If it weren't for the way Dawn cut mangoes, none of this would have happened.
We met at work. Some farm-to-table restaurant that started out small and expanded to a second location and before you knew it we had uniforms and a district manager. The place retained its independent restaurant essence, for a while. Most of us hated the corporate homogeneity that crept in like a cancer, and the only reason any of us who had been there from the beginning stayed was because the manager was too chickenshit to fire us.
It was the first place we ever kissed, on a slow night, Ricky cutting a person every hour at first, then every two, until dinner service was mostly done and everyone was restless. Nobody wanted to stay to close. I didn't mind. I had my regulars, and I always got out after the kitchen did anyway. Ricky let me pick what music to play on the iPod. I hated the curated soft rock playlist corporate wanted piped over the sound system and he knew it. At one point I went back into the kitchen and Dawn was there, going at a mango with a serrated knife.
As a general rule, I didn't talk to the kitchen staff. Not at that restaurant, and not at any of the others I had worked at before. They tended to be metalheads with criminal records and no social skills. The way Dawn was going at that mango, I couldn't help it.
Now, Dawn. She wore her hair tight on the sides and long on the top, bleached and dyed a pastel purple, tattoos up and down her arms. Everyone in the kitchen wore white jackets because corporate insisted, and caps or bandannas to cover their asses in case a customer found hair in their food. We were borrowing Dawn from another location because one of our line cooks was out with a collapsed lung, this was maybe the sixth or seventh night we'd worked together in two weeks. Obvious dyke. Like, obvious.
Me, not so much. I was what you'd call a lipstick lesbian. I had long hair, I wore makeup, I got manicures. Men thought their dick was going to be the one to cure me of my confusion, used that as a flirting tactic more times than I can count.
I asked Dawn what she was doing. I'd never seen anybody prep a mango the way she was prepping it. She must have thought I was flirting with her, because she smiled an endearing lopsided little smile as she popped out this perfect grid of cubes.
She goes, "Making mango-rita pulp for the bar."
I'm like, "Ugh, don't call it mango-rita."
She's like, "Stupid goddamn names they got here, right?"
"What're you gonna do," I say, and I shrug, trying to be cool. She holds up a cube for me to take. I was feeling bold, so I ate it right out of her hand. Her eyebrows go up, and she gives me this shit-eating grin and beckons me into the walk-in cooler so Ricky doesn't catch us.
Yeah, we were bored. But Dawn kept giving me pieces of mango, and I kept kissing the juice back into her mouth, until both of our lips were raw with the sugar and the acid and the cold. Levitated up out of our boredom by the other's energy. We sent texts to save each other's numbers in our phones and that should have been the end of it. She had to go back to Buffalo that night.
You know that song, Home is where I want to be but I guess I'm already there. That's what was playing when I stepped out of the fridge and went back to work.
So yeah, our relationship started over text message, sending each other silly memes, screenshots of the nonsense people were saying in our separate group chats, gossip from our separate locations. Flirting. A lot of flirting.
Restaurant people are easy to entertain and difficult to keep happy. Some of us are lifers. We can't function anywhere else in society. I started out washing dishes when my parents kicked me out. They were real nutty Jesus types, wanted to send me away to conversion therapy when they caught me necking with the pastor's daughter the summer before junior year. That was so long ago I never think about it anymore. I got my GED because they wouldn't let me into bartender school without it.
This isn't my life story, I swear.
Dawn was the best thing that ever happened to me. I can't hear that song without thinking of her, the leathery coffee-and-vanilla cologne she wore, how strong her arms were. How she couldn't watch a movie without making some smart-ass comment, how she wore her jeans low down on her slim hips, how she loved cooking at home even though she did it for forty hours a week at some crappy chain restaurant.
I miss her.
We moved to Florida because we could. We were happy there. It wasn't like we were running away from anything. We just wanted a change. Better weather. Better jobs. She knew a guy who could get her a sous chef position in an actual restaurant, and I could tend bar anywhere looking the way I did. Western New York was getting to be too depressing and if the entire country was going to be underwater in a few decades we at least wanted to be near the beach.
Then it happened.
She called the way she cut mangoes the hedgehog method because that's what her culinary school teacher had called it. I messed up a few times, called it the porcupine method, I must have figured the way the cubes stuck out from the rind when it was inside out looked more like a porcupine than a hedgehog. Dawn laughed, asked me what the hell I thought a hedgehog looked like.
I said, "I don't know. Like Sonic?"
"The video game Sonic?"
"Yeah. With like, the blue mohawk. Porcupines have quills that stick out all over the place."
"So do hedgehogs! Hedgehogs have spines! That's why it's called!"
"Whatever," I said. "Why don't you just call it crosshatch method and stop making out like I'm going to eat a cartoon animal."
"Oh my god, Titi, I hate you."
That's what we called it from then on. The porcupine method. Porcupine became a verb, our way of describing how we were going to handle a messy situation. I know it's silly. We were together a long time. I thought we were going to be together a long time.
The night she didn't come home, I wasn't expecting her until late anyhow. I worked weekends at a nightclub, where I made most of my money, and then during the week I poured wine and expensive whiskey at a country club. It was a Tuesday. Mike and Tyrone wanted to go out for beers after the kitchen closed. They needed to porcupine a personal problem Mike was having. That was fine. I trusted the three of them out together.
Then the cops showed up. They confirmed that Dawn lived there, then broke the news to me. Offered to drive me to the hospital. I was in shock. It was the first time I had ever been in the back of a police car. Not until weeks later did I wonder what the neighbors must have thought.
