Mark Binelli and I met for the first time on Oct. 27, 2012, in New York City. The excuse for the meeting was the TV broadcast of Game 3 of that year’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers. I grew up in Detroit and its suburbs and have remained a life-long fan of the Tigers, so the sports editor at The New York Times thought it might be amusing to have me hook up with fellow Detroiters and write a string of sketches about the agonies and ecstasies of watching the Series. With a nod to Frederick Exley, they called the sketches “A Fan’s Notes.”
Mark Binelli also grew up in the Detroit area, and he agreed to join me for Game 3 at a dive called the Motor City Bar, about halfway between our apartments in lower Manhattan. As soon as we were settled on our barstools, Binelli delighted me by confessing that he didn’t have much use for Detroit’s twinned obsessions, cars and sports. So with one eye on the TV screen — a Detroit loss, one of four straight in an ignominious sweep — Binelli and I spent the game talking mostly about books. We talked about his first novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, a wicked recasting of the two doomed anarchists as a slapstick comedy act; we also talked about Binelli’s forthcoming non-fiction book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, which turned out to be a marvel, a clear-eyed look at our hometown’s history, its racial divide, and the many forces that brought it low.
Since that night in 2012, Binelli, a contributing editor Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, has published a stack of superb journalism — about Pope Francis, supermax prisons, George Clinton, feral dogs and ruin porn in Detroit, and a U.S. Border Patrol guard who gunned down an unarmed Mexican boy on the far side of the border fence. And now Binelli has published his second novel, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits, a title of considerable irony since Hawkins’s only hit record, “I Put a Spell on You,” qualified him as the quintessential one-hit wonder, though one with an outlandish stage show and a backstory that Binelli found irresistible. Binelli and I met recently in a park near New York’s Chinatown, where we drank beer and talked about books.
The Millions: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits is one weird little book.
Mark Binelli: Thanks very much [laughs]. I take that as a compliment.
TM: In spots the book reads like straight journalism, then it’s almost a biography, then there are passages of pure fantasy, a little autobiography — but somehow it all hangs together. How did you arrive at this strange narrative strategy?
MB: I guess what attracted me to Jay [Hawkins] as a subject initially — I never thought I would write fiction about a musician, I’d been writing about musicians for Rolling Stone for years and that always felt like kind of a separate zone — and honestly it didn’t interest me that much, fictionalizing Jay’s story. I’d been backstage, I’d been on tour buses, I’d been in recording studios with musicians — and the idea of creating made-up scenes that I’d already lived through didn’t hold much appeal. The idea to write about Jay basically came from reading the liner notes on his albums.
TM: So there was no life-long attraction to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins for you?
MB: I loved “I Put a Spell On You” the moment I heard it, which was probably at some point in college. I’m pretty sure my first exposure to it was in the Jim Jarmusch film, Stranger Than Paradise. I immediately thought, this is such a weird fucking song — it’s funny but it’s also very haunting and evil. It’s hard to make a funny song not cross into a novelty song. It was recorded in 1956, so it’s 50 years old, but to record something that’s that timeless, almost out of time, it’s a tough thing to do. So years after I first heard the song I was reading the liner notes to one of his CD’s, and the way his biography unfolded — in his telling — I thought, God, this is the ultimate rock star story/novelistic picaresque.
TM: You say “in his telling” because he was always embellishing his life’s story — claiming that he was adopted and raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he studied opera in Cleveland, that he joined the Army at age 14, that he was a middleweight boxing champion in Alaska, that he fathered 75 illegitimate children. Did that attract you as a novelist — the fact that it was almost a made-up life to begin with?
MB: Yeah, that immediately gave me liberties to take him at his word, and then go further than that and make up scenes based on these stories that he told. But back to your original question about how the form came about, it was kind of through that. Once I was attracted to the idea of writing about him as a character, I started thinking about all kinds of different ways I might get at it. At one point I thought it could be kind of cool to write a straight, thoroughly researched biography.
TM: But you rejected that idea.
MB: I rejected that idea ultimately. I liked the perversity of the idea, because he’s not that sort of iconic musician, like John Lennon or Dylan. We could sit here and make a list of hundreds of musicians and Jay would be very, very far down the list of subjects for a biography or a novel or a rock biopic. For me, that was a big part of the appeal. It was such a weird idea to take this marginal figure who had one hit song and who made up all this shit about his life story — and then elevate him into the pantheon of rock gods.
TM: Did you start doing research into a possible biography before the book became a novel?
MB: I did a little bit of research, but pretty quickly I decided it was going to be a novel. And then at that point I decided I didn’t really want to know the truth, which is the opposite of what we have to do in our jobs as journalists. It was very freeing and nice not to want to know if he actually fought in World War II. If I know the truth, it might impair my ability to imagine it.
TM: So in a sense, the less you knew, the freer you were?
