(Welcome to the final week of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-14, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Fifteen. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, it’s time to say, “Goodbye.”)
If you really want to know about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is how Subhuman: Volume One – the great American novel that made me rich enough to live the American dream – actually ended.
But I really don’t feel much like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Let’s just say the book’s ending had to be rewritten several times in order to satisfy my then-agent Ben Butler, as well as my editor and several other talking heads over at Penguin Publishing.
The book’s ending was altered yet again when it was republished as a graphic novel – this time to make it more palatable for traditional comic book audiences.
Three years later, when Subhuman, the major motion picture, was released, the ending was given yet another facelift – this time to ensure Mitch Masters (AKA Subhuman) didn’t only earn the admiration of a grateful city, but also the lifelong affection of Molly Maguire (the fiancé he originally thought had drowned in the East End River three years prior).
Viggo Mortensen played the role of Mitch Masters in all three Subhuman films.
Julianne Moore played the role of Molly Maguire.
The Preacher was portrayed by an aging Alan Rickman in the first Subhuman film. Rickman’s Preacher was killed off in that film’s closing minutes. This was done to satisfy focus groups in major test markets all around the country. The Preacher’s dying words to a semi-sympathetic Subhuman (who’d just run him through with a serrated 12-inch hunting blade): “He who lives by the sword … dies … by … the … sword.”
Go fuck yourself, Warner Brothers.
Go fuck yourself and the $173 million domestic gross my characters have earned you thus far.
My story was never meant to end that way.
Molly Maguire was never meant to live. The Preacher was never meant to die.
Subhuman was never meant to have a ticker-tape parade thrown for him on the slap-happy streets of New London.
I simply set out to write a story about heroes and villains and second chances.
Then again, I suppose that’s the price I pay for selling my story down the river for a measly 4%. In fact, when you come right down to it, Subhuman really isn’t even my story to tell anymore, now is it?
Subhuman belongs to the masses now, I suppose. He belongs to market research and merchandising opportunities. He belongs to mail-order T-shirts and greeting cards. He belongs to target audiences all across this great nation of ours; audiences that overwhelmingly insisted Molly Maguire needed to live so that Mitch Masters would finally have the chance to marry his one true love.
Showbiz types refer to this as a traditional Hollywood ending.
I refer to it as the only reason Drew Barrymore isn’t teaching ESL to second graders somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.
I’ve converted my father’s third-floor apartment into a writing studio that looks out upon the city gray. Eastern State Penitentiary – the now-defunct prison East End Penitentiary was based upon – dominates four city blocks only a hundred yards from my front door. The Divine Lorraine Hotel is located a half mile east of here.
The sights and sounds of New London are alive and kicking all around me.
Sometimes, when my work is done for the day, I’ll crack a beer and lean my elbow against the frost-cold windowsill, reimagining the city skyline as a backdrop for the epic battle between good and evil Subhuman: Volume One has come to represent.
“There’s still plenty out there worth fighting for,” I’ll think to myself. “There’s still plenty out there worth writing for.”
Writing is the only marketable skill I’ve ever developed. While I have no compelling reason to believe it will be enough to sustain me from one end of this life to the other, it’s done a pretty decent job of keeping me company thus far.
What more can I ask for, really?
I mean, I suppose I could ask for another opportunity to gain the admiration of my peers; specifically those who dismissed my first foray into fiction as little more than the purple-prose equivalent of Colorforms. I suppose I could ask for an opportunity to prove that I do, in fact, have something to offer the great American lexicon; that my head isn’t solely consumed with the fictional escapades of caped crusaders and their various arch nemesi.
I suppose I could ask for a second act … That’s what I suppose I could ask for.
Why? Because when you come right down to it, all of the great ones – and I mean the really great ones – eventually became just as well-known for their impressive second and third acts as they did for their first.
Ali had his rope-a-dope.
Jordan had his fade-away jumper.
Brando had his Vito Corleone.
Is it so horribly brazen to assume that I might have a second – or perhaps even a third – act in me as well?
I sure as hell hope not.
These days, I spend the majority of my time parked behind a mahogany writing desk, which I bought for $235 at a pawn shop over on Girard.
The craftsmanship is immaculate – 19th century Italian with gold-tooled leather and bronze accents. On the upper-left hand corner of the desk is a framed picture of Tommy and Sara. On the upper-right hand corner is a clear Plexiglas cube, approximately five inches on each side. Suspended in midair in the center of that Plexiglas cube is a rusty bronze ring with a tiny hairline crack along its surface.
The rusty bronze ring belongs to Jizo.