First time I had ever been to the emergency room, either. Back when I was still a baby bartender who didn't know shit about technique, I cut my thumb slicing limes. I went to urgent care and stopped using dull knives. Urgent care and the ER aren't the same at all. Everything was bright and noisy, contained chaos, and all I could think was Maybe they're wrong. Maybe the cops are wrong.
The social worker and the attending physician were there. Dawn's parents still lived in New York, and were on their way. Staff let me in to see Dawn's body. Her eyes were closed and her lips were blue and she would have been pissed to know she died with grown-out roots.
I didn't cry because I didn't believe what they were telling me. That Dawn had overdosed on heroin. That her friends had brought her straight to the ER when she didn't respond to the two doses of Narcan Mike sprayed up her nose.
Narcan is a drug that's supposed to reverse the effects of narcotic medication. Mike carried it on him because he had no intention of quitting using, because he knew so many people who had died of overdoses. They nod out, he told me later, nodding out happens a lot, but Dawn had stopped breathing. Later, after we found out the dope they'd been shooting up was laced with fentanyl.
I learned a lot about drugs after Dawn died. Like that fentanyl is a synthetic narcotic they give to cancer patients. It's up to a hundred times stronger than morphine. Sometimes dealers add it to heroin to increase heroin's potency and don't tell their customers, so people think they're getting regular heroin and overdose and die.
Her parents touched down at daybreak and took over planning for the funeral, packing up her things, settling all of her affairs. We weren't married. It wasn't like I had a legal right to do any of the things her parents were doing.
I wasn't mad at Mike or Tyrone. I wanted to know where they got it from, that was all.
They didn't know what it meant to porcupine a situation. Nobody did. Not Dawn's parents, who didn't even look at me during the funeral. Not my manager at the country club, who approved five day's bereavement leave, or my manager at the nightclub, who tried to get me to find coverage for the weekend I was out and caved when I started sobbing into the phone. He said he'd take care of it.
It infuriated me, later, that the first time I cried during the whole aftermath of Dawn's math was on the phone to my manager at the nightclub.
I wanted to know where Mike got the laced heroin from. Call it part of the grieving process. Grappling to understand what had happened. Standing at the bar during the slow early hours of service at the country club, a TV playing Forensic Files in the background, like every other day that had come before. That was my life now. Before Dawn and After Dawn, like we had broken up. Half the people who poisoned other people on that show used antifreeze, toxicology reports always showed polyethylene glycol in the blood.
The nightclub kept me busy. I showed up for my shift looking normal, acting numb, the other bartender unable to provide much more than a firm hug to start the night and cocktail napkins when tears started snaking their way down my cheeks after everyone had left at four in the morning. I didn't have time to think there.
At the country club, I had time to think.
If I was going to deal with the person whose tainted heroin killed my girlfriend, I needed to think like a murderer. Like those people on the true crime shows who made every phone call and every long-distance trip like a police drone was right above their heads.
Mike went ahead and gave me his dealer's number in exchange for the number of the burner phone I bought from a gas station on the other side of town. He wouldn't give the dealer up to police, but he gave him up to me. All I wanted to do was see the guy, put a face to the act. We were at a dive bar Dawn and I liked to go to on our mutual nights off, that we brought friends to when we all needed to congregate. It had a patio out back where people could take their drinks to smoke a cigarette, and that's where Tyrone and I were when he pulled me aside.
In the early stages of our relationship, before we even moved in together, we quit smoking together. We put the money we would have spent on cigarettes into a savings account, promised not to touch it unless it was for something we both wanted. I bought a pack of cigarettes from the same gas station that sold me the burner. The first inhale of menthol burned on the way down, and my whole body lit up with greeting. Like a friend returning from prison, hesitant and grateful.
So Tyrone pulls me aside, six-foot-two bald-headed pot-smoking pacifist that he was, and tells me he knows what I'm going through. I believe him. I don't want his pain on top of mine.
"You've got that look in your eye," he says, "like you're already digging his grave. Dawn wouldn't want you locked up."
"I ain't getting locked up," I say, and that's the end of the conversation.
The dealer wanted to meet me with Mike there, and I figured that made sense. I didn't know how drug deals worked. My area was alcohol, and I knew how to deal with alcoholics. I didn't know how to deal with drug addicts. Same thing, at the end of the day.
At the country club, the old men smoked cigars inside because they were retired and because the owner didn't care, bitched about the laws that said they couldn't smoke wherever they wanted, bitched about laws in general, how it used to be you got pulled over for drinking and the cop would just escort you home. If alcohol was legal, everything else ought to be.
Like look at her, one of them said the day I met the dealer. She's slinging booze, but you don't see her getting thrown in jail like those black kids.
Yeah well booze is legal now, the other one said. I was climbing up on the counter to pull down a new bottle of Glenlivet and replace the one they'd killed. Eighty years ago she'd've been thrown in jail for selling gin out of her bathtub.
I made Mike swear he wouldn't tell the dealer I was Dawn's girl. He swore. Sitting in his banged-up Buick in the dealer's driveway, in the dark, in the moments before my moment of clarity. Mike swore, and then we got out of the car and rang the doorbell and Mike introduced me to the dealer.
When the dealer opened the door I thought we were at the wrong place. I was expecting a greasy little weasel, the sort of person who springs to mind when you hear the words Florida Man. Wardrobe consisting of wife-beaters and baggy jeans, prison tattoos, everything I knew about drug dealers I learned from watching TV.
This guy, though. He was handsome, and he knew he was handsome. Tall, blond hair, blue eyes, a jaw that could cut glass, obviously worked out. Probably wore suits to his 9-to-5, had an office with a high-rise view of downtown Miami. Fashionable facial hair. His name was Noah. I hated him the second I saw him.