MB: Yeah, and I intentionally kind of researched around his stories. I probably could have found his military records and figured that out, but I didn’t want to do that. I did look into whether or not younger kids lied about their age to enlist, and that turns out to be true. I did look into what it was like for an African-American in the Army at that time? — how segregated was the Army? I wanted to get the details kind of right, or at least have a sense in my head of what it might have been like.
TM: Little tiny things, like when Jay goes squirrel hunting as a boy and winds up feeling that killing the squirrel was such a pathetic act — I’ve got to believe there was some autobiography in that. It was such a vivid little grace note.
MB: The funny thing about a lot of the childhood scenes is that some of that is the most autobiographical writing I’ve done. I love the idea of grafting details from my life — a white Italian-American living in 2016, in his 40s — grafting that onto the life of a black singer born in Cleveland in the late-1920s. Being able to mix all that stuff together was really appealing to me.
TM: You mentioned the Jarmusch movie Stranger Than Paradise. Something I was surprised you didn’t include was Screamin’ Jay’s movie parts. He played a hotel clerk in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. There’s that great scene in A Rage in Harlem, based on the Chester Himes novel, where Hawkins is performing “I Put a Spell on You” while Forest Whitaker is trying to dance with Robin Givens. Why didn’t you include some of that stuff?
MB: That did cross my mind, but in my head the book stops with him in Hawaii, sort of in exile. Pretty early on, I became less interested in what he did after that. The only point in the book that jumps forward in time is that one short scene where all of Jay’s offspring have a family reunion.
TM: That actually happened, right?
MB: Again, I’m not sure. There really was a website somebody put together after Jay died called “Jay’s Kids,” and they put out a call to Jay’s offspring to get together. I don’t know if there really was a meeting. Early on, I thought about doing a chapter where I interviewed a bunch of his kids. Then I had an idea about doing a long chapter from the point of view of one of his kids, going around the country trying to meet his lost siblings. I kind of cycled through lots of alternate scenarios. I have a problem picking one book when I start writing a book, and I think that’s partly where this hybrid style comes from.
TM: Have you heard this term “ahistorical fantasia?”
MB: Um, no.
TM: I’ve seen it used in reference to Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! — where there’s a set of historical facts, which the author twists and then adds fantasy on top. Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown is such a book, and I would certainly think Screamin’ Jay would fit in there.
MB: I’ve never heard that term, but I like that kind of book. Based on these first two novels, I guess that’s what I do [laughs].
TM: What is it that you do?
MB: Before I wrote Sacco and Vanzetti, I was trying for years, pretty unsuccessfully, to write short stories taken from my life. It never worked. When I hit upon the idea of Sacco and Vanzetti, part of what worked for me was the history element of it — having something I could research and draw upon. In a way, it connects with my work as a journalist. You go out and talk to people and take notes. You have raw material to work with. With the novels, I liked having raw material to work with — with Sacco and Vanzetti, it was the history of Italian anarchists and film comedy teams; with Screamin’ Jay, it was his story of the world he was living in. I liked having that stuff and then being able to just fuck with it.
TM: So the history is a springboard, a beginning point. It’s not the point.
MB: Right. You can play off of it and mess with people’s expectations. I found that works for me.
TM: What are some other books that you would consider similar in that approach? E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime?
MB: Maybe Ragtime. I loved the book, but Doctorow is not doing anything totally crazy with history. A novel by Kevin Barry, Beatlebone, is a recent example, where he takes this sliver of a fact from history–
TM: That John Lennon actually owned an island off the west coast of Ireland.
MB: — and then he makes up this great taxi driver/fixer character who takes Lennon around on this lost weekend there. I think all of that’s made up. I don’t know if Lennon even visited the island. That’s something great. I think maybe Pynchon to a degree does a lot of that. It’s funny, the other day I was in a Duane Reade and they were playing an old Chuck Berry tune, one of his big hits. I love Chuck Berry, it was a great song, but I heard it and I thought this really sounds like a song from the ’50s. It sounds very dated. And it just made me think how weird “I Put a Spell on You” is — you don’t really know where it comes from. I think that’s partly why it’s been covered so often and in so many different ways. And then Jay’s theatricality was ahead of his time.
TM: He was fucking with political correctness before political correctness existed. Going onstage inside a coffin? With a bone in his nose? Come on!
MB: Right, he was dressing like an African witch doctor from a very racist Looney Tunes cartoon from the ’40s. He knew what he was doing. He was messing with audience expectations — white audience expectations. One of his later records was called Black Music for White People, and it seems to me his stage persona, his get-up, his whole shtick was a way of saying to white audiences, “You think you want authenticity from a black performer? How ’bout this?” I kind of love the idea of that. Again, I don’t know what his true intentions were, but I’ve got think some of that was going on in his head.
