Double murderer Gary Lee Rock (center) after his capture, before his unsuccessful suicide attempt.
There are certain experiences so mystifying, so unsettling, so flat-out weird that we can hope to understand them only through books. I had a cluster of such experiences in the late 1970s that haunted me for more than thirty years – until just recently when I came to two very different books that finally helped me understand what I’d lived through and how my response to those events shaped me as a writer. The books are Wisconsin Death Trip, a genre-bending work of history by Michael Lesy, and American Pastoral, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth. It would be hard to imagine two more unalike books, and yet they spoke to my mystification with one voice. But before I tell you about these books, I should tell you about what happened back in the 1970s.
In November of 1976, on the Monday after Jimmy Carter was elected president, I reported for work as a cub reporter at Public Opinion, the daily newspaper in Chambersburg, Pa., a hamlet of 20,000 souls in the dead middle of the state just above the Mason-Dixon Line. I was spectacularly unqualified for the job. I had taken one creative writing course in college, had never studied journalism, and could offer as credentials just three short sketches I’d written for my college newspaper. But I was determined to become a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and like many before me I believed I needed to serve my apprenticeship in the whirlwind of a daily newspaper’s city room. So after graduating from college I spent months knocking on newspaper doors up and down the Eastern seaboard, getting told again and again to come back when I had some experience. This was the post-Watergate season, it was a buyer’s market, and I didn’t have much to sell. But the editor at Public Opinion decided to take a chance on me. At $140 a week – with a strict Gannett corporate policy of no overtime pay – it wasn’t much of a gamble. Naturally I jumped at the job.
From the very first day I sensed that I had landed in a strange place. The paper’s star reporter, Brad Bumsted, was working an ongoing story about a man named Robert Bear who’d been “shunned” by his conservative Reformed Mennonite congregation for disobeying doctrine. Church members were forbidden from doing business with Bear, and his wife and children were not allowed to talk to him, or even look at him. The poor man was coming unglued. Every day I received other reminders that I was deep in “Pennsylvania Dutch” country – bearded, straw-hatted men and their bonneted wives clopping along the rural roads in horse-drawn carriages; similarly attired men, known as “black-bumper Amish,” driving black cars with blackened chrome; names like Slaybaugh and Klinefelter larding the phone book; and diners serving “Dutch” (that is, German) dishes I’d never heard of, including shoofly pie and a dubious breakfast meat called scrapple.
While the Amish and Mennonites struck me as benign cults, there were other things going on that were far from benign. The first I experienced at close range was a local legend named Merle Unger, a charming rogue and petty criminal who had a history of breaking out of the county jail at night to visit his girlfriend, then breaking back into the jail before deputies counted noses in the morning. But on one of his breakouts Unger made the mistake of killing an off-duty cop during an armed robbery in Hagerstown, Md. The charm was off the rogue. The editor sent me to Easton, Md., to write sidebars while Brad Bumsted covered Unger’s murder trial. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, One of Unger’s lawyers got so drunk celebrating with the cops that he tipped over his chair and landed flat on his back, cackling like a hyena. The cops roared with glee. It was like an out-of-kilter drug trip: a petty criminal who breaks into jail and becomes a cop killer; a defense attorney who celebrates a guilty verdict.
There were far darker local legends. Public Opinion had won a Pulitzer Prize 10 years before my arrival for its coverage of strange goings-on in Shade Gap, a tiny town tucked into the Allegheny Mountains, which begin their rise just west of Chambersburg. There, an ex-convict and ex-mental patient named William Diller Hollenbaugh – known locally as “The Mountain Man” and “Bicycle Pete” – terrorized the community before kidnapping a teenage girl and holding her captive in the wild mountain terrain for seven days while authorities mounted the largest manhunt in Pennsylvania history. Eventually they shot Hollenbaugh dead while rescuing the girl. It was like some Yankee version of Deliverance.