And Mike kept his oath. He kept Dawn's name out of his mouth. He told Mike I was a friend of his, said we both worked in the restaurant business and I was just looking to buy some horse.
The whole time, Noah was eyeing me up. I felt his gaze slide over my calves, my thighs, I had worn yoga pants and running shoes and a sports bra in case we needed to bolt and I regretted that decision when I caught him assessing my breasts.
Of course I didn't use what I bought. I made out like I was going to, learned myself why people get addicted to the stuff. Noah asked Mike and me if we wanted to smoke it or shoot it, and Mike said he wanted to shoot it, so I shot it. Instant bliss in Noah's living room. I didn't want to feel bliss around Noah. Underneath the euphoria was fury.
As far as I knew, Dawn wasn't using when we were together. It must have been a one-time thing she did because Mike was doing it. Tyrone told me all she did when they were out together was smoke weed, and she never did it at work like some of the guys did, she only did it when they were out and someone else offered her some. Mike had dope on him, and Tyrone was smoking weed, and it was none of my business what she wanted to do with her body.
Her body, embalmed and entombed, gone from me even though she still lingered in the house. The smell of her on everything. I would feel her as soon as I walked in the door. I kept tripping over her big old size 11 shoes, her heavy slip-resistant orthopedic work boots, I left them in the entryway for weeks, lurking in the dark like they wanted to break my neck, help me join her in whatever waits for us after we're dead. Probably nothing. Dawn didn't believe in an afterlife.
Sometimes I thought she was behind me in the bathroom, in the steam after a shower, thought she would show up in the mirror as I was brushing my teeth. I felt her in the bed sheets even after I washed them. When I masturbated, I imagined it was her hands touching me, her tongue between my legs. And after I came, instead of crying, I laid there in the afterglow and imagined what I would do to get rid of Noah's body.
It took a lot of money. I picked up extra shifts at the country club, waved away my manager's concern. I lost weight, of course I lost weight, but in this country, starving looks good to people. The more my body consumed itself, the more people tipped me. My smile was forced and my eyes were tired and I spent the extra money on heroin. My manager kept checking to see if I was okay. Like he was going to save me from myself.
"You have my number," he would say after every shift, and I would keep my voice flat as I said, "Yes I do," and that was always the end of the conversation. I hate people with business degrees. They all think they're psychologists, and this one in particular thought his dick would ameliorate my grief.
Four Tuesday nights in a row, I went to Noah's house instead of the dive bar, Dawn's and my bar. I couldn't stand to be there without her. I couldn't stand to be at Noah's house alone either but I couldn't go with Mike. He needed to stay out of this. Every time I stepped inside I declined Noah's invitation to sit and take a shot, declined his offers of weed or pills. Once, I accepted his offer of a Bacardi Ice, and I watched him the entire time he was in the kitchen.
"Don't open it," I said, and he smiled like I'd told a joke.
"What," he asked, and twisted off the cap with his bare hand, "you think I'm going to roofie you?"
I took the bottle from him and said, "Better safe than raped, right?"
He tried to touch my hair, I'd flat-ironed it and sprayed it into behaving in the humidity, and normally I would have slapped his hand away. I needed him to keep selling me dope for this plan to work. So I let him. We shot the shit for a few minutes before he got around to weighing out the powder. I pretended to drink my drink as he worked, and we exchanged cash for stash, and I got the hell out of there.
Two paychecks later, nearly a month into my absent plan, I went to the grocery store. I was out of seltzer water, was living off of microwave popcorn and tortilla chips, crunchy carbs with enough salt to keep my blood pressure up, the occasional bag of salad. The thought that this could all go wrong, what if Noah figured out what I was going to do and shot me, I'd be just another dead girl in the trunk of a car, I would never eat another mango again. So I bought one. That was all I bought. I took it home and I cut it the way I'd seen Dawn do a hundred times, careful so I wouldn't read a mistake as a portent. I cried as I ate it. I wanted her back. I wanted her alive. I wanted to go back in time and beg her not to go out with Mike and Tyrone, invite myself along like a clingy girlfriend, keep her from shooting up. I was so angry.
I started cooking down the shit I bought from Noah, four weeks' worth of the drug that killed Dawn in a single night. Did it the way I'd watched him the night he shot it into my arm, filled every syringe I'd picked up from the drugstore and capped it when it was full. I packed them into a makeup bag I planned to throw away, slipped it into the purse I planned to throw away, and sent Noah a text on the phone I planned to throw away, asking if I could come by later that night.
He replied saying he was looking forward to it, added a winky face.
I couldn't fucking stand him. I knew what I was about to do was wrong. I didn't care.
Instead of styling my hair I corralled it under a wig, did my makeup the way young women, still girls some of them, did it in YouTube tutorials. Every time I went over there, I made up my face heavier than the time before. Still recognizable by degrees, but different from a distance. It was hard to keep the powder from melting off my face in the muggy heat. I managed to pull it off.
His jeans tightened the second he opened the door for me. His cologne smelled good and he had obviously showered just before I arrived. My body locked down, every orifice protesting what I was forcing myself to do. If he had approached me at a bar I would have told him to go fuck himself. I had never so much as touched a man before, never experimented with the boys in high school because I knew better. Straight boys don't have to experiment before they accept their sexuality, so I figured I didn't have to either.
One time a customer back in New York grabbed my ass, so I'd grabbed his hand and broken his wrist. Ricky pressed charges against the guy and gave me a raise. I think he was afraid I'd sue the company.