TM: Are you going to write about musicians again, other than in your journalism? You think fictionally you’ll attack other musicians?
MB: I don’t have a next project. I have a few rough ideas, but none of them involves music. I stumbled onto Jay’s story and was drawn to it, so it could happen again. You never know.
Through a horrific half-century of decline, Detroit has become one of the most blighted cities in America. It has also become one of the most misunderstood — a victim of misread history, media clichés, self-serving racial rhetoric, corporate and political indifference, and crime and corruption that can still get downright rococo.
But lately there have been encouraging signs that people are starting to get Detroit, a necessary first step if the hoped-for renaissance is to take place. Not only do these people understand what the city means and what happened to it, but they’re able to believe that the city has a future beyond bankruptcy, abandonment, and physical decay. There is not a Pollyanna or a Romantic in this crowd. Nor is there anyone willing to succumb to despair. They’re a reminder that Detroiters are, first and last, survivors.
One of the freshest of these voices belongs to Mark Binelli, a native Detroiter whose 2012 book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, debunked many of the myths about the city’s past while offering a clear-eyed assessment of its current disarray and future prospects. No, Binelli points out, the 1967 riot — or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion — did not start white flight. And no, Mayor Coleman Young did not singlehandedly bring the city to its knees any more than a handful of white hipsters are going to singlehandedly get it back on its feet. Considerably darker, but also free of worn-out assumptions, was Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy from 2013, which didn’t hesitate to pick at the city’s abundant scabs, but also offered strangely heart-warming truths like this: “Detroit is full of good people who know what pain is.”
Then there was Paul Clemens’s 2005 memoir, Made In Detroit, which tells what it was like to grow up white in a city that became predominantly black in 1973, the year Clemens was born, the year Young was elected the city’s first black mayor. Among the book’s many insights is that Detroit has always been a raw place, no matter what color your skin happens to be or who happens to be in charge. He invokes Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night: “After leaving behind World War I battlefields, Paris slums, and malarial African jungles, Céline’s restless narrator makes his way to the Motor City, to work in the Ford factory. At the beginning of the first Detroit chapter, he says, in an observation yet to be improved upon: ‘It was even worse than everywhere else.’” And that was in the 1920s, when the city was booming.
The latest addition to this growing body of wised-up writing is a scintillating new collection called A Detroit Anthology, published by Rust Belt Chic Press (which has also brought out companion volumes about Cleveland and Cincinnati). It’s a lively stew of reportage, poetry, memoir, photography, personal essays, and fictionalized observation. There is no cheap nostalgia or breathless boosterism. There are remarkably few mentions of cars, but plenty of talk about sports, race, families, neighborhoods, music, and history. In fact, the book’s greatest strength is the various ways the contributors acknowledge that understanding Detroit’s history is the key to understanding its current condition and its possible ways forward. In Detroit, more than most places, the past will never be past.
This is brought home in Steven Pomerantz’s essay, “Fort Gratiot,” the heart-breaking story about the hardware store his father and uncle, the sons of immigrant Russian Jews, ran on the city’s east side from 1948 to 1979 — years that neatly bookend the city’s peak and its slide. Pomerantz writes knowingly about the symbiosis of Jewish merchants and their black customers in the inner-city, a dance as old and itchy as America itself:
This much everybody understood, and it formed the basis for an uneasy alliance — they needed each other too much to let their mutual dislike get in the way. But as always in these types of things, it was more complicated than that. The neighborhood black community was made up of my father’s friends and enemies. They were the source of his livelihood and the bane of his existence.
When flames and rage engulfed the city in July of 1967, many black merchants spray-painted badges on their buildings — SOUL BROTHER and AFRO ALL THE WAY — in the hope that arsonists would pass them by. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. In any event, the Jewish hardware store on Gratiot remained untouched, for reasons that will never be known. “My father attributed this to his good relations with the black community,” Pomerantz writes, “but it could have been just dumb luck.” In a bitter irony, the business failed not because of racism or crime or white flight, but because Pomerantz’s uncle spent years embezzling money from his own brother.
This book also offers many small grace notes as counterpoints to such big moments. The essay “Turner Ronald Carter the Third” by Kat Harrison is a touching story about a black girl’s awakening to the shocking realization that a white playmate regards her as inferior. This hits home the day the boy, always friendly, marches onto her front yard, unzips his pants, urinates on the shrubbery, then runs home without a word. “In later years, my musings about Turner’s defiant and deviant act led me to think that he was the weapon his parents used to register their displeasure with the arrival of unwanted colored neighbors,” Harrison writes. “How sad and cowardly it was to use a child to insult another child, neither of whom could have possibly understood the motivations and bigger issues at play.”