Then there was the case of Debbie Sue Kline, a 19-year-old hospital employee in nearby Waynesboro who disappeared on her way home from work in the summer of 1976 and had not been seen since. In January of 1977, Public Opinion reported that Dorothy Allison, a well known psychic from Nutley, N.J., had come to town at the Kline family’s request to help police with their stalled investigation. Allison traveled the route between the hospital and the Kline home, she visited the missing girl’s bedroom, touched clothes, ran her hands over the bed sheets, slipped the girl’s class ring on her finger and left it there. Allison told police they would find a skeleton on a dump or in a junkyard in a town with double letters in its name. Then she left for New York City to undergo hypnosis to help her pinpoint the exact location of the girl’s remains.
“Police said the woman promised to identify the car used in the alleged abduction, the license number of the vehicle, the names of the people involved, the route they took and the location of Debbie,” Public Opinion reported. “Police credit Allison with ‘a fantastic track record,’ and said Allison revealed things concerning the investigation ‘that you wouldn’t believe.'”
It’s likely those newspaper reports made their way into the Franklin County Prison because there, on the following Wednesday morning, an inmate named Richard Lee Dodson offered to lead police to Kline’s body. He took them to a landfill near the town of Fannettsburg and pointed to a frozen, nearly fleshless skeleton. Dodson said his accomplice in the kidnapping, rape and murder was Ronald Henninger, who was then serving a manslaughter sentence in an Illinois prison but had been free on parole the summer Debbie Sue Kline was killed.
And finally, most spectacularly, there was the Fourth of July weekend in 1977. On that Saturday morning, Gary Lee Rock, an ex-Marine with an “expert” marksmanship rating, did something unimaginable. Unhappy in love, unhappy with his $3.50-an-hour clerk’s job at the local Army depot – exactly what I was making at the newspaper – Rock awoke with a hangover in his rural home. For reasons he could not explain later, he dressed in fatigue pants, combat boots and his Marine dog tags, then flew into a rage, smashing plates and windows and furniture. He doused the interior of his home and a nearby shed with gasoline, lit them up, then crouched nearby in the woods with a 300 Savage rifle, a shotgun, a Marine Corps knife and boxes of ammunition.
When a neighbor, alerted by an explosion, came running up Rock’s driveway, Rock shot him once through the heart, dead. When the revered chief of the local volunteer fire department arrived in his car, Rock shot him in the head and right arm, also dead. Rock fired more shots through the windshield of the first fire engine on the scene, wounding two firefighters. Then he melted into the woods, where he was captured that evening after state troopers wounded him with a salvo of shotgun pellets. After coming out of surgery, Rock smashed an IV bottle and slashed his own wrist and neck, but failed to kill himself. Of course this lurid, nearly ludicrous spasm of violence made national news.
All of this – the Mountain Man, the shunned Mennonite, the charming cop killer and his drunk lawyer, the psychic, the dead nurse, the burning house, the homicidal/suicidal ex-Marine, the dead fire chief – all of this was overwhelming to me. Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide – it added up to a collective nervous breakdown. And it all happened in a charming American town that looked like a Norman Rockwell painting.
Wisconsin Death Trip lives up to Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum that all great works of literature must either dissolve a genre or invent one. The genre Michael Lesy invented with this astonishing book might be called Portrait of a Society in a State of Mental and Physical Collapse. Greil Marcus aptly described the book as “absolutely a thing in itself: its own construct, its own nightmare, its own scream.”
Through photographs, newspaper accounts and his own impressionistic essays, Lesy tells the story of what happened in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the last decade of the 19th century, the so-called “Gay Nineties.” It was a time of paranoia, disease, economic upheaval and harrowing violence. For those who couldn’t take it, suicide came in many flavors: arenic, carbolic acid, strychnine, morphine, an insecticide called “paris green,” plus hanging, jumping in front of a train, ingesting match heads, slitting your own throat, plunging your head in a barrel of water and of course, this being America, self-inflicted gunshot wound. If you didn’t kill yourself you had a fair chance of getting murdered, or starving or freezing to death, or dying from a smorgasbord of diseases that included diphtheria, smallpox, cerebral meningitis, typhoid fever and croup.
Fire was as common as rain. “In the early days,” Lesy writes, “people set fires for business as well as pleasure. The courthouse got burned down before it was even built in 1857. In 1861 the town’s entire business block, valued at $30,000, went up in smoke.”
