is gritty and real; there will be no quick fix. The hero’s journey will be an extended one, marked by small, hard-won understandings rather than a single mind-blowing epiphany. True to life and literary form, it ends not with false promise, but on a small note of possibility. Alone in his car, trying to find Nicky Shades’ girl to do a good deed, Mikey reaches for a pen and pad. Supposedly he’s checking a list, but it’s tempting, knowing the author’s story, to imagine that one day he will use that pen for a more creative purpose.
Tim McLoughlin was born in Sunset Park, and like his hero grew up in Bay Ridge. But with good choices and a sense of purpose, he slipped away from the old country which is as much a state of mind as actual place. The small-time world of South Brooklyn found its way into his work, but never defined him. He is a man of his own destiny, and talking with him, you get the sense of a life well-lived and deeply enjoyed.
Early on, McLoughlin cycled through jobs that included stints as a driver, Barnes & Noble clerk (main branch), and patrolman at the transit yards in East New York and Coney Island. After long nights and strange hours, he leapt at the chance to become a court officer, which turned into a long-term gig. The work was good and he made some smart investments along the way, but in his heart wanted something more.
He had always read widely and voraciously, his love of literature kindled not by two years spent at NYU, but by the Jesuit teachers at Xavier High. Slowly and secretly he began to write. His early goals were small: to get a few short stories published in a literary magazine. Good writing meant sounding like the New Yorker; he had not yet plumbed his inner landscape or found his own voice. That took time and a “drill sergeant” teacher, Kaylie Jones. McLoughlin signed up for her class at the West Side Y, sensing that the other instructors were too “warm and fuzzy” to be any good. He auditioned with a sci-fi piece, learning later he was accepted mainly to balance the otherwise female group. It worked out well: one of the students, a “cute blonde,” became his wife.
On the page he struggled, unwilling to ditch his high brow illusions. But at some point sense and his natural voice prevailed, and out popped a couple of stories that ultimately became part of Heart of the Old Country. Jones’ response: “where the fuck has this been?”
Inside, all along. They went out for beer at an Irish bar. She gave encouragement, and the work bloomed. Sections were published in Confrontation Magazine, and the manuscript was bought by Johnny Temple for Akashic. The Italian rights sold fast, and in 2003, that very old country gave McLoughlin its Premio Penne award.
Which brings us back to the Noir series which was conceived as a way to get Johnny Temple off his case. They were walking around BEA, with the publisher pressing him about a second novel. McLoughlin countered with the idea for an anthology of original stories. They settled on the concept of noir, press-ganged Pete Hamill into writing a piece, and never looked back.
The series features greats like Dennis Lehane (Boston Noir), as well as talented unknowns, and has spread from New York to exotic locales like Manila and Mumbai. There is always a keen sense of place combined with plots that honor the dark essence of noir.
With those going strong, maybe it’s time to ask again about that second book. (Note to Johnny: start nagging and this time don’t stop.)
– Catherine Kirkpatrick
(Bettie Page: Queen of Curves and Beefcake are books by Petra Mason about historic pinups of the 1950s. She is also the author of Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom. Other photographs ©Catherine Kirkpatrick.)