In “Awakening,” Maisha Hyman Sumbry is rescued from the boredom of waiting for the school bus by a magical blast of Run-DMC, courtesy of a passing Dodge Charger with a powerful sound system. And in “Playing Ball,” J.M. Leija explains her love for her hometown Tigers this way: “The people, the city, it’s all just a little bit easier when we’re playing ball.”
The contributors to A Detroit Anthology range from first-time authors to seasoned professionals, which gives the collection its free-wheeling, anything-goes feel. But it’s not flawless. In the essay “I’m From Detroit,” Shannon Shelton Miller writes scornfully about how suburbanites (that is, white people) know virtually nothing about the city or the people who live there (that is, black people). There’s some truth to the point, but it’s part of the tired old merry-go-round that helped bring Detroit low in the first place. It comes out of territoriality, provincialism, tribalism. It’s about us vs. them, and in Detroit there’s an almost laughable abundance of such dividing lines: city vs. suburbs; black vs. white; labor vs. management; Republican vs. Democrat; foreign vs. domestic; even west side vs. east side. To Miller’s way of thinking, 8 Mile Road is the great line in the sand, the DMZ between the city and its northern suburbs, between the courageous few who chose to stay and the multitudes who opted to flee. But as Steven Pomerantz knows, it’s more complicated than that.
I have lived north of 8 Mile and I have lived south of 8 Mile – I have lived all over the world, for that matter – and I can report that vice and virtue have nothing to do with geography or race. Zip codes and skin color confer nothing.
This harping on geography — and its subtexts — reminds me of a common encounter I had when I lived in the South. When Southerners heard my flat Midwestern accent — no syrup, no drawl — they often asked a question that was not altogether friendly: “Where you from, anyway?” The subtext was obvious: You’re not one of us, so you’re automatically suspect. Asking me where I was from was the wrong question. The right question would have been: What are you made of? Or better yet: What’s in your heart?
But “I’m From Detroit” is a rare misstep. The consistently high tone of A Detroit Anthology can be credited to Anna Clark, the book’s editor, who grew up in western Michigan and has lived in Detroit since 2007, working as a freelance journalist. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about who lives here, what happens and what doesn’t happen here,” Clark told me in a telephone interview. “But the thing I wanted to do with this anthology was get past the stance that we’re going to explain this city. I wanted to get the candid conversations Detroiters have with other Detroiters — diverse and true and candid conversations people have at a dinner table or in a bar.”
By that measure, the book is a thrilling success. It gives voice to people who now live or once lived in this fascinating, tortured place, the survivors, good people who know what pain is, people who understand that the city exerts an undying pull on them. Or as Philip Levine, the great poet of Detroit, once put it, Detroiters are people “who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or “No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’”
“See here, I want you to come to Random House and lose some money for us with literary books,” the press’s president and publisher, Harold Evans, told Daniel Menaker, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, in 1995. “You have five years to fook oop.”
In his memoir, My Mistake, Menaker recounts this scene and his subsequent transition from magazine to book publishing. Blessed with this permissive mandate, Menaker naturally chose a book of short stories for his first buy. He ran the project, George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by his boss, Ann Godoff, who told him:
“Well, do a P-and-L for it and we’ll see.”
“What’s a P-and-L?”
“You don’t know how?”
The dialog continues for pages, Godoff guiding Menaker with Socratic patience through the advance, payment schedule, initial print, returns, trim sizes, PPB (plant, printing, and binding), and finally the pricing, before arriving at the beautiful and the good formula for putting out a debut collection. “That ought to do it. Isn’t this scientific?”
(Menaker can afford to lead with his book publishing greenness here, knowing full well that Saunders, whom he edited at The New Yorker, has since entered the American short story writer’s pantheon.)
Reading Menaker’s anecdote, I wondered about the first professional decisions of newly minted editors — be they powerful tastemakers blissfully ignorant of P-and-L statements or recently promoted assistants. What drew them to the first proposal they tried to acquire? Did they look upon the decision as a momentous one? Do they even remember it now?
I asked six editors to share a story about their first buy, encouraging them to reflect on the projects themselves and what they were thinking at the time: their vision of where their list should go and the risk, fear, excitement or challenges involved. Here are their stories.
Scott Moyers, Vice President and Publisher of The Penguin Press
I spoke by phone with Moyers, who recalls the sense of initiative behind his first acquisition: “I felt like I was reaching out into the world and creating something.” He had been an assistant at Doubleday for four years before making a “huge leap” to Associate Editor at Scribner. Going after projects was difficult because as a new editor, he “didn’t know many agents and didn’t expect to get a first crack at many projects.”
Sometime during this period, he read a “stunning piece of longform journalism” in the Wall Street Journal by Thomas E. Ricks about a Marine platoon’s boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina. Moyers jokingly described how he went on to pester Ricks and his agent for the book rights to a longer, “almost anthropological study” about Marine culture, its indoctrination methods, and the occasional tensions with the values society the soldiers were tasked to defend.