While Noah was distracted fondling my breasts through the bra I planned to throw away, I started uncapping a syringe with my free hand. I had practiced at home when it was still empty, and Noah didn't notice the hand that wasn't on his crotch was coming towards his shoulder. It jabbed through his shirt and into the muscle holding his shoulder to his neck, thick meat that would absorb the drug. He yelled "Ow!" like a mosquito had got him, slapped at the spot, and his carrying on gave me the time to grab the second syringe and hit him again in a different spot. My entire arm shook with rage and effort as I pressed the plunger deep as it would go and reached for another. By the time I got the third syringe in him, he was nodding out.
No, I did not lose count. I counted every single one. Every single one, I thought of Dawn.
I thought of the way her face looked in the morning, sleep granting her a simpler serenity than the heroin had left her with, I saw the way her body filled the stretcher in the trauma ward, how the doctors hadn't gotten around to peeling the electrodes off her chest, how there was a band around her wrist even though they were admitting her to the morgue. How she would laugh at the way I shrieked every time we went to the ocean and a wave would slap me. We didn't have ocean waves in New York. Lake Ontario wasn't the same. People dumped bodies in it all the time.
When I ran out of syringes, when he was limp on the couch with a dead erection and no pulse, I collected them.
One of the needles had snapped off during his brief struggle, and I dug it out of his skin. If it weren't for the fact it would leave DNA in my wake, I would have spat on him. For a moment I sat with his corpse, considered stabbing him in the eye. It would feel good, I thought, to just hit him, pummel him until even his mother wouldn't recognize him.
Heroin felt good too. Dawn had felt good. Her laugh, her jokes, the way she cut fucking mangoes. He took her from me, and leaving him dead on the couch didn't bring her back.
I wish I could tell you her ghost was perturbed by what I had done, or placated. One or the other. The house was empty when I returned home, and I did not trip over her shoes. I showered without sensing her in the steam, and I went to bed without feeling her in the sheets. My alarm woke me. I wanted to stay in bed, wanted to die now that I had gotten rid of Noah.
As I was getting ready for my shift at the country club, I waited for the cops to show up. They didn't. So I came to work like it was any other Wednesday. Now I'm here.
If I had just left her alone that night, I'm thinking to myself, washing dishes in the bar sink and waiting for my regulars to come trickling in. If we had never known each other at all.
If I have to go the rest of my life carrying this secret instead of her spirit.
My customers start trickling in, and that fucking song starts playing.
Sunday, December 29, 2019
Sunday, December 15, 2019
“Beatnik-attired, Bread Loaf Fellow Shane Stevens was on stage in spring 1970, his reading calling for armed rebellion against the white power structure for sending Puerto Ricans, blacks, and hippies to die in Vietnam”.
—Jo LeCoeur. “Fierce, Kind Friend: John William Corrington”. Legal Studies Forum, vol. 27, 2003.
I’ve spent the last ten years attempting to construct a biographical portrait of Shane Stevens, the best crime fiction writer you’ve probably never heard of. Stevens was the author of Go Down Dead, Way Uptown In Another World, Dead City, Rat Pack, By Reason of Insanity, and The Anvil Chorus. Under the pseudonym J.W. Rider, he wrote the novels Jersey Tomatoes and Hot Tickets featuring a PI named Malone, an ex-seminarian and former FBI agent living and operating in Jersey City.
If you have heard of Shane Stevens, then, like me, you probably discovered him through Stephen King. In the afterward to The Dark Half, the Master of Horror confesses that he borrowed the name Alexis Machine from Stevens’s Dead City and praises Shane for having produced "three of the finest novels ever written about the dark side of the American Dream."
It was this praise that cause me to seek out his work. As only one of his novels has remained in print with any regularity here in the US, the struggle to track down his work and to understand it, lead me to the mystery of the man.
Stevens was white. He grew up in the largely black neighborhoods, first Hell’s Kitchen and then Harlem. He played his cards close to his chest, as can be seen by how he described himself to Contemporary Authors: “I never give interviews, stay in shadow, travel by night. I don’t associate with writers, don’t do book reviews, don’t play politics or give advice. I try not to hurt anyone. I go where I want and write what I want.”
Nowadays, the average person generates a ridiculous amount of easily-found information. If the person is famous or engaged in some sort of artistic career, then they’re likely maintaining an active social media presence that easily doubles that available information. Before the internet, however, this was not the case—you could go through life, be nearly invisible and leave almost no trace.
Match this tendency toward secrecy with a life lived pre-internet, add in failing memories and a dying-off witness pool, then include the few people who simply will not speak to me (including Shane’s daughter from an early marriage), and I think you can understand why my search for Shane Stevens has been slow.
But what I want you to understand is why the mystery surrounding an almost entirely forgotten crime author has held my attention for nearly a decade and how the work and the man and my search all feed each other.
When I began, I knew, if I were to find out anything about Stevens, my first resource was the work itself. What do the author bios say? Who took the author photographs? Who are the books dedicated to? Who or what details are mentioned in the foreword? What about press surrounding the book—are there any details there?
I gave myself three rules: 1) Find documented sources, 2) Treat “facts” from people as valid only when they are repeated by multiple people consistently or can be verified some other way, 3) Clearly identify my own conjecture and include reasoning.
This gave me many avenues to pursue, lots of dead ends, but also immediately hooked me into the sheer breadth of Stevens’s mystique. Even his birth year remains an unknown.
Among the sundry biographical snippets that ran with his various articles, newspaper bylines, and dust jacket photos, Shane’s birth year varies greatly, if you do the math, all the way from 1937 up to 1941. (The only thing he never changed was the month and day – October 8th).