People saw ghosts, they saw 40-foot-long reptiles in the river, they were routinely carted off to the insane asylum at Mendota. The photographs of these people, taken by town photographer Charles Van Shaick, paint a bifurcated portrait of life in a small Midwestern town: on one hand there are the predictable pictures of weddings, funerals, picnics, barber shops, musical ensembles, groups of sawmill workers, men with their hunting trophies, their drinking buddies, their tractors and animals; and then there are the pictures that look like Diane Arbus prototypes, portraits of dwarves, amputees, babies in coffins, nudists, snake handlers, madwomen.
Lesy’s method is to lay all this out with zero inflection, just a steady drumbeat of facts that indeed darken into a nightmare. It’s as though the denizens of Winesburg, Ohio went on a decade-long amphetamine bender and killing spree. By the time I got to the end of the book I had begun to see my experiences in Chambersburg in a fresh light – not as implausible aberrations, but as modern manifestations of dark impulses that have always lurked beneath the surface of every American place. What’s extraordinary, Lesy concludes, is that the things that happened in Black River Falls – and, by implication, in Chambersburg – are not at all extraordinary. In a nice bit of understatement, he quotes from an 1897 issue of the American Journal of Sociology: “It is a popular belief that large cities are the great centers of social corruption, and the special causes of social degeneration, while rural districts and country towns are quite free from unmoral influence…. Yet the country has its own social evils.”
Or, as a close friend never tires of reminding me, “The truly weird shit rarely happens in big cities; it almost always happens in small towns and suburbia and the boondocks.” I have come to believe that while this is not an iron-clad fact – the Son of Sam was terrorizing New York City during the summer of 1977 – it does pick at the scab of something approaching an unpleasant truth. I’m thinking about Dick Hickock and Perry Smith slaughtering the Clutter family in their remote western Kansas farmhouse, a horror immortalized by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’m thinking about Joan Didion’s unforgettable piece of reportage, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which tells the story of how weather and dislocation and history (or lack of it) led a pregnant mother of three to douse her sleeping husband with gasoline and burn him to death inside the family Volkswagen on a desolate stretch of southern California desert. Twenty miles from where I’m writing these words, police have just discovered the remains of the tenth victim of a possible serial killer on a remote Long Island beach. A few weeks ago a woman in the small upstate town of Newburgh drove into the Hudson River with three of her children in the car, killing them all. Such acts have become emblematic of what Walker Percy called these “dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A.”
In American Pastoral, Philip Roth puts a name to these dark American impulses. The novel tells the story of a sensationally handsome and athletic Jewish boy from Newark named Seymour “Swede” Levov who marries a former Miss New Jersey, takes over his father’s thriving glove factory, and moves with his wife and daughter into a stone farmhouse in Old Rimrock, out past the suburbs, out in the gorgeous green folds of an America that still looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War. There in 1968, as a way of protesting the Vietnam War, the Swede’s teenage daughter, a life-long stutterer, plants a bomb in the local post office that kills a respected doctor, forcing the girl to go underground and effectively demolishing the Swede’s immaculate world. Roth writes that the Swede becomes the victim of something unthinkable:
…the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive – initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk.
And so, thanks to books, I finally came to terms with the mystifying things I’d witnessed and written about in Chambersburg more than thirty years ago. Books showed me that those mysteries were not extraordinary or even unprecedented, and they actually have a name, and that name is The Indigenous American Berserk.
My first published drawing: Cop killer Merle Unger (left) with his defense attorneys during his murder trial.
After I finished reading those books I went back to Chambersburg to scroll through microfilm of Public Opinion from the 1970s. I wanted to see if I could recapture my response to the events I’d lived through and written about, and how that response had shaped me as a writer.
Microfilm is a wonderful corrective for a faulty memory. It reminded me that Merle Unger’s murder trial took place during my very first weeks on the job, and that it was a dream assignment. For one thing, my name was sure to be on the front page every day. Better yet, while Brad Bumsted covered the trial I was free to write from the margins of the main event. I wrote about the ankle irons Merle Unger wore to court every day – a badge of honor for such an accomplished escape artist. I wrote about the prosecutor persuading the two local newspapers to keep a lid on pre-trial publicity so a slam-dunk murder trial wouldn’t get yanked from his jurisdiction – which had the added benefit of giving Bumsted and me a virtual exclusive on the story. I interviewed Unger’s grim mother as we waited for the jury to deliver its guilty verdict. I even drew a sketch of Unger and his defense attorneys in the courtroom, my first published drawing.