The pestering paid off, as he secured the floor in the auction, an anonymous baseline bid with the right to come back and beat any higher offers. There was another offer, which Moyers topped to secure Ricks’s Making the Corps, a success he says helped to “cement [his] status as an editor.” Moyers would go on to edit more books by Ricks, sell his books when he became a literary agent, and acquire his books yet again when he returned to editing.
Over the years since that first buy and the “almost existential fear” of being a young editor — one might compare it to a kind of tweedy boot camp — Moyers says he gradually learned what can and cannot be controlled in publishing. Reflecting back on the period when he was trying to make a career, he wryly notes that “nobody necessarily cares about your success except you and your parents,” and that Ricks’s decision to go with a young editor was an “act of generosity and faith” that he has not forgotten: “We grow more protective as we grow conscious of whom we owe.”
Kathy Pories, Senior Editor, Algonquin Books
Moving from the rigorous standards of nonfiction reporting to tales that couldn’t be any taller, Kathy Pories describes in an email how she reeled in quite the catch with her first acquisition:
The first book I acquired as an editor was a book by a local writer. His agent was in New York, and the book was out with other editors. It had an experimental feel to it, a structure unlike most books I’d read so far…fable-like. It felt like the kind of novel that people would either “get,” or they wouldn’t, so it felt a little risky for it to be the first book I bought. Still, my Editorial Director, Shannon Ravenel, was firmly in agreement — there was something so exciting and original and moving about this father-son story — and so she gave me the go-ahead to make an offer.
That book was Big Fish by Daniel Wallace. I remember that I was so green that Shannon kept passing me post-its with messages about what I should say to the agent (which in retrospect, I’m sure he could detect in my halting delivery as I engaged in my first negotiation. I wish I had a recording of that conversation now.) And we had no idea how big that book would become, or that within weeks, film rights would be optioned — or that it would actually become a movie. Anyway, it was an auspicious start. Seventeen years later, I still think you have to have that feeling that something is risky; those are the books that are the most exciting to publish. But I’m a little better on the phone these days.
Timothy Bent, Executive Editor (Trade), Oxford University Press
Timothy Bent remembers acquiring a vital, memorial work that has stayed with him over the course of a long career in commercial and academic trade publishing:
When I was at Arcade about twenty years ago I urged Dick Seaver, the publisher, to sign up a book whose manuscript he had given me, a newly hired assistant editor, to read. It was a essentially a “grief” book: a father’s biography of a daughter born with birth defects and who lived only a short time — barely over five months. It was a really painful story — operations, hope, more operations, loss. This was before I was a father myself and therefore before I could really understand all the dimensions of the grief, but the writing was so limpid, the thoughts and expression so unsentimental, the vision of this child so clear — what character and personality in a months-old child! — that I wanted badly to work on the book. I championed it, Dick acquired it for me, and I edited it.
The author is William Loizeaux, and the book is called Anna: A Daughter’s Life. It taught me to understand that every life, however foreshortened and unfulfilled, was worthy of a book, just as are those of Great Lives and Large Deeds; Anna inhabits one of those unvisited graves (as the narrator at the end of Middlemarch has it), whose lives we would never know or appreciate were it not for the written accounts by those who love and remember them. Her life counted. I gave myself to that book and became very close to the author and his family; when it was reviewed in the New York Times by Reeve Lindbergh, appreciatively, I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment that has never been matched since, though I’ve now acquired and edited many hundreds of titles, many on those whose remains inhabit highly visited tombs. How does a biography of Anna Loizeaux stand up to one of Bismarck? In my mind, it just does: that’s what a writer can do.
Alex Star, Senior Editor, Farrar Straus Giroux
Alex Star’s first buy involved an essayist, Meghan Daum, who made her reputation partly on the strength of a comic, rueful, and rodent-populated essay about the perils of being an editorial assistant: “For the editorial assistant, every day is a new near-death experience. As if ‘going toward the light,’ we chase after what literature there is, trying, at least in the beginning, to discover the genius in the slush pile who’s going to elevate us from entry-level minion to up-and-comer with a brilliant eye.” Star writes:
The first book I acquired, in the spring of 2012, was a collection of essays by Meghan Daum. This was doubly gratifying, since her first collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, was an important book for me back when I was trying earnestly to mis-spend my own youth, and because a new essay Daum had written, about a parent’s death, struck me as her best work yet. Daum’s new collection will appear this fall, and it covers mortality, children, animals, music, and growing older — an entire course on human nature, inside two covers.
Jenna Johnson, Senior Editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Jenna Johnson, who has been acquiring books for eleven years now, began with one about eight dramatic seconds. As she suspects is often the case with young editors, Johnson benefited from the “kindness of a senior colleague” for her first buy. During our phone call, she explained that inundated editors will sometimes encourage up-and-comers to pursue projects, which, however intriguing, they themselves might not have time to take on.