Tommy and Sara belong to me.
I keep a ramshackle collection of Post-it notes and reference material in an industrial-size drawer built into the lower-left side of my desk. I keep a corkboard collage of pictures and quotes hanging on the wall to my immediate right.
Taken as a whole, the collage is a glossy representation of all the voices and ideas that have come to shape my narrative voice over the years – Barnum, Clinton, Coen one and Coen two; Dylan, Fey, Jett and Love; McMahon, Ramone, Springsteen and Stern; Streep, Vonnegut, Waits and Zevon … all of my heroes are present and accounted for, meshed together like press clippings in an ongoing crime investigation.
Near the center of the collage you’ll find a postcard photo of Dr. Dre, circa NWA, with a hand-crafted dialogue bubble extending from his mouth.
Here is what is written inside that hand-crafted dialogue bubble:
It’s not difficult/In fact, it’s kind of simple,
To create something funky/that’s original.
You need to talk about the place to be,
Who you are/What you got/About a sucka MC.
Just below Dr. Dre hangs a worn-and-frayed photo of Steven King, torn from the back cover of On Writing. Scrawled over King’s portrait in permanent black marker are the words “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
The sentiment belongs to the author of The Shawshank Redemption.
The black marker scrawl belongs to me.
I keep a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with dried-up pine needles standing wilted and weary over by my bookshelf. I keep a tiny two-speaker stereo on a Formica counter that separates my studio from the kitchen.
I keep a different Edward Hopper painting in every room of the apartment.
In the breakfast nook/kitchen, it’s always “Sunday Morning.”
In the living room-cum-studio, it’s “Office in a Small City.”
In the bedroom, it’s “Night Windows.”
In the bathroom, it’s “Gas.”
I’ve always preferred Edward Hopper because he was a Realist.
He knew how to keep it Real.
I feel completely at home in my father’s third-floor apartment – left to my own devices. Some afternoons, I’ll spend hours at a time, just watching the shadows as they drift from one side of 22nd Street to the other – no phone calls, no text messages, no mailmen at the front gate … just the far-off sound of neighborhood kids as they ramble their way from double dutch to dope deals; gumballs to gats.
I am alone here, and I am happy – fully capable of considering how the next chapter should read.
As part of my ongoing effort to remain in the public eye, leading up to the (prospective) publication of my bio-in-a-book, I’ve accepted my first freelance assignment in more than 15 years – a 3,000-word profile of career criminals Peter Salerno and Dominick Latella for Philadelphia Magazine.
Salerno and Latella masterminded a series of robberies throughout the 1960s and 70s that earned them the law-enforcement nickname “The Dinner Set Gang.”
The Dinner Set Gang had a novel M.O. – For months at a time, they’d canvas a well-to-do neighborhood, in pursuit of a multi-million dollar estate where elite dinner parties were being held.
The gang’s theory, which proved to be both brilliant and viable, was that when rich people were expecting company, they never armed their home security systems. More importantly, when rich people were entertaining company at home, they rarely wore their most expensive jewelry. That jewelry was kept upstairs in a suitcase, or a safe, or buried ’neath the silky depths of a non-descript underwear drawer.
During each heist, Latella played the point man outside, watching from the weeds to ensure no one inside the house wandered upstairs. Salerno, meanwhile, would scale a wall somewhere along the perimeter of the estate, creep in through a second-story window, make his way to the master bedroom, and rob those motherfuckers blind … all of this while the victims were whooping it up with their dinner guests, less than 20 feet below.
According to a 60 Minutes profile of the Dinner Set Gang that aired back in 2006, Salerno gained such a natural sense of when and how to strike, he was usually in and out of each residence in less than three minutes.
Latella estimates he and Salerno fleeced the wealthy of more than $20 million worth of cash and merchandise between the years of 1968 and 1992.
When the duo re-emerged in the early nineties, this time to earn enough scratch for Pete to pay off his wife Gloria’s medical bills (Gloria had been diagnosed with advanced-stage breast cancer several months prior), they pulled off a string of robberies in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania – most of the break-ins only minutes away from the tree-lined street in Rosemont where Laura and I decided to build a life together.
The Main Line media referred to Dominick and Pete as the Fat Cat Burglars.
“Fat cats, please don’t come back!” one reporter wrote.
No one has any idea what became of that reporter.
Dominick and Pete, on the other hand, retired with their wives to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after serving a considerable amount of time in prison for their crimes. Their exploits were documented in a sociology textbook entitled The Criminal Elite. There’s apparently a major motion picture in the works as well.
Who says crime doesn’t pay?
