In September of 2012, the New York Times reported that the English novelist R.J. Ellory, a writer of thrillers such as A Simple Act of Violence, had taken to his Amazon account to write anonymous reviews that praised his works with lavish and detailed accounts, while simultaneously trashing the work of his fellow novelists. Mr. Ellory was subsequently disqualified from certain prize considerations he had been under consideration to receive and he was thoroughly shamed by the writing community for having sunk to such depths of self-promotion. The general feeling was that authors should simply put their work out there and let the public decide for itself. Writing your own reviews, the controversy seemed to suggest, was as bad as taking something someone tells you in confidence and trumpeting it to the world in order to get a leg up.
Forgetting for a moment that perhaps the most important exchange in the history of American letters came when Walt Whitman wrote to Emerson in order to present his book and then used the correspondence without permission in order to counter early negative reviews of Leaves of Grass, or that Whitman later published his own self-penned reviews of that same work and continued to use those reviews to promote later editions of the book, and forgetting even more determinedly that there is a system in place in the publishing world in which large companies control the gates and decide who gets in and who gets notice, and that this system is not open much for self-criticism, I would say for a moment that I have some sympathy for those who took Ellory to task for his underhandedness. But only to the degree that he remained anonymous. It is unseemly to hide behind the cloak of namelessness to say nice things about one's writing, and, even moreso, to do harm to others. I think we all should stand in the public square, under our own names, flying our own flags, like our elected leaders do on the campaign trail, and tell the world what we think of our work.
In that spirit, I offer the following.
I have co-written a novel (or, more accurately, the first in a series of novels) with an old friend named Michael Bunker. The series is called Wick, and the first book was published on Christmas Day of 2012, while the second book has just become available on Amazon. But more on that in a moment. First, I want to tell a little story.
Michael and I went to high school together, in the town that Friday Nights Lights was written about (although, if this were the television version of that story, we would have gone to the school represented by the hapless East Dillon). We were both tight ends on our high school team. We took Mrs. Head's drama class together and, more importantly, we were on Mrs. Chancellor's Academic Decathlon team together, where we both came to love ideas, and art, and literature, and architecture, and all of the other stuff that makes life beautiful.
All of that doesn't have to mean a thing to you, dear reader, but the fact that we share a history is kind of important to my tale.
Allow me to go a bit further.
One of the things that is important in my past with Michael Bunker is a personal story of where I once stood in regard to religion. I come from a conservative Bible Belt culture. I was once a card-carrying member. At one time in my life, I was offered a full scholarship to Jerry Falwell's school in Lynchburg, Virginia. I met the man. I was with a group of friends on a college weekend and we had gone up to visit the campus and I had a George Michael "Choose Life" t-shirt on. A big black SUV was driving down the street and it passed us, then slowed down, then turned around and came back to pull up alongside us. The black tinted window rolled down and that sonorous voice came booming out of the air-conditioned darkness. It said, "Hey young man, come over here a minute."
We stood in the lane and talked. He asked where I was from, why I was wearing the shirt, what it meant to me. I told him who my pastor was and that I was thinking about going to his school. At the time it was kind of a big deal for me. He was at the height of his power and notoriety then, and I was a kid who believed in all that stuff.
Now I do not.
Somewhere along the line, I came, through my reading of history and philosophy, to decide that God was just a literary character. The greatest character, perhaps, in the history of fiction, but a fictional figure nonetheless.
I make no apologies for that.
I'll still argue until I am blue in the face for your right to believe the way you want to, but that is how I believe. And I am comfortable in that belief.
So. The point is that when I was a Christian, I made an effort once to get Michael Bunker to come along with me. I did the whole witnessing thing. Proselytized him. But he wasn't buying it.
Flash forward to about twenty years later. I was goofing around online and I came across his name and looked him up and saw this guy that I knew had to be him, but he was someone I didn't quite recognize. He was this radical Christian who wrote books and talked about the end times and had guns and lived in an agrarian, separatist community. Was this the guy that I had once tried to lead to Jesus? Was I responsible for any of this?
Thankfully, yes. And no. It was Michael, but I was not responsible. We started up a correspondence and I learned through talking to him online that he had, somewhere along the line (often through reading some of the same folks that I had been reading), come to believe something (or so I thought) in the direction that I had once believed. Except, not exactly. He tried to explain that my faith had been caught up in the commercialism of American modernity and I tried to explain that, well, I had been doing the best with it I could. Somewhere along the line, the trajectories of our lives had simply crossed paths and in that common point we had food for conversation. He told me that I had been wrong and I told him that he was wrong, and so began the rekindling of a beautiful friendship.
Now. Don't even start thinking you know what Michael Bunker believes. You don't. He is not what you would call a Christian. And you are not, if you consider yourself a Christian, what he would accept to be a true one. I won't even pretend to know what he means by this, myself. I just know that he takes a wholly different view of the matter and lives a kind of primitive Christianity that is something entirely different (entirely!) from the Sunday morning worship thing in polished chapels. If you saw him on the street, you would think him to be Amish.