Thus was a book on rodeo culture passed along to Johnson by an editor for whom she had been reading manuscripts. Johnson’s history background and “demonstrated love for the American West” made her the perfect person to take the reins of W.K. Stratton’s Chasing the Rodeo, which offered a lively account of the rodeo and its literature, a discussion of the West’s place in the American imagination, and a portrait of the author’s own “rodeo bum” father.
Johnson said that the first buy “signals a moment of traction,” a crucial step for a young editor “learning to negotiate the system and find a book that suits the house.” Though a project about rodeos was not an “obvious Harcourt book” at the time, the house had published works by Roger Kahn and Roger Angell, so there were some “points of contact” for a book about sports culture.
What came through most vividly in our conversation was the joy of working alongside the author to achieve “the right balance” of reportage, history, and memoir: the challenge in any piece of narrative nonfiction. From this first buy and from many subsequent acquisitions, Johnson has come to see that writers and editors often end up as each other’s “mentors” in steering a project home.
Jeremy M. Davies, Senior Editor, Dalkey Archive Press
Finally, Jeremy M. Davies writes in about a thwarted first buy, which teaches him that a young editor must hone his taste as well as his strategic instincts to make his way in the publishing world. What follows is a two-part story of discovered manuscripts, intrigue, innocence lost, and a gleeful turn to (fictional) anarchy:
I had only been at Dalkey Archive for a couple of weeks. The first book I wanted to see signed on was an unsolicited submission by a translator of a deceased author who, at that point, had never, to my knowledge, been Englished. While I had minor reservations about the book — I wouldn’t say I’d put my head on the block for it, as I would have for Édouard Levé, or Lascano Tegui, or Gerald Murnane, to name three more recent Dalkey acquisitions behind which I’m proud to have been lurking — but I was certain it was right for Dalkey, and that the author was someone for whom Dalkey would be applauded for introducing to the Anglophone world.
Now, you have to understand that, then as now, it’s the Director who makes all final decisions about, well, everything. The process was semi-democratic, in that a book universally praised was far more likely to get the Director’s okay. Books to be rejected would either be dismissed out of hand or else assassinated by other, less obvious means.
I was nervous about making a strong positive recommendation so soon after arriving at the Press, but, to my surprise and relief, I received a fairly rapid and equally positive reply, and permission to contact the translator with the news that Dalkey did, indeed, want to publish his work.
At the next meeting, the book was axed on account of another staff member’s claiming that he didn’t, after all, “like the ending.” I suspected there was more to it than an aesthetic judgment, but what could I do? It was enough to kill the project, and I was instructed to reject the MS, even though it had already been accepted. The translator wasn’t too pleased with this apparent duplicity, and I wasn’t too thrilled to seem the culprit. But that’s showbiz, I guess: it was a good lesson.
Another “excellent” press would acquire the book and translate several more by the same author, whose identity Davies will not reveal: “Here’s a hint: it ain’t Bolaño.” In the story’s denouement, our hero, wiser and schooled in the Machiavellian dealings of non-profit publishing, triumphs:
The first actual acquisition I handled differently. This was an original English-language MS that (also) came in on the slush pile, a few months later. The submission held my attention as being written by someone in control of his material (not often the case with slush). I was struck by its tone, ambition, and eccentricity, and its very skillful juggling of slapstick silliness with desperate bleakness. It also didn’t hurt that it played to my pathological cinephilia. Cutting to the chase, this was Mark Binelli’s wonderful Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, which recasts the titular anarchists as vaudevillians who appear in such films as Ventriloquism and Its Discontents.
So, I saw that the book was “the real thing” (such clarity, in those days!), and I likewise saw that Mark was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. (And if you haven’t read his nonfiction, you should: his most recent book is Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, and he recently published a great profile of Pope Francis.) Evidence that I wasn’t a complete idiot: when I brought the book up, I started with the Rolling Stone connection and only then went on to quality. This put things in the proper context: Sacco and Vanzetti was a project that had a chance at some real publicity, and thus sales, so its high quality as fiction became added momentum in overcoming editorial inertia, rather than the initial meek shove. There were no sneak attacks this time, and the book was published in 2006 to great reviews all over the place.
But, you know, like the man said, “Show me a movie with a happy ending, and I’ll show you a movie that ended ten minutes too early.”
Of all the things gnawing on George W. Bush as he shuffles around his retirement ranch in Texas, I’m guessing the most galling is the fact that he is the only president in the past quarter century who did not have a RoboCop movie released on his watch. That’s got to hurt. In the course of every presidential administration since the Gipper’s — with the notable exception of W’s — a new RoboCop has come out. And down through those many years, America has always gotten the RoboCop it deserved.
(Surely Bush fils is asking himself, “What did I do to deserve…nothing?” The answer: Plenty.)