Not me, that’s for sure.
In fact, I’d argue crime is just like anything else – there’s a shit ton of money to be had, if you’re good at what you do and you know how to market yourself.
The Dinner Set story is remarkable for a number or reasons: Neither Pete or Dominick ever carried weapons. Their jobs were antiseptic … clean, the result of meticulous research and method. They only stole from the rich. They targeted several of their victims based on profiles they’d read in magazines like Fortune and Forbes.
For more than 20 years, they somehow managed to avoid both death and taxes.
When you come right down to it, Pete Salerno and Dominick Latella were a lot like Nathaniel Hawthorne. The only difference – Salerno and Latella only made ten cents on the dollar for every piece of merchandise they fenced.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s operation, on the other hand, has always been straight profit.
Who’s the fat cat now?
Nathaniel Hawthorne is currently the subject of a sweeping ethics investigation by the New York State Bar Association. The investigation, which is based on numerous allegations from former clients going back more than 30 years, was announced a week before Christmas. The bar association was spurred into action – in large part – after a story appeared in the New York Post’s Page Six section, accusing “redneck codger” Nathaniel Hawthorne of bedding the now-ex-wife of one of his clients during a recent divorce settlement.
While the blurb didn’t mention any names, the accompanying picture showed Nathaniel and “Main Line deb” Laura Lee enjoying dinner together at Le Cirque in midtown Manhattan.
A five-year old could’ve pieced the whole thing together, which is precisely why I asked Laura to explain the situation to Tommy and Sara before they found out about it via the vicious pre-K gossip mill over at Holy Redeemer.
Pre-K gossip mills can be exceptionally cruel, y’know?
They’re not nearly as consumed as their tabloid counterparts might be with silly things like libel and slander.
Laura Lee is the anonymous source who tipped off the New York Post.
She had to have been, right?
I mean, I know it wasn’t me, and really, who else could’ve possibly cared enough to bother?
No, sir. This situation has jilted ex-respondent written all over it.
And why not? Once Nathaniel revealed their relationship to be little more than an extremely shrewd business transaction, Laura had every right to fuck him where it hurts.
While my communication with Laura Lee is now strictly limited to discussing our children and my checkbook, this happens to be one situation where I’d be more than willing to back her up, especially if it means I get to personally apply the tar and/or feathers to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ample hide.
When all is said and done, I’m guessing Nathaniel Hawthorne will weasel his way out of this whole mess in much the same way he does everything else. He’s far too diabolical for me to assume he’s not already eight steps ahead of the investigation – gathering proprietary info, forming strategic alliances, fucking the attorney general’s niece, if it happens to strengthen his position.
The whole thing’s just one more game of screw-the-pooch for Nathaniel Hawthorne. As far as he’s concerned, the law is subjective and malleable – a system of easily-manipulated checks and balances put in place to serve the expressed needs of a privileged few.
Regardless of whether Nathaniel Hawthorne winds up disbarred, the investigation will likely serve to further tarnish his already-worthless reputation. When all the putrid smoke in that basement bunker of his begins to clear; when all of his dog-eared, coffee-stained file folders are processed and publicized, Nathaniel Hawthorne will be no better off than that dimwit-son-of-his he seems so eager to disown.
And, that, my friends, may be the best revenge an all-day-sucker like myself can possibly hope for.
Ben Butler has decided to sever his business relationship with semi-established author Montgomery Miggs. This occurred after a lucrative publishing deal for Miggs’ little dream book fell through at the eleventh hour – Miggs literally stepping away from the negotiating table when the would-be publisher refused to meet a set of previously-undisclosed demands.
Shortly after that incident, Ben realized the return on investment from his nine-month business relationship with Montgomery Miggs was completely non-existent. This despite countless hours and expenses devoted to satisfying Miggs’ every whim.
I learned about the situation a few days ago, when Ben Butler drove down from New York City to wish me a happy holiday. Ben and I went over to Mack’s Elbow Room for a drink, at which point we laughed aloud about the fact we were sitting in the very same bar – and upon the very same stools – where Miggs first told me about his affair with Laura a full 15 months prior.
Ben Butler and I drank until the bar lights went bright that night. After last call, we cabbed it back to the house in Rosemont, where we drank a little more. In the two or three days since, I cannot help but think that night may have been the best time I’ve spent with an honest-to-goodness friend in a really long time.
In fact, I cannot help but think it may have been the only time I’ve spent with an honest-to-goodness friend in a really long time.
This morning I awoke to find an email from Meghan McKenzie staring back at me from my laptop.