For a brief example of what I’m talking about: the 1941 date is the final birth year Shane provided himself to Contemporary Authors. This is also the date you’ll usually see listed on something modern if it has any biographical info at all. However, the author bio on the dust jacket for Go Down Dead, states the Stevens is 28 years old. The press surrounding his first novel (see “Books: Harlem Idiom,” Time, Feb 24, 1967), repeats Stevens’s age as 28 years old.
Go Down Dead was published in 1966. If Stevens was 28 years old, then he was born in 1938, not 1941.
Jump forward to 1968. The biographical blurb at the bottom of his December article for The Writer, lists Stevens as 27 years old. An article written two years later, and Stevens is magically one year younger.
|Shane Stevens lecturing at Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Middlebury College?|
Stevens likewise claimed to have been born in New York City. Based on various references in his letters and conversations with a few people who knew him, I suspect—but cannot at this juncture prove—that Stevens was born in New Jersey (probably Hoboken).
Next I turned to Harlem. The neighborhood features in three of his novels, and Shane talked about Harlem a lot:
“I look uptown, thinking of the years I lived in Harlem, white sheep in wolf’s clothing but lean and hungry. Just about a mile from here at 128th Street and Park Avenue. But from where I started a little while ago, at 86th and Fifth, my old block’s way uptown in another world.” (“The Rat Packs of New York,” New York Times Magazine, November 28, 1971.)
In an interview at The Harry Crews Online Bibliography, Damon Sauve questions Crews about Shane and their time together at The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. While Crews has great things to say about Way Uptown in Another World, the real gem in the interview is this passage here:
“Yeah. He was raised in Harlem. And he's white, but—he's white, but in every possible sense, he's black. Everything, including speech, clothes, hating white people. Not that every black hates white people. Strange dude. Strange dude.
“But the first time he was there, about the first three days and nights, he didn't sleep a wink. He sat on the step all night. He said it was too damned quiet. You know, raised in Harlem.”
While waiting on info from Middlebury College about Shane’s time at Bread Loaf, Crews’s praise of Way Uptown In Another World, sent me back to that book. The dust jacket bio tantalizingly mentions jail time in both San Francisco and Mexico.
I tried to follow those trails but they both lead to dead ends. I don’t know where exactly in Mexico Stevens did time, San Francisco’s digital records don’t go back for enough, and I lack the funds to pay a researcher to delve through the paper records.
When those leads went for naught, I returned back to Way Uptown In Another World. The dust jacket photo was taken by a man named Alan Caruba. Researching Caruba, led me to how he met Stevens and another trove of tantalizing info.
Caruba wrote an article for the September 21, 1970 edition of Publishers’ Weekly called “Bread Loaf 1970: Boot Camp for Writers.” The article is mostly a fluff piece about the Vermont writer’s conference, but the passages concerning Stevens are very revealing. Caruba describes Stevens as having friends who were wanted by the FBI. He also says that Stevens has a “Marlon Brando kind of sex appeal,” as all the girls had posted signs all over Middlebury that read: “Shane is sweet.”
Stevens’s sex appeal would lead me to his novel Rat Pack, which he dedicated to “all the young girls”, and then eventually to a line of ex-girlfriends.
While nosing around for any press on Way Uptown In Another World, I discovered an essay Shane wrote for Black Review #1, edited by Mel Watkins. A passage from Stevens’s “The White Niggers of the 70s” provides a succinct clue to his penchant for secrecy and moving in shadows. Stevens admits:
“I have been shot, stabbed, beaten, gassed, stomped, whipped, jailed and had acid thrown on me. I have smelled death, seen its shadow and heard its cry. Violence has been my natural playground, and I know a little about it. And about the darker side of violence too, the violence that is within oneself. It’s just beneath the surface, lurking there, waiting, always ready to smash and destroy.”
Mysteries fill Stevens’s life like shadows in a condemned building, drawing me ever onward. But while so many of the darkened hallways prove to be empty and the dingy rooms can only offer broken tidbits, the best clue into Shane Stevens is his work. As Samuel Butler wrote, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him.”
While represented by his first agent, the legendary Henry Volkening, Shane Steven’s first novel saw publication at the tail end of 1966. Go Down Dead centers on an African-American youth named Adam Clayton Henry who everyone calls King. (A nod to Adam Clayton Powell Jr—the first African-American member of the House, elected and sent to Washington by the people of Harlem). He’s the “president” of a Harlem street gang called The Playboys. One of his gang was put out of commission by members of The Tigers, a white gang from the next neighborhood over. The Playboys responded in kind and now the tension between the two has risen and is ready to explode.
From the opening pages we know that King is planning a big move against the enemy and he’s not messing around. The young gang leader knows where he can score some dynamite and plans on blowing up the Tigerman clubhouse, taking all the whites out for good and leaving The Playboys to reign unopposed as the “swingiest bop gang in New York.”
Go Down Dead is very strong first novel that provides a startling look into the violent lives lost on Harlem’s streets. It’s written in what can sometimes be a hard to follow street-slang. In short letter, Stevens wrote and circulated to reviews, he says, the prose is “the language of the people who live it. So that the reader may become a participant and not just a spectator. It is a language of pain, or despair and neglect—yes, and of hope as well.”
His next novel, Way Uptown in Another World is, for me, Shane’s masterwork. Unlike his first, Uptown is both simple and starkly poetic, authentic but approachable. In this messy, but beautiful book, Stevens explores the themes that would come to dominate his more well-known works. Here, Stevens dissects that dark side of the American Dream and its false promise of opportunity. He explores the true division between peoples—money and class. And Stevens reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way.