The latest installment in the RoboCop franchise, now playing in a multiplex near you, once again proves that these movies may fail as movies, but they never fail to illuminate the zeitgeist in which they’re made. The new movie, like its three predecessors, is set in the not-too-distant future in my hometown, Detroit, a city that was chosen as the setting for the original movie in 1987 because it was already well on its way to becoming the sort of dysfunctional dystopia the filmmakers needed to convey their message. The Motor City, once the mightiest industrial dynamo on the planet, had morphed in a few short years into Murder City — the perfect proving ground for a crime-fighter who was, as the movie’s poster put it, “Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop.”
We Detroiters tend to be inordinately proud of our city’s history, both the good and the bad — its music, its cars, its sports teams, its struggles on behalf of working men and women, its rough edges. In his terrific 2012 book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Mark Binelli beautifully captured this skewed civic pride: “Back when I was a boy, growing up just outside Detroit, my friends and I beheld any mention of the city in popular culture with a special thrill. We loved how Detroit was deemed terrifying enough to be chosen as the dystopian locale of ‘RoboCop,’ the science fiction film set in a coyly undated ‘near future,’ when Detroit had become so dangerous that the outsourcing of law enforcement to an armored, heavily weaponized cyborg would seem a prudent and necessary move.”
The original RoboCop is now regarded as a sci-fi classic, largely because it asked a question of enduring interest: Are machines capable of emotions? But even as the RoboCop movies have declined in quality, they have served as ever-sharper reflections of what’s been going on in the culture at large. Let’s follow the downward spiral:
The 1970s were the last hurrah for the American middle class. Then along came Ronald Reagan to begin the long, ongoing job of dismantling the middle class by shifting its wealth and political power to corporate, government and wealthy elites. Today, thanks in no small part to Ronald Reagan and his spawn, more wealth is in fewer hands than at any time since the stock market crash of 1929.
RoboCop arrived at the perfect moment. Reagan’s second term was about to segue into the lone term of Papa Bush, and many Americans were feeling fat and happy and proud to be American, provided they didn’t live in a blighted pocket like inner-city Detroit or hadn’t had their job outsourced to an autoworker in Mexico. Peter Weller starred as Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop killed by drug dealers in the line of duty, who then has his vitals harvested and installed in a cyborg, turning him into a virtually indestructible cop. This nifty trick is the handiwork of a greedy conglomerate called Omni Consumer Products, which has taken over the Detroit police force and has big plans to build a development in the heart of the city and control its lucrative drug, gambling, and prostitution rackets. Privatizing a big-city police department — it’s very 1980s, an idea only Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher could love. “Trickle-down economics” can be seen trickling in the only direction it ever knew — straight up to the corporate boardroom.
The movie was deftly directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. The writers are blessed with a droll sense of humor, slipping in a mention of Lee Iacocca Elementary School, a nod to the best-selling 1984 book by the Chrysler CEO, an egomaniacal tycoon cut from Reaganite cloth. There are also jabs at dumbed-down TV news, a recurring theme in the coming movies, as when a blow-dried newscaster intones, “You give us three minutes, we’ll give you the world.” There’s even a jab at Star Wars — Reagan’s La-La-Land defense fantasy, not the movie.
Amid all the corporate greed, violent crime, and official corruption, the thing that gives the movie its humanity is, oddly, its cyborg. RoboCop is tortured by scraps of memories of his previous life. “I can feel them but I can’t remember them,” he says of Alex Murphy’s wife and young son. But RoboCop’s best line is a blend of Dirty Harry and that other icon from the pumped-up Reagan ’80s, The Terminator. Staring down a criminal, RoboCop says, “Your move, creep.”
RoboCop 2 (1990)
This first of two sequels was a perfect fit for its times — a re-tread movie released during George H.W. Bush’s re-tread presidency. Both flopped. Unlike the Bush presidency, though, the movie franchise got another chance.
Weller returned in the title role, but Verhoeven was replaced by director Irvin Kershner. Worse, the screenwriters Neumeier and Miner were replaced by Walon Green and Frank Miller. The result has none of the original’s wit or snap.
This time Omni Consumer Products wants to privatize the whole city of Detroit, and there’s a new designer drug on the streets called Nuke. Otherwise the movie feels as bland and generic as the era during which it was made. The only sign that we’re in Detroit are the logos on the police car doors. (The movie was shot mostly in Houston and L.A.) The TV newscasters are the witty ones here, as when a chirpy blonde talking head is told that environmentalists are warning that a pesky little nuclear meltdown could lead to a massive environmental disaster. “Don’t they always say that?” she says before going to a commercial break.
One reviewer noted that RoboCop 2 was “as savagely graphic as its predecessor but less skillful by half.” The same could be said of the Bush and Reagan presidencies.
