I heard Bill talk about his book during a panel the day before the awards were given out last April in New York City.
I could tell there was something different about this story and I liked the way Bill talked about writing. Dodgers sounded different. I put it on my to-be-read list.
And so glad I did. Dodgers is one of the most original, unusual, haunting-in-its-own-way stories I’ve read in a long time.
That’s in part because it’s not straight crime fiction, though I completely agree with the Edgar Award nomination from Mystery Writers of America. (It didn’t win Best First last year, but it has won a slew of other awards; check out the header on Bill’s Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/BillBeverly.)
Bill was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail about Dodgers (below). His wry, insightful answers give you a flavor for his direct style. Then a more complete review follows.
In addition to Dodgers, Bill is also the author of On The Lam: Narratives of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America. He teachers at Trinity University in Washington, D.C.
Question: I’m wondering if you started out thinking Dodgers would be a ‘crime novel’ or a ‘mystery’ or just a ‘novel’? And, by the way, what’s the difference in your mind? Okay, sorry to pile on a bunch of questions here but did you ever think about putting a heavier police presence in the story, to make East and the others sweat a bit more as in a ‘traditional’ piece of crime fiction?
Bill Beverly: Really just a novel. I had just stopped trying to write a novel about a football coach, an overlong novel. I promised that if I ever tried again, I’d write something short. Short, bloody, and saleable.
But I think there are all kinds of sweat. All sorts of law. And East feels it himself. He needs no more police; he’s not sweating over being arrested. He’s sweating over what he’s seen and done.
Question: Any struggles or issues (or doubts) about writing about gang kids from L.A.?
Bill Beverly: Sure. I woke up one night and thought, son, what do you think you’re doing? I considered changing particulars, shifting the characters or setting, but decided to stick it out. I’d rather tell the story as it made most sense, and face questions later about my credibility and motivations. Ultimately the work defends itself, or fails to. Artists’ statements can be likable and amusing, but they should be read suspiciously, if at all. They are extrinsic.
Question: Did you have this linear, wandering Odyssey-esque approach in mind when you started writing Dodgers? What was the specific point of inspiration?
Bill Beverly: It was and is a simple story. Yes. I had read a lot of fugitive stories. And Huckleberry Finn. And Clockers. And Native Son.
Bill Beverly: Yes. I changed Ty’s return. My first thought was to have Ty show up wounded, on the brink of death. But the brothers’ relationship helped me conceive a different end by the time I was drafting it. Fortunately, I was open to it when it came.
Question: East is haunted by a killing in L.A. but not so much by some other “events” as their travels progress. Do you agree? And … why?
Bill Beverly: I think East is haunted by all of it. I think his own violence, and the sparseness and asceticism of his journey, show his horror. But, yes, the Jackson girl’s face is the face that keeps swimming up, that he can’t outrun.
Question: The American West & Midwest. Did you hit the road to write about these landscapes and cities and towns? Or have you driven it enough to know what you wanted to describe and what you wanted the boys in The Van to see and experience?
Bill Beverly: I have spent my life on these roads, trying to find words.
Question: I noticed in another online interview that you are a member of the James M. Cain fan club. Care to share a few thoughts? Do you revise and polish as much as he did (particularly with Double indemnity)? Most overlooked James M. Cain title?
Bill Beverly: Am a huge fan. Mr. Cain’s house is on the other end of my zip code, a mile or so away. I drive by it now and then. I am typing this now over in his neighborhood, which used to feature a big dark woods, but now features a parking lot with this coffee shop behind it. I am in that shop with a cup of coffee. Mr. Cain would have had something elegantly bitter to say about the leveling of this woods. He would have made a young, earnest thug out of the developer. The developer would have gotten the girl, at least at first.
I don’t know what people overlook. I am an academic. In that world, all Cain is grievously overlooked. I look forward to reading The Cocktail Waitress this spring.
I revise like I’m cleaning the jail cell I’ll die in. Like it’s the only task in the world.
Question: From what I’m gathering online, Dodgers has been brewing for quite some time. What elements changed the most as it marinated in your mind?