This second novel sweeps through the life of a young African-American named Marcus Garvey Black. Marcus has a quiet childhood in Mississippi. He and his family are far from rich, but they’re happy and get by as best they can, until his father is run over by a white man. The white man feels a tad guilty so he pays Marcus’s mother ten dollars as recompense—thus establishing one of the main themes: how much is a man worth?
Like many African-Americans Marcus and family head north for the promise of better job opportunities and the hope of eased racial tensions. Marcus quickly learns, however, “The kids in Harlem were not the same as back home in the country. They hung out in gangs and a lotta them shot up on dope and got in all kinda trouble. The streets were always full and you hadda fight for everything.”
In the early chapters Uptown functions as sort of picaresque: the adventures of a lovable rogue. Marcus ditches school and tries his hand at a variety of jobs, most illegal, many of them funny, until he finds his true calling as a con man with a host of money-making schemes.
The novel takes a darker turn when a fistfight at a baseball diamond leads to murder and Marcus is sent to prison.
After his release, the book becomes essentially plotless There are drug dealers and killers and thieves and robbers, white girls looking for some “dark meat” to make their fathers’ angry before returning to the safety of their wealthy lives somewhere far away. There are hippies and love children who think they can topple the structures of power with nothing more than a hug. There are militant Civil Rights leaders, Black Power junkies, evil blacks and evil whites. But, yet, kindness everywhere, if you look for it.
Each chapter is a sort of lesson. Lessons of crime and poverty and violence and love and life, as Marcus tries to understand himself, to make sense of a world that seems to only want to teach him hate, “I mean, what’s the good of living if you can’t go around hating all the people who screw you down? Without that hate, you got no cover, no protection. And if everybody’s the same and you ain’t better’n nobody, how can you feel like a man? That’s the game everybody plays, but without them all you got is love and beauty everywhere.”
Dead City is Stevens’s New Jersey mob novel and the source of the name Alexis Machine. Multiple people who knew Shane when he was tending bar at the Corner Bistro in New York, have confirmed that one of the mobsters in that book is based on a real gangster who drank there often. This third novel follows two men trying to work their way up the ranks. Charley Flowers worked his way up once already, but after blowing two big hits, he’s reduced to flophouse living and strong-arm work. Now, he wants to return to real money, to his previous position of power. Charley wants to be somebody in the only way he knows how to be anybody.
When the novel opens, Flowers is paired with the new kid, a Vietnam vet named Harry Strega. Harry grew up with few options and an inescapable sense of detachment. The war widened the gulf separating him from the rest of humanity. Freshly stateside, he sees violence and crime as his only road to not just success, but his only road to anything at all.
Here, Stevens boldly weaves thoughts, memories, fears and flashbacks amongst the action and the narrative. He splatters violence and sex against the cityscape until the city becomes a character, our tour guide through the characters’ private hells and twisted psyches as they search for their share of the American Dream. While I think it lacks the depth of his other work, Dead City builds to one of the most stunning endings I’ve ever read, a beautiful parallel to the beginning of the novel, twisting back on itself and forming the “closed-system of perfect evil” that Stephen King praised so highly.
Stevens’s fourth novel grew out of a Nov 28, 1971, New York Times article called, “The Rat Packs of New York.” Here Stevens opens by profiling the case of a young medical student who cuts through Central Park with his girlfriend on their way home. Four black youths accost the couple for a quarter. When the student tries to ignore them and keep walking, one of them shoots him in the back. I tracked down both the med student—now doctor—who was shot and the beat cop who investigated the incident. The med student didn’t want to talk and the cop tried to sell me a copy of his memoirs.
Stevens uses this incident to trace the history of juvenile delinquency from the early youth gangs that arose after WWII to the city under siege era brought on by easy drugs, plentiful guns, and systemic poverty. Stevens dispels the myth that gang culture was and is about race. The racial lines that separate gang from gang, criminal from criminal, according to Stevens is a racism of pure chance. He argues that those lines were really neighborhood lines drawn by the uncaring hand of poverty. Money was the issue when Stevens was writing and it’s still the issue now.
In the course of his investigation into the student shooting, Stevens interviews, befriends, and follows four black youths he calls: Jumper, Wolfie, Chester, and Johnny Apartment.
His non-fiction article directly informed and shaped his next fictional novel. Billed as “An American Clockwork Orange” and described by Chester Himes as “a classic of the lowers depths,” Rat Pack follows four Harlem youths over the course of a single violent New York City night as they look for the big score that will finally help them escape the soul-crushing poverty and the misery of living in the uptown ghetto.
While his last Harlem novel may have been as slim and as sharp as a shiv, it was his fourth book, By Reason of Insanity, that would prove to be his breakout book: $100,000 advance on the hardback rights (“Book Ends: Sharing the Wealth,” New York Times, Jan 15, 1978.) and $455,000 for the reprint rights in paperback (“Betting on the Big Book”, Book World, October 1, 1978). This serial killer novel predates both the term and Thomas Harris’s far more famous Red Dragon by two years. Written in a style that reads more true crime than thriller, Stevens uses reporter Adam Kenton’s manhunt for Thomas Bishop to confront abuse, poverty, loneliness, crooked politics, sex, media manipulation, the death penalty, opportunism, the changing face of police work, and, as if seeing the future, our twisted habit of making killers famous.