RoboCop 3 (1993)
In the first year of the Clinton administration, long before Monica and the Gap dress, the keepers of the flame brought out RoboCop 3, directed by Fred Dekker and written by him and Frank Miller. Peter Weller climbed out of the metal suit once and for all — he described it as the most unpleasant acting experience of his career — and Robert John Burke stepped in.
The movie is a dreary rehash, but it does offer one timely twist. A Japanese conglomerate called Kanemitsu now owns and operates all of Detroit, and it plans to clear out thousands of residents in order to complete the Delta City development. But some plucky Detroiters refuse to budge, igniting a civil war between the corporation’s minions and the citizenry. When the corporate thugs have trouble evicting tenants, the head of Kanemitsu fumes, “Incompetent Americans, you are fat and lazy!”
But the best line belongs to McDaggett, the brutal general who tells Rip Torn, the new CEO of OmniCorp: “If you’re just figuring out that the line between big business and war is a little blurry, then you’re even farther over the hill than they say you are.”
This movie goes a long way toward explaining why RoboCop vanished during the George W. Bush presidency. Years before W was elected, RoboCop 3 laid out the doctrine that would define his presidency: War is big business, and vice-versa; xenophobia is cool; and anyone who disagrees with the government is, de facto, a terrorist.
Even in 1993, the message was stale. Roger Ebert asked himself why people persist in making such re-tread movies. His answer: “Because ‘RoboCop’ is a brand name, I guess, and this is this year’s new model. It’s an old tradition in Detroit to take an old design and slap on some fresh chrome.”
The Detroiter in me hates to admit it, but the man was right.
There is exactly one worthwhile scene in the new RoboCop, which is a remake of the 1987 original, unlike the second and third movies in the series, which were sequels. There’s a big difference. Sequels try to say something new with familiar material; remakes are content to update and rearrange the furniture.
As this new remake opens, we’re in the future on the streets of Tehran, the capital of America’s latest Middle Eastern enemy. A TV news crew, led by yet another chirpy blonde, is getting ready to deliver live footage of the new generation of cyborgs that allow America to fight its pointless wars without any pointless risk to American lives. While drone aircraft swoop overhead and gigantic Transformer-esque machines stomp through the streets, robots electronically scan terrified Iranian civilians for signs of bombs, weapons or other threats. Meanwhile, inside a nearby building, a group of Iranian men are strapping explosives to their torsos and reminding each other that “the goal is to die on TV.”
This is meta. This has potential. But as soon as the American machines slaughter the Iranian martyrs, the movie abruptly abandons the timely questions it has raised about the morality of drone warfare and the complicity of the news media in promoting the government’s dubious agenda. Instead, the movie shifts to Detroit, where it proceeds to ignore another potentially rich vein: Detroit’s current bankruptcy, the largest in American history, which has left the city so broken that it takes an hour for cops to respond to emergency calls, most streetlights never get turned on, the population has fallen by more than half, and rich philanthropists had to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to keep debt-collecting wolves from ransacking one of the city’s last assets, its glorious Institute of Arts. This isn’t some futuristic dystopia; this is Detroit today.
But this RoboCop has no interest in examining such pungent contemporary material because it’s content to remain a fantasy. Once again, the result is generic escapism that could have been made anywhere. (Other than some nice aerial shots of Detroit, most of it was filmed in Canada.) The only splash of local color the movie gets right is Detroit’s rococo strain of official corruption. In the movie, several Detroit cops have been funneling high-powered rifles from the evidence locker to a local arms merchant, with the full cooperation of the chief of police. Now that’s verisimilitude. In 1992, Detroit police chief William Hart was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing $2.6 million from a police fund used for making undercover narcotics buys.
But that splash of local color is washed away by the bombastic, jingoistic histrionics of a TV pundit named Pat Novak, played by Samuel L. Jackson. It’s painful to watch this talented actor slog through material that doesn’t even rise to the level of a parody of a parody of Bill O’Reilly. Yet somehow these dreadful Novak segments fit perfectly into a movie that refuses to address the interesting questions it raises — about drone warfare, the morality of crime-fighting techniques, the human cost of corporate greed. The movie wastes other talented actors, including Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle, and leading man Joel Kinnaman, already a star in Sweden and soon to become one here. This squandering of opportunity is a tidy metaphor for what Barack Obama has done with his 2008 mandate to make fundamental changes in the way America functions. Dream on.
The filmmakers seem to have decided — no doubt correctly — that after a dozen years of pointless, endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public is worn out. The American public doesn’t want to think about international wars, political corruption, urban decay, or the gutting of the news media and the middle class The American public just wants to be entertained. And so the makers of the new RoboCop have dutifully given them what they want — another noisy, gimmicky diversion that makes the world go away for all of 108 minutes.
Which is to say that, once again, America has gotten the RoboCop it deserves.