After the bloody Fourth of July weekend in 1977, on the other hand, Chambersburg became the setting for a media circus. Like everyone on the Public Opinion staff, I contributed to the saturation coverage of the shootings and their aftermath. And I hated it, hated jockeying with other reporters for scraps of news, hated the obviousness and falseness of covering a manufactured news event. Simply put, I hated being part of a pack.
As I read more microfilm, I remembered that I was always much happier writing stories about people who existed outside the news, stories that I felt were somehow my own – about a struggling mystery novelist, a taxidermist, a night nurse, a man who built a futuristic solar house, a puppeteer, a peach farmer, a teenage Emergency Medical Technician who delivered a baby in the back of an ambulance as it screamed toward the hospital. On the day of the fire chief’s funeral, I wrote a by-lined story about a schoolteacher announcing his quixotic plan to run against an entrenched Congressman. The story was not big news, but it happened outside the tent of the media circus, and it was mine. The fire chief was not yet in the ground and already I was distancing myself from the pack.
I now realize that this attraction to people on the margins puts me in good company. While reviewing The Silent Season of a Hero, the new collection of sports writing by Gay Talese, I noted that he was drawn to people on the downslope of greatness and to those who worked in the shadows of the sporting world – boxing referees, timekeepers, horseshoe makers, agents, midget wrestlers. Then I read an article in the current issue of GQ magazine about David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King. In the article, John Jeremiah Sullivan recalls what happened when the magazine assigned Wallace to write a story about a presidential candidate’s speech writers: “Early in 2008, GQ asked him to write about Obama’s speeches or, more largely, about American political rhetoric. It was still a somewhat gassy idea as presented to him, but Wallace saw the possibilities, so we started making inquiries to the Obama campaign, and even made reservations for him to be in Denver during the convention. Our thought was to get him as close to the head speechwriters (and so as close to Obama) as possible. But Wallace said, very politely, that this wasn’t what interested him. He wanted to be with a worker bee on the speechwriting team – to find out how the language was used by, as he put it, ‘the ninth guy on the bench.’ It also seemed like maybe a temperament thing, that he would be more comfortable reporting away from the glare.”
This made perfect sense to me, this idea of wanting to talk to the ninth guy on the bench, of being more comfortable reporting away from the glare. I’m sure it makes sense to Gay Talese, too. This has nothing to do with stage fright, or a fear of going after big game, or the reporter’s eternal dread of getting scooped. It’s something much deeper, and maybe much darker, than that. It’s an understanding that it’s so hard to get another human being to open up to you, and it’s so scary to crawl inside them if they do open up to you, that you’re wise to get rid of as many impediments as possible. And one of the most forbidding impediments is that glare Wallace and Talese instinctively avoided. Whenever there are bright lights, clusters of cameras and microphones, spin doctors and handlers, packs of hungry rivals with notebooks, the writer’s chances of getting something genuine, or even merely unique, shrink monstrously. I experienced this so many times that it is one of the few things I absolutely know to be true.
I began to understand this on the Fourth of July weekend in 1977, and it explains why I feel grateful that I’ve never had to cover a political convention or campaign, that I’ve had to attend very few press conferences, and that I’ve had to interview just one former president and one movie star.
As I learned from reading that scratchy old microfilm, I’ve always preferred to write about interesting nobodies. Maybe it’s a temperament thing. And as I learned from reading those books by Michael Lesy and Philip Roth, the dark beast that lurks beneath the glossy surface of American life can show itself anytime and anywhere, from the smallest town to the most bucolic countryside. Because it’s everywhere and it has always been with us and it always will be. Those two books also taught me that, somehow, it’s a strange comfort to be able to put a name to such a thing. Which is another way of saying they taught me the power of the written word.
(Images courtesy the author.)