In our early correspondence, I was eager, although I can't say exactly why, to prove to him that my former faith had been a true one and that I had been as committed to it as a person can be. That did not matter to him. Looking back, I suppose in some ways he had a point, in that, if one has a bad religion, it doesn't really matter whether one believes it in the marrow of his bones. The point, I am sure he would say, is to have the correct religion. He used me, with permission, as a cautionary tale in one of his pod-casts to his community, and I tried to listen to it one night while lying in the floor of my girlfriend's house, but I lost interest somewhere along the way and fell asleep without ever getting to the end. Surely there is something in there that speaks to both his views and mine as to whether the other is engaged in folly.
But that doesn't really matter much more to the story.
Here is another thing that does.
Michael Bunker bought a piece of land once in an area not too far from where I went to college and dug a hole in the ground and his family lived in that hole for a number of months until they could build a house on the surface of the land. Did you hear me when I said he was a primitive Christian? He has not had electricity to his place coming through power lines in almost a decade. He wrote me once in January to say that he had just taken his first running-water shower since November. He does not live like you and I.
What does that have to do with me? Well, I grew up on a horse farm on the outskirts of my town. When I was a young boy, I would go down to the chicken coop with my grandfather and he would hobble along, giving me instructions, until I was successful in cornering a chicken. Then he would take the chicken under his arm and cover its head with his hand and take the chicken and swing it around his body until the chicken's body would fly off across the barnyard. I would go over and pick up the twitching body and we would carry it to his trailer house and sit on the porch and pluck the feathers and take it inside for my grandmother to cook up for dinner.
I know. It was another time.
The point is that Michael has lived a life for the past many years that is something more like the 1850's than anything modern and I, while not exactly going back that far, lived a life once that was an echo of America's rural roots. And so we share a kind of bond that goes beyond our various disagreements on religion and its validity. We have both grown our own vegetables and canned them up for the winter. We have both lived closer to the land than most city folk (one of whom I am now, certainly) do not quite understand. We share a common hometown language and a sense of humor and a fascination with nature's bounty that have survived our various experiences with books and philosophies and such.
So. Flash forward another fifteen years.
On the morning before superstorm Sandy hit, I got up and went down to the water to see how high the water had risen and make a decision about what to do. I live on the beach, right on the water. You walk out of my little hole in the wall and turn right and walk fifty feet and turn right and walk fifty yards, and you're standing in the water. Well, not exactly, but it makes for a nicer narrative to say it that way. Anyway, having stayed through Hurricane Irene last year and not really experiencing anything major (although there had been a tornado two blocks from my place that ripped off part of a roof from an apartment building!) I was considering the slightest possibility of staying for all the excitement.
But the water was already as high, twenty-four hours out, as it had been when Irene had done her damnedest, and so I decided to head for somewhere safe. I took the train into the city to stay with my girlfriend in Brooklyn.
As I waited the storm out, I got on Facebook with my phone and was able to communicate through the night with friends who were getting reports from me about what was going on. Michael was one of them. On the third day after the storm, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Port Authority and then took a bus that would drop me off anywhere close in New Jersey, and then walked about twenty-five miles through the devastation left over by the storm. And it was devastating. I walked through Wall Street and then through Monmouth County and, as I went, I took pictures and posted the occasional update when I could get a suitable connection.
The closer I got the shore, the worse it got. I had talked to a friend on the morning after the storm and she told me not to expect my place to be standing. While I didn't necessary believe this (I live in a brick structure that is protected from a direct hit by another brick building directly between mine and the ocean), I felt my heart drop the further I went. Trees and debris and ocean trash and everything you heard reported about were everywhere. Everywhere.
So I walked and I walked. At one point along the way, a beautiful couple came by with their son in the back of a mud-splattered jeep and asked if I needed a ride. They took me the last five miles or so, winding their way through my little town, trying to find a street that wasn't blocked so they could get me home. Eventually, we succeeded. About five blocks from my condo, there were houses that already had their entire belongings, waterlogged and destroyed, lining the curbs along the street that I live on. The couple told me that the town just five miles up the road, on the same street as mine, had been wiped away, and now had two feet of sand standing in the roadway.
So we drove, and about a block away, it was as if the sky opened up and turned blue and the lawns were still manicured and green, and the roadway was clear. We drove up into my parking lot and I walked into my place and it looked like it had when I left it. Dry as a bone.