The email had been sent during the overnight hours – most likely after Meghan’s 8-4 shift had ended. It was the first communication of any kind her and I have had since the night we broke up on the streets of Alphabet City. That was a little over three months ago now, and I have to admit, the complete lack of interaction has probably been a good thing for both of us, all things considered.
Here is what Meghan McKenzie typed inside that email:
Just wanted to drop a quick line and let u know I went 2 the Metropolitan last week 😉. Took the guided tour, just 4 kicks. It’s funny, after all these years, it turns out I can still recite the entire museum spiel verbatim. The more things change, right ;)? Anyway, when we got to the Sackler Wing, I asked the guide why there were only 5 rings on Jizo’s staff. She told me while “it may appear there are only 5 rings on his staff, the clasp that the five rings are hanging from actually represents the sixth realm of being in Buddhist thought.” I’m not so sure I believe that ;)! Anyway, I thought u’d enjoy knowing that u’ve 4ever altered the course of Buddhist culture. Fancy that!
I’ve gone back and read that email 15 times or more, scrutinizing every detail for some type of hidden meaning. The lack of a full signature, the lack of any real-world questions about my personal well-being, the way Meghan fails to mention anything about how she’s doing, what she’s doing … the fact that she didn’t even wish me a merry Christmas – What does it all mean? Did Meghan McKenzie really just write to tell me about that episode at the Metropolitan? Has she really moved on to the extent that she doesn’t even care to ask how I’m doing? What I’m doing? Who I’m doing? Anything?
Has Meghan McKenzie somehow managed to become 100% emotionally detached from the situation?
Maybe Meghan figures it would hurt too much to find out I was already dick-deep in someone else’s vagina (I am not, for the record). Maybe she was in a rush and didn’t really have the time to delve into any personal details. Maybe she just wanted to cast her lure in the water, leaving it entirely up to me to determine whether I should take the bait.
Or maybe Meghan McKenzie was just soused to the gills at 4:21 AM EST and decided to type me an email. Regardless, in matters such as these, I know it’s generally better not to tip your hand.
I mean, if there’s no ambiguity, then what’s the point, right?
I have made a conscious decision not to respond to Meghan McKenzie’s email.
Why? Here’s why: I think it would bother me more to find out Meghan McKenzie had completely moved on than it would to go on assuming she was still an emotional trainwreck over me. And yet, I have no intention whatsoever of trying to win her back.
I think it is human nature to want what you cannot have until you can have it, at which point you move on to wanting something else entirely.
Or – at the very least – I think that’s my nature.
I also think post-paramour psychology leaves a great deal to be desired.
That’s what I think.
Still with me? Good. Let’s bring this puppy home, shall we?
A long while back, like way back when our time with one another was just getting underway, I mentioned that the American Dream was “dead as the dog dirt, my friend.”
Well, either way, the point is, once you’ve committed to a book this heavily, you have a reasonable expectation that certain things will eventually come to pass. It’s like an unspoken agreement between the author and the reader – a pinky swear that ensures you’ll be in good hands; that the author won’t lead you speeding off a cliff, or veering into a massive dust cloud, so to speak.
You have a reasonable expectation that the characters will evolve, that the plot will follow a semi-linear arc. You have a reasonable expectation that each character’s choices will reflect this evolution. You have a reasonable expectation that in the end most of your questions will be answered – that any questions left unanswered didn’t really matter so much, anyhow.
And, if you’re especially greedy – and I mean like elitist-snob-who-consumes-three-books-a-week greedy – you have the right to expect the author will provide you with a variety of twists and turns along the way – a unique variety of twists and turns that leave the reader thinking, “Well, I never would have seen that coming, but looking back, I can’t imagine how things could’ve turned out otherwise.”
You want the author to set you up without insulting your intelligence.
You want to be outsmarted, in a manner of speaking – reminded that there are still writers out there who are capable of considering the world from a novel perspective.
You want the author to encapsulate something you’ve experienced a hundred times or more, but never really had the ability to put into words.
You want the story to ring true.
You want it to be both universally appealing and deeply personal.
You want to walk away from the experience so hopped up on rich lit that you can’t wait to start the next book – a book which will, inevitably, prove to be a major letdown.
You want to connect with what the author is saying, or writing, or typing, or whatever it is the author happens to be doing at the time.
And, of course, you want the work to retain a certain sense of ambiguity, because otherwise, what’s the point, right?
But most of all – at least in this case – you want the author to explain what the fuck any of this has to do with the American dream – to either confirm your suspicions, or take a free-flowing piss all over them.
