At this year’s Muse and The Marketplace I will be peddling (presenting? offering? begging acceptance for?) my YA historical novel, Big Shot. This will be my second time at Muse with this novel, though its first as a Young Adult fiction.
Short history: The novel began as a four hundred page sprawling epic about two women in different time periods with no apparent connection to each other. Imaginary letters were written across time and magical realism reared its Marquezian head.
During the inaugural season of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program, one of the protagonists met her literary fate and the other became a secondary character, giving way to her fifteen-year-old son, a Jewish immigrant boy named Harry whose attempts at becoming a big shot in 1938 New York City are stymied at every turn.
Though I had always considered the book to be adult literary fiction, it dawned on me last year that perhaps I had unwittingly written a young adult story. Harry ages from fifteen to eighteen in the pre-war years. There is plenty of action, from street brawling to professional boxing to criminal violence. There is innocent love and lurid sexual initiation. Good guys and bad guys. Familial strife and filial competition. There is even one semi-imaginary figure who makes repeated appearances. Alas, there are no flying creatures, vampires, zombies or reluctant girl warriors. There is little high school strife and there is no cancer. But still.
There is love. Harry is looking for love in all the wrong places. Abandoned by his father, left with an emotionally frozen mother and a distant, distracted brother, Harry hopes to find satisfaction in the trappings of the wealthy uptown men he admires. This was my premise, the signature of the story, as we say, but as I dug deeper, burrowing, to borrow a term, I discovered that the book is about love, the unconditional kind. The kind of love every child deserves. Harry doesn’t have it, and in his search for it he confuses it with material gain.
Recently, my wife and I had to put down our family dog. The term ‘family dog’ doesn’t seem right though. He was a constant presence, our comfort and confidante. The secrets he could tell. Everybody’s dog is the smartest, the handsomest, the most loyal. Many people told us that Rio would speak some day, such was his demeanor. And though in our thirteen years together he never told me a joke he had a wicked sense of humor. Trust me.
Rio, a Portuguese Water Dog, was my first dog. As a child I’d been trained to be afraid of dogs, from the enormous, to me, standard poodle named Jocko who barked incessantly at my best friend’s front door, to the German Shepherd guard dogs behind the chain link fence at the local automotive service. There are dog lovers and there are people who put up with other people’s dogs. You know which you are. So it came as a surprise to me that I became the former. And a further surprise when I experienced the barrage of emotion in losing Rio. I was unprepared for the onslaught of real pain and the depths of grief that my wife Lorri and I suffered. That is what unconditional love can do. The kind of love we experienced with Rio. The kind of love a parent is supposed to have for a child. A father for his son.
As a painter I was not of the type to envision the finished canvas and then set about applying paint until it looked like that. Mine was an exploratory process, one stroke leading to another, a conversation of sorts. John Irving famously says that he always knows the last line of his book before he sets out to write. But I don’t think that’s for me. In writing Big Shot I began with themes and characters and situations, and that signature, with the intention that they would coalesce into an engaging and thought-provoking novel. What I found out through the writing, by following the signature through, by actually spending years with those characters, getting to know them, as Harry says in the book, “like I know my own mother,” was what the novel is really about. For me it is unconditional love, the love that comes so easily with the ‘family dog’, the love a father ought to have for a son, Harry’s search for that love and the damage the lack of it can cause.