Now. I count myself very lucky. About twenty yards to the right of my front door there is a cinder block wall that was knocked down. About thirty yards to the left of my door there was a thick metal sign made of six or eight inch steel pipe that was twisted and blown to the ground. Directly behind my house, the ocean ate about three feet into the pavement of the road that runs along the boardwalk, and the boardwalk itself was sitting in the road. The woman directly above me took in water through her window that ruined her bed. But my place was standing as if a protective little bubble had been placed around it. I wondered for just a moment whether the prayers of friends such as Michael had made a difference.
I didn't escape entirely unscathed. I work as a carpenter when I am not writing and, for the past several years, I have been helping an elderly English woman a few towns over get her house ready to sell. It is an amazing old sprawling English country home right on the water, and it took on four feet of water in the back cottage and two feet of water in the main house. And in the garage where I had my tools stored.
I shared these things on FB and had friends come out of the woodwork offering help and support and Michael Bunker was one of them. I told most of them to direct their efforts to places that might better use them. Michael was persistent, though, and so I relented after a while and he took up a collection among his congregation and they sent me money that was much needed and well-appreciated. I know he would not want me to say that, but it is the truth and it meant something special because most of the people who had donated were living hand-to-mouth in the same way that I do. So there, I have said it.
That all said, it was what happened next that led to the book.
Michael had seen my pictures and followed my story and he approached me with an idea for a series of novels. He wanted to create a story in which a guy walks out of Brooklyn after Sandy, tired of urban life, and stumbles onto a secret spy training camp in upstate New York, a remnant of the old Soviet days when the cold war was raging and Americans were paranoid. (Do you remember those days?) He had noticed during the coverage of the storm, as I had even though I had limited access to media during the days immediately following the storm, that the Russians had run a nuclear sub off the eastern coast of the US for the first time since the cold war, and he'd heard Hillary Clinton on TV saying that the old Soviet guard was trying to re-establish itself. He thought it might be a good way to frame a story that would get at the root of some things he sees as modern problems that most of us, in the comforts of our homes, do not pay attention to.
Sandy made some of those things apparent. When the food supply to the cities dries up, for example, what do you do? How do you get around if you cannot get gas? How will people behave if no help shows up, if the help itself, in other words, is as bad off as the people? And with the way we are harming our environment, are we not virtually ensuring that more such catastrophes (man-made and natural) will arise? These are some of the thing we talked about in the aftermath, things I had thought about as I sat in the dark and the cold, and and waited for the lights to come back on while the National Guard Humvees patrolled the streets outside my door during the night. Things Michael has made a living thinking about as he lives on his farm, raising his vegetables and writing books.
So we created a story, with the first book being centered around a character that people can relate to, showing that character walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, through Manhattan, through Harlem, up into New York state, where he stumbles into a blizzard and then into a revolution caused by the rise of an enemy who uses a moment of great national weakness to strike at the very heart of our society. Things fall apart and we watch the walls tumble, chronicling to the best of our ability what might happen next. There are moments of survivalism that read like something you might see in a pamphlet written by Jack London, then other moments that read like something from a hidden corner of a Soviet gulag. Then we ask the question: What is the appropriate response?
I don't want to give too much more away. I will simply say that the early reviews of the book have been very positive, and we have sold more copies in the first six weeks since the first book was published than the huge majority of independently published books sell in their lifetimes. (As I write, we are ranked #4 on Amazon's Alternative History Top Rated list, and #11 on the Top Sellers chart in the same category, for the Kindle edition.) I think it is the combination of wit and storytelling, along with the political subtext about modernity's problems that have been the story's strong suits. That and the fact that we have created characters that people seem to find likable. I was reading Whitman while we wrote and my co-author was reading Hemingway. I think that comes through in a way that makes the book different from some of the other apocalyptic fiction or alternative history books on the market. I don't want to suggest the book is for everyone, but then I take comfort in the fact that Whitman himself had the occasional detractor and if he couldn't sway everyone then perhaps no one can.
I would like, now, to offer Book 1 free to AND readers for a limited time, as we prepare the full-scale launch of the second book in the series. (Book 2 is now available in the Kindle edition but it will likely be early March before we launch the paperback.)
From February 15-19, you may visit the Amazon page (found here
) and download the Kindle edition for free.
Feel free to read it and leave a review and tell your friends and buy Book 2 if you find yourself liking it. As a true indie enterprise, we are doing this working around the edges, without the support of a big machine. It is hard to beat free and it is impossible to beat word of mouth. We hope you find something in our offer that prompts you to get on board.
In order to give you a better idea of what the book is about, I have included a couple of book trailers that I have prepared to kind of whet your whistle. There is a long version here
. And a short version here
Since we are doing this book entirely as independent writers, we have tried to remain true to a kind of counterculture vibe that both Michael Bunker, as a cigar-smoking, scotch-drinking agrarian preacher, and I, as a middle-aged man who rides a bicycle, embody. We hope that you will support our efforts if only to stick it to the man. Just think, if things go well, after we become sell-outs, you can do like you do with favorite band. You can tell people that you knew them when.