Producing a book Stephen King called, “One of the finest novels ever written about perfect evil,” Shane avoids the flights of fancy that would come to dominate the serial killer subgenre. Harris’s esteemed Dr. Lecter is a comic book villain with a taste for human flesh, a Bond baddie with all the ridiculous background trappings—Eastern European nobility raised by a Japanese sexpot aunt, genius level intelligence, photographic memory, superb physicality and master level artistic ability—but stripped of all the pulp fun.
Stevens’s Thomas Bishop is a realistic and brutal killer, a terrible manifestation born of a lifetime of horrors. There are no diabolical schemes, no ridiculous clues hidden under fingernails and down someone’s throat. There are no bodies left in strange tableaus that echo some forgotten 16th century Italian artwork. There’s just blood and guts and rage and gore. The novel builds to an incredibly thrilling climax, then immediately pulls the rug entirely out from under you with an exceptionally clever twist that confirms: monsters are made, not born.
The success and big money from his serial killer novel allowed Stevens to pursue and research firsthand a much different project: The Anvil Chorus is an international thriller set in 1970s Paris.
Inspector Cesar Dreyfus is an Alsatian Jew and distant relative of the famously persecuted Alfred Dreyfus. Cesar is called in to investigate the death of Dieter Bock, a former SS member who for the last several years has lived secretly in a Paris suburbs until someone hanged him with piano wire in a locked room.
Like all of Steven’s characters, Dreyfus is repulsed by the inequality of the system, horrified at the manipulation of the people, and the unfairness of—everything. He attacks the murder investigation ferociously, risking the ire of his superiors, the French Intelligence Community, and the government himself. This particular case sinks its claws into him tighter than any other. Dreyfus’s parents were killed during WWII and the investigation into Bock fuels his burning desire for revenge, “Thought his adolescent years, Cesar dreamed of finding their killers, becoming a hunter of murderers. When he finally did, he discovered there were many murderers, more than he’d realized, more than he’d ever imagined. They were everywhere, in every walk of life, looking just like everyone else, and so his quest turned into a calling, his job a profession. But the dream never went away, or the nightmares either.”
The case escalates and what seems like a simple murder becomes something more. Dreyfus discovers the link to more murders, shady political dealings, and a woman who inspires a terrible obsession in every man she meets. The Nazi’s death starts Dreyfus on a journey through a twisted labyrinth of lies and deceit born during WWII and nurtured in evil by a secret Nazi plan code-named: Anvil. As Dreyfus storms through his investigation, surviving attempts on his life and manipulation on a global scale, he realizes exactly how little separates us from the things we so deeply hate.
The Anvil Chorus is the most traditional novel Stevens wrote in terms of plot and narrative. In some ways, this makes it more difficult to discuss without giving away plot points. However even at his most traditional, Stevens writes as only he can. He weaves the cut-and-dried procedural with passages of deeply poetic prose and a haunting depth of character while still investing everything with his usual social critique.
If there’s any clue to the two, fairly traditional and surprisingly funny PI novels that Stevens wrote under a pseudonym, it lies perhaps in the pseudonym itself—J.W. Rider. Perhaps after his big success and big money, Shane wanted to simply be just a writer.
The first novel, Jersey Tomatoes, finds Malone investigating two separate cases. A shady real-estate developer wants Malone to find out who’s been sending him death threats. Meanwhile, an anti-religious activist is convinced her devout mother’s suicide is actually something sinister.
Hot Tickets, the second in the series, again centers on two cases and follows a similar pattern. A wrestling promoter hires Malone to track down who’s been threatening his big star, Samson. Meanwhile as a favor to his secretary, Malone tries to help out one of her tenants, a stripper studying to become an Episcopalian Minister.
In addition to numerous book reviews, investigative pieces, and non-fiction articles, Stevens also did screenplay work, providing the first pass on a straight adaptation of Sol Yurick’s The Warriors before rights passed to Lawrence Gordon, who took the film to Paramount where Walter Hill shaped its comic book aesthetic (“Movie Call Sheet,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1969). Stevens also adapted the rock musical The Me Nobody Knows (“News of the Screen”, New York Times, Feb 24, 1974.) for a film version that was to be directed by Gil Cates but unfortunately never got made. His working relationship with Cates was such that the two planned to follow that film with an adaptation of Stevens’s own Way Upton in Another World. Before his death in 2011, Cates described both projects to me as typical Hollywood—projects “that just never materialized.”
Never materialized is, likewise, a good way to describe the adaptations Stevens provided for his own By Reason of Insanity and Jersey Tomatoes. As a screenwriter, his career was filled with these near misses. Though if the rumors I’ve chased for years are true, Stevens spent his years after the publication of the second and last Malone novel working as script doctor in Hollywood.
Whether that rumor is true or not, I like to think it is. There’s no better place to hide in the shadows than in the city that survives on them.
Shane Stevens: An Expanded Bibliography
Stevens, Shane. “After Twenty Terrible Years.” [Rev. of THE BERN BOOK: A Record of a
Voyage of the Mind. By Vincent O. Carter.] The Washington Post and Times Herald,
May 27, 1973.
—. The Anvil Chorus. Delacorte Press, 1985.
—. “Black on Black, Issue No. 1.” [Review] The Washington Post and Times Herald, May 10,
—. “The Best Black American Novelist Writing Today.” [Rev. of Blind Man With A Pistol by
Chester Himes.] The Washington Post and Times Herald, April 27, 1969.
—. By Reason of Insanity. Simon and Schuster, 1979.
—. “The Cat Lady’s Trying To Survive, Like Everyone Else.” The New York Times, Jan 1, 1972
—. “The Child’s Gonna Live.” The New York Times, June 19, 1969
—. “A Day Like Any Other Day in Junk City.” The New York Times, May 29, 1972.