Bill Beverly: I am lucky to have caught it. But clearly it brewed a long time before it was done. The end changed, as I’ve said, and Walter’s character evolved steadily. I didn’t have a good feeling for Walter for a long time, but I used him to solve problems.
Question: Favorite writers and current inspirations—fiction and non-fiction?
Bill Beverly: I grew up on Roald Dahl, and happily, that diet suited my child, so I have revisited him these last years, and discovered more. The writers whom I have most consciously learned from are Denis Johnson and James Baldwin. And in the last few years, I have grown fascinated with Gwendolyn Brooks, whose career is larger and richer than most people credit it being.
Question: And, what’s next?
Bill Beverly: I’m in the middle of writing a little story right now. I hope someone will publish it. I’m grateful to Dodgers – it changed my life, it’s not hyperbole to say that. To follow it is not simple, and I’m taking pains to get it right.
Humanity seems to ooze from every syllable of Dodgers, which is either a Great American Novel with crime fiction undertones or a crime novel with not a care in the world about the expected tracks of the genre’s normal grooves.
Dodgers is a road trip. It’s brothers. It’s strangers in a strange land. It’s episodic. It’s scenic and sharp-eyed. It’s big sweep and little details. It’s both pastoral and gritty. Given part one, The Boxes, you think you’re in for a grim going-nowhere claustrophobic urban gangbang novel like Clockers or Freedomland (by Richard Price) or season one of The Wire. (Opening line: “The Boxes was all the boys knew; it was the only place.”) But by part two, The Van, you’re on a cross-country road trip where the skies open up and the possibilities seem endless, though violence lurks.
Dodgers is about four black kids from Los Angeles. They are East, his brother Ty, Walter, and Michael Wilson (who goes by both names). East is 15. He “had never been a child.” Ty is 13 when the book starts, but he moved out the house when was 11. Ty has a “sharp easiness” to him. “Ty didn’t care. He didn’t want to be loved or trusted. He was capable and unafraid and undisturbed by anything he’d seen or done so far.”
East is the focus. In the opening section, East is held responsible when the house he is holding is seized in a police raid. East knows it, too. In debt to his boss, Fin, East is sent to Wisconsin (in The Van) to kill a witness in an upcoming trial. This is a job. They are to avoid looking like “ignorant gang boys” but more like “mama’s boys going to a family reunion.” They are given Dodgers shirts because white people love baseball and white people love The Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s their job to keep Fin out of jail. No motels. Use rest stops to wash up.
There is the matter of navigating. And driving on highways. The Van gets vandalized. The foursome works to avoid trouble. Old reflexes won’t do them any favors. There are guns to pick up—and tense negotiations over the price—along the way. The great outdoors of the American Midwest makes East wonder what he’s made of. He dreams differently. Tensions rise. There are mistakes, miscommunication. Ty is impulsive and determined not to be made a fool.
Beverly’s writing is spare and beautiful.
“East liked driving here—the flat, unruffled fields with no one in sight, blind stubble mown down into splinters, maybe a tractor, maybe an irrigation rig like a long line of silver stitches across the fabric of earth. The flatness. There was more in the flatness than he’d expected. The van’s shadow lay long, and the fields traded colors. The boys slept in intervals or complained. Riding in a car for more than a few hours, he thought, was like suspended animation—somewhere under the layers of frost, your heart beat. To the left, a thunderstorm hovered, prowling its own road.”
East watches himself change, watches the group dynamics ebb and flow, too. The posse of four whittles down (that’s all I’ll say) and East is alone in the third part, Ohio. East forges new ground, fashions relationships with strangers, finds the perfect job in a “lifeguard chair” making sure combatants in a paintball shooting gallery are playing fair and square. (How perfect.) In Ohio. He is back in a box but the rules and consequences have all changed. He is watching white men running around trying to pretend kill each other and East (who has given himself a new name, Antoine) can imagine a new life.
But, no. East’s old life isn’t done. No spoilers here. Dodgers is memorable and gripping in its own way from start to clean, perfect finish.