Well, what can I say? I mean, I would hope if there is – in fact – a cohesive thread weaving throughout all of this rambling nonsense, the reader will have already connected those dots for him/herself.
If I’ve failed in that regard, then allow me to put it to you this way: Who the
fuck really wants to live the American dream, anyway?
Dreams – by their very nature – are unrealistic. They’re loosely-connected pieces of debris, drifting aimlessly about the subconscious.
I have this recurring dream during which I’m back in high school. Only I can’t figure out where my classes are, where all my friends have gone, or what the combination to my locker is. I have another recurring dream where I can only move in slow-motion, as if my legs are constantly churning in a marshmallow vat of goo.
And then I have this completely whacked-out recurring dream, during which Batman and Robin are chasing the Penguin through my circulatory system.
Does that sound like the type of thing a reasonable person should aspire to?
What I’m trying to say is that somewhere along the line, it was drilled into my head that I needed to be out there pursuing the American dream, or – at the very least – some horribly pedestrian version of it. And yet, the more life experience I gain, the more that bourgeois phrase seems like nothing more than a steaming pile of dog-doo.
Does that mean the party’s over? That we’ve reached our peak as a nation or culture? That we’re staring down the slope of a long day’s journey into night?
Does that mean it’s time to close up shop and hand the keys over to China?
And really, in the long run, does the American dream – or any dream, for that matter – really need to be attached to some bullshit expectation of a better life, based on little more than material wealth and power?
Cause it’s been my experience that a rich white guy in a Brooks Brothers suit is a whole lot more likely to hang himself with his own belt than some black guy working three jobs to stay afloat.
Why is that?
Well, it could be because the overwhelming majority of rich white men in Brooks Brothers suits are horrible at confronting public shame. And it could be that the overwhelming majority of black guys working three jobs to stay afloat are actually much better off than their parents or their grandparents ever were. Or perhaps it could just be because, deep down, the overwhelming majority of rich white guys in Brooks Brothers suits are nothing more than lily-white pansies, desperate for constant praise and validation.
Whatever the case, the American dream has somehow devolved into this plutocratic ideal that has worlds more to do with manipulating the system than it does accumulating some genuine sense of self-worth and dignity.
Look no further than the characters in this book to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s made a career out of manipulating the legal system to get what he wants. My ex-wife Laura’s made a career out of manipulating financial records to get what she wants. Ben Butler’s made a career out of manipulating publishers and writers to get what he wants. Montgomery Miggs has made a career out of manipulating dysfunctional females to get what he wants, and Meghan McKenzie has made a career out of manipulating the system to get what she wants.
And me? Well, you could argue I’ve made a career out of manipulating each of the characters in this book to get whatever it is I want. In some cases, that means validation. In other cases, it means success. Either way, the point is, I’ve somehow learned to prioritize the people in my life based on what they can do for me.
And while I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, it’s been my experience that the overwhelming majority of people out there are pretty much playing the very same game, one way or another.
I guess that’s why – over the course of the past 15 months – I’ve really come to appreciate the solitude; all the hours spent rap-tap-tapping away at the keyboard, watching the sun drift from one side of 22nd Street to the other.
I mean, I’m 37 years old now. A lot of the grand pursuits that consumed me in my early twenties no longer seem so relevant or urgent.
I’ve been in love. I’ve been married. And, truth be told, I’m really not all that eager to rush back down either of those roads. Why would I be? I mean, when you come right down to it, everyone gets a second chance at love. But how many people my age can honestly say they’ll ever get a second chance at loneliness?
Not many, that’s for sure.
As I sit here staring out the window of my father’s one-bedroom apartment, the context of all these things has not been lost on me.
Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been afforded the luxury of staring out this window come dinnertime, or eating with the TV on, or even wandering off to my father’s one-bedroom apartment whenever the impulse struck me, for that matter.
Two years ago, every morning was beginning to feel like one more sinking step in a long, slow march toward death.
I’m happy to say that’s no longer the case.
All of which is why I plan to finish this beer and fall asleep on the couch, marveling at the slow twinkle of Christmas lights as they bounce off every wall. The kids are ringing in the new year with Laura tonight, which means I can get an early start tomorrow, and knock out a good 600 words or so before picking them up for dinner.
For the past 12 years, I’ve always considered New Years Eve to be one of the most justifiable binging nights of the year.
But things are different now, and so am I.
So it’s a quick beer and some cheese fries before I unplug the Christmas lights and wander off to bed.
Tomorrow will be New Year’s Day, after all.
And I cannot help but think there’s still plenty out there worth writing for.
©Copyright Bob Hill