— “The Death Watch.” The Minority of One, Volume 10, August 1968.
—. Dead City. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973.
—. “Die, Nigger, Die!” [Review of Die, Nigger, Die! By H. Rap Brown] New York Times Book
Review, June 15, 1969.
—. “Eldridge Cleaver ‘A Soul Brother Gone Wrong’” The Progressive, Vol. 33, No. 7, July,
—. “Fiction.” [Rev of Corky’s Brother by Jay Neugeboren.] The Washington Post and Times
Herald, Feb. 8, 1970.
—. “Fantasy in black.” [Rev. of Horn by D. Keith Mano.] The Washington Post and Times
Herald, March 23, 1969.
—. “The Final Adventure.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Volume 53, No.2, February 1969.
—. Go Down Dead. New York, NY: William Morrow, 1966.
—. “Growing up black in South Africa.” The Washington Post and Times Herald, March 1,
—. “A Guided Tour In Hell.” [Rev. of The Ink Trunk by William Kennedy.] The Washington
Post and Times Herald, Oct 5, 1969.
—. “I Am Clarence.” [Rev. of I Am Clarence by Elaine Kraf] The New York Times Book
Review, November 2, 1969
—. “Inside; Prison American Style.” [Rev. Inside; Prison American Style edited by Robert J.
Minton Jr.] The New York Times Book Review, May 30, 1971
—. “Instant Urban Renewal.” The New York Times, June 19, 1971
—. “Lucid Madness” [Rev. of The Serpent by Luigi Malerba] The New York Times Book
Review, May 19, 1968
—. “The Most Dangerous Ghetto; Street Kids.” The New York Times, November 22, 1970
—. “The Murder of Aziz Khan.” [Rev. of The Murder of Aziz Khan by Zulfikar Ghose] New
York Times Book Review, January 26, 1969
—. “The Pornographers” [Rev. of The Pornographers by Akiyuki Nozaka] The New York Times
Book Review, November 24, 1968
—. “Quest for Dignity.” [Rev. of Soul on Fire by Eldridge Cleaver.] The Progressive, Vol. 32,
No. 5, May, 1969
—. Rat Pack. The Seabury Press, 1974.
—. “The Rat Packs of New York.” The New York Times Magazine, November 28, 1971
— “The Ruined Map.” [Review of The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe] The New York Times Book
Review, August 3, 1969.
—.”Savior, Savior.” [Rev. of Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand By Piri Thomas.} The Washington
Post and Times Herald, Oct 1, 1972.
—. “A Special Kind Of Justice.” [Review of The Crime of Martin Sostre by Vincent Copeland]
The Washington Post and Times Herald, Aug 23, 1970.
—. “Suddenly Last Summer” [Rev. of The Fourth Angel by John Rechy.] The Washington Post
and Times Herald, Aug. 12, 1973.
—. “Tickets A Writer Needs”. The Writer, December 28, 1968.
—. “Time and Time Again.” [Rev. of Seven Long Times by Piri Thomas.] The Washington
Post, August 11, 1974.
—. “Trixie.” [Rev. of Trixie by Wallace Graves] The New York Times Book Review, November
—. “Way Uptown In Another World.” Evergreen Review, Volume 6, Issue 27, 1962.
—. Way Uptown In Another World. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971.
—. “What The Kid Knew.” The Washington Post and Times Herald, April 12, 1970.
—. “What The White Man Has.” [Rev. of Three-Fifths of a Man by Floyd McKissick.] The
Washington Post, Times Herald, June 1, 1969.
—. “The White Niggers of The 70s.” Black Review #1, Mel Watkins, ed., Morrow, 1971.
As J.W. Rider
—Hot Tickets. Arbor House Publishing, 1987.
—Jersey Tomatoes. Arbor House Publishing, 1986.
Go Down Dead
- William Morrow, 1966. Hardcover.
- Pocket Books, 1968. Paperback.
- Pocket Books, 1974. Paperback
- A Quokka Book (Pocket Books), 1978. Paperback
Way Uptown In Another World
- G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971. Hardcover.
- Lancer Books, 1972. Paperback
- Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973. Hardcover.
- Barrie & Jenkins, 1974. Hardcover (UK edition)
- Pocket Books, 1974. Paperback.
- Corgi Books, 1976. Paperback (UK edition)
- Corgi Books, 1980. Paperback (UK reprint)
- Carroll & Graf, 1992. Paperback (US reprint).
- Seabury Press, 1974. Hardcover.
- Pocket Books, 1975. Paperback.
- Simon & Schuster of Canada, 1976. Paperback
- Pocket Books, 1976. Paperback.
By Reason of Insanity
- Simon & Schuster, 1979. Hardcover.
- George Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979. Hardcover (UK edition)
- Sphere Books, 1979. Paperback (UK edition)
- Dell Publishing, 1980. Paperback
- Sphere Books, 1980. Paperback
- Carroll & Graf, 1990. Paperback.
- Chicago Review Press, 2007. Paperback.
- Simon & Schuster Digital Sales Inc., 2014. (eBook edition)
The Anvil Chorus
- Delacorte Press, 1985. Hardcover.
- Andre Deutsch, 1985. Hardcover (UK edition)
- Dell Publishing, 1986. Paperback.
- Fontana, 1986. Paperback (UK edition)
- Carroll & Graf, 1993. Paperback.
- Arbor House Publishing, 1986. Hardcover.
- Pocket Books, 1987. Paperback.
- Arbor House Publishing, 1987. Hardcover.
- Pocket Books, 1987. Paperback.