By Mark Alpert
Thanks to an interesting anonymous submission from one of our TKZ contributors, we have a chance to discuss the art of writing fiction about important, topical subjects. Here is the first page of the proposed novel:
Title: Cooper’s Loot
As she drove away from the gas station pumps, an odd inspiration yanked Beverly Wikowski into a U-turn toward a neon sign she’d glimpsed in her rearview mirror. She entered the adjoining gravel lot, where “Beer Here” in frosty blue letters blinked like a beacon in the dripping November night. She didn’t need a beer, but a sudden thirst for a shot of misogyny blocked her from starting the sixty-mile journey home.
Not that she would drink it herself. She’d had enough of that beverage.
After parking her ’64 VW Beetle next to the front door, Bev peered out her windshield at the Spar Pole Saloon, which had to have been built not long after Lewis and Clark had paddled by on the Columbia River. Brown planks pocked with paint blisters and bare wood glistened with rain beneath the neon sign. From nearby pulp mills, the odor of boiled cabbage climbed inside her car, rode shotgun, sat in her lap, and filled the backseat.
It took her a minute to unearth from her purse a largely unused maroon lipstick. In the flash-dark light, she applied a thin layer and rubbed her lips together. She imagined the day-shifters would be quaffing at least their third Coors or Hamm’s or whatever they drank in Kelso. They’d notice her right away. Female flesh. Plus, she was from out of town and didn’t exude blue collar.
It would be easy to get them talking. They’d be thinking, hey, city chick, hippy-aged, maybe loose in the skirt, which she happened to be wearing, not a mini-skirt but more an earth momma variation, brown like a buck deer. They’d like her wavy ginger-blonde hair, which she topped with a cream-colored fedora hat. The dim lighting would obscure her hazel eyes, but it would also hide the two little zits on her neck.
Not that she gave a rat’s ass what these men thought of her.
I liked this first-page submission. What I liked most about it was the narrative voice, which seemed full of anger. (Especially that last line.) Strong emotion works really well at the opening of a novel, because it wakes up the reader. It makes you ask questions: Why is Beverly Wikowski so angry? Who or what is she angry at? Lecherous, predatory men? And what sparked this anger? What’s her history? Most important, what is she going to do with her fury? Will she bottle it up or let it rip? The reader wants to know the answers to these questions, and that gives him or her a strong motivation to keep reading. It’s a great hook.
The hook sank into me with the phrase “a sudden thirst for a shot of misogyny.” I didn’t understand what the phrase meant — why did this woman want an encounter with woman-haters? — but it intrigued me nonetheless. The next two sentences (“Not that she would drink it herself. She’d had enough of that beverage”) didn’t really clarify things. Actually, it’s a contradiction; first Beverly says she’s thirsty for the misogyny, and then she says she wouldn’t drink it. So I was confused. I started wondering, “What does the author really mean?” and I made a few guesses. And my best guess was that Beverly hates the misogyny because she’d been badly hurt by misogynists in the past, but she’s eager to see it again at the Spar Pole Saloon so she can punish the perpetrators. In other word, what she’s truly thirsty for is revenge.
Now I could be totally wrong about this. A revenge plot could be the farthest thing from the author’s mind. That’s the problem with making guesses based on a submission of only 300 words. So I apologize to the author if I’m completely off base. But at the same time, I feel compelled to point out that this would make a fantastic plot for a suspense novel.
Think about it. Ever since the disgusting revelations about Harvey Weinstein last year, there’s been a flood of news stories about men treating women with criminally horrible cruelty. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, we’re now all-too-familiar with the arrogant perversions of celebrities such as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. The disclosures have also tainted the reputations of several novelists whose books I admired: Sherman Alexie (author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why), and James Dashner (The Maze Runner), just to name a few.
I’m stunned by the depth and breadth of this reprehensible behavior. But, as my wife and daughter like to point out, the main reason why I’m so surprised is because I’m a man. Women have to deal with this crap all the time. My daughter is only sixteen but already she has to endure catcalls on the street. She tries to laugh it off, but I don’t think it’s funny. Not one damn bit.
So as I read today’s first-page piece, I started to think about the asymmetry of this kind of aggression. Because I’m a man, I’ve never been catcalled in my life. No man or woman has ever verbally belittled me on the street, despite the fact that there’s no shortage of possible insults that strangers could hurl at me — I’m short, I don’t shave very often, I dress like a slob. There seems to be an iron rule for interactions among strangers, definitely here in New York and probably elsewhere: men can feel free to insult women, but they almost never insult other men. And the reasoning behind this rule is very clear. If one man insults another on the street, there’s a good chance he’ll get socked in the jaw.
We like to think that we behave morally because of lessons that our parents or preachers taught us, or because of an innate sense of honor, or because it just seems more rational to act in a civilized way. But with many people and in many cases — like when entitled college kids get rowdy at frat parties, or when cocky corporate titans invite underlings to their hotel rooms — all the good angels fall silent, and the only thing that can stop despicable behavior is the fear of punishment or retaliation. And that’s why I love the idea of a wronged woman who goes to disreputable bars across the country (or just in her own state, Lord knows there’s enough of them) and actively seeks out misogynists of all types so she can punish and/or humiliate them.
The punishment could be physical and violent, like the kind that Charles Bronson doled out in Death Wish. I got the sense that Beverly Wikowski is someone you shouldn’t trifle with. She’s well aware of the impressions that her clothing and figure will make on the men in the Spar Pole Saloon, so much so that I wondered whether she’d chosen that particular costume to lure the men to their doom. Or perhaps the author has something cleverer in mind, maybe some kind of mental or spiritual torment that Beverly will inflict. Either way, readers will want to see what happens. They might continue to cheer on the protagonist even if her own mental compass starts to go haywire (which is what happens in Monster, the 2003 film, which has a similar revenge plot, now that I think about it).
In addition to being topical, the book might also have a beneficial effect on gender relations. If only one woman out of a hundred blackjacked any man who tried to sexually harass her, I bet the rate of harassment would plummet. And the example of a fictional character can also influence events in the real world. Just think of all the people who stopped swimming in the ocean because they read Jaws. So if “Cooper’s Loot” is published and widely read, maybe it’ll serve as a warning. The next time that some pervert thinks about exposing himself to a bunch of schoolgirls, maybe he’ll remember what Beverly Wikowski did to those men in the Spar Pole Saloon, and he’ll keep his pants zipped.
By the way, there’s a fair amount of good writing in these 300 words. Any writer who uses the verb “quaff” deserves some kudos. And I liked “loose in the skirt” too. A couple of criticisms: The odors of pulp mills and boiled cabbage are not quite the same, and in this case the comparison seems to weaken the sentence. I’d change it to “The odor of nearby pulp mills climbed inside her car, rode shotgun, sat in her lap, and filled the backseat.” That’s better, right? And I wondered about the pair of zits on Beverly’s neck. Is this a random physical trait, or is there some significance to it? It made me think of a vampire’s bite. It’s kind of distracting, so I’d cut this detail unless it’s important to the plot and/or character.
Any other thoughts on this submission, TKZ-ers?