Someone had told me, about Brizzolara, that he’d run through the money he got for Wirecutter and the subsequent books. They didn’t tell me, however, about the Hodgkin’s disease.
It was always night in the Hillcrest Club, one of those Southern California cocktail lounges with the red vinyl booths, artificial plants, Formica bar, and no windows. Anyone coming in off the street, no matter what time of day or night, had to stand in the doorway, blinking either fierce sunlight or blinding neon out of his eyes for a good thirty seconds before they adjusted to the greasy lighting inside.”
So opens John Brizzolara’s Wirecutter, first in a projected series of suspense novels set in what its author describes as the seamy underbelly of San Diego, recently issued in paper by Pocket and published in hardback in 1987 by Doubleday. Wirecutter’s sequel, Thunder Moon, is scheduled for publication in May 1990. Out this month in bookstores is Brizzolara’s first science fiction novel, Empire’s Horizon.
“After I sold Wirecutter and the paperback money came through, for a year I lived down in Mexico, between Rosarita and Ensenada. "
Late on a muggy Sunday afternoon, I met Brizzolara in a downtown bar. Like the fictional Hillcrest Club, it was one of those alcohol- and tobacco-fumed dives to which sun never comes. We sat on barstools wedged into a murky comer, our backs against the wall, the long, dim room before us. The Dodgers were playing the Giants. Dodger blue flickered off the TV screen across upturned faces. I said to Brizzolara,
“Guys in here could have stepped right out of your pages.”
He laughed, agreed. “What I called the Hillcrest Club in Wirecutter was in fact the now-defunct 601 Club, an old-timer’s shot-and-beer joint on University — a great bar, one of the only straight bars in Hillcrest. Where the 601 was, now there’s a Vietnamese restaurant.”
Brizzolara — six-one, 200 pounds, brown-eyed, bearded, dark curly hair long on the neck — does not look unlike Wirecutter’s narrator, Nathaniel York. I suggested this likeness, and Brizzolara — in the murk of our corner, his grin showed up as white teeth — said, yes, he did describe York as looking something like himself.
York lives at Third and Robinson, in a decaying, two-room bungalow that Brizzolara says is the kind of dump in which he’s always afraid he’ll someday end up. Aside from his Salvation Army couch and some mismatched cutlery and china, about all York keeps in his two rooms is a stereo on which he plays (as does Brizzolara) Mink Deville, Little Feat, Elmore James, Robert Johnson. York works as a bartender which Brizzolara has done — at Qwiigs and Mister A’s) and as a bouncer in a topless bar (which Brizzolara hasn’t done) called the Low Down in the book and drawn from the real-life Dirty Dan’s on Pacific Highway.
Brizzolara’s and York’s biographies part company past those similarities. One of eight children, Brizzolara, 38, was born and raised in Chicago, in an upper-middle-class Catholic home. One of his brothers is an actor, one sister is in a successful rock and roll band, another brother is a painter. In high school, he played bass guitar in a band that called itself Faith. He graduated from high school in 1968, spent the summer taking LSD in Lincoln Park, enrolled in Chicago Art Institute that fall, stayed several months, then quit when Faith began to make money. In 1969, the band split in half.
"it’s not a real savvy move, career-wise, to do a piece in one genre and turn around and do another piece in another genre."
Brizzolara’s half named itself Contact and came to San Francisco, where they played for several years in Bay Area clubs. In the early ’70s, Brizzolara moved to New York. With friends he formed the Pirates, playing, he said, “pretty straightforward rock and roll, blues, all of it with a bit of punky influence. We enjoyed a certain moment in that spring and summer of ’77.” By that year, he’d married and fathered a son — “named Geoffrey Byron, in a fit of literary pretension.” He’d also begun writing. In 1980, when Brizzolara’s father-in-law, living in San Diego, mentioned a “fixer-upper in Mission Hills” that he thought Brizzolara could buy, he and his wife and son moved to San Diego. That same year, he sold his first story to Weird Tales. Brizzolara, divorced now, lives in North Park and works as a bookseller at Hunter’s Books in La Jolla.
In Wirecutter, as Brizzolara tells it, “York falls in love with Juana, one of the Low Down dancers. She’s in her early 20s. Mexican. Doesn’t speak English very well. She’s been brought across the border by Vernon Walters, the club’s owner, to dance there. She makes all this money, more money than she’s ever seen before, and she sends it down to her brother — supposedly, he’s her brother — to be brought across the border by a pollero or coyote whom Walters recommends. And her brother never shows up. Juana doesn’t know what to do. She can’t go to the police. York is smitten by her. He is also the only one around the club who speaks Spanish. He draws her out, and she tells him about her brother, and he agrees to see if he can find out what happened to him, and so then he — York — gets into about 200 pages of trouble.”
About the title, Brizzolara says: “The Spanish word alambrista means, literally, wirecutter. This is the term that Mexican illegals use instead of mojados, or wetbacks, along this part of the border because you don’t have to cross a river to get here, just a fence.”
Wirecutter had its beginnings in 1984, with Brizzolara’s having listened for many years to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” — in whose minor-key opening bars one hears hints of the mission bells to which the lyrics refer; the bells’ tune suggests a malignant spirit at the bell ropes, tolling a black sabbath for a doomed congregation.
Brizzolara heard in the song “a certain bizarre narrative which hinted at something really strange going on.” He decided he’d write a horror novel called Hotel California, based on events implied in the song’s lyrics. He telephoned the Eagles’ management company’s legal department, explained what he wanted to do. He was told, “No way, you can’t use the lyrics, you can’t use the title.”
After Brizzolara hung up, he said, “Okay, I’ll just do it anyway and not call it Hotel California.”
“You see, I had this horror story going in my head in which I needed a lot of bodies which could not be traced. It occurred to me that the San Diego-Tijuana border provided such bodies every day — undocumented aliens.
“I knew I needed to do some research. In December 1984, I went out with the border patrol for two nights. An agent, Steve Garcia, a Puerto Rican guy from New York, took me out in his Ram Charger. We rode up and down the border. Had rocks thrown at us, that kind of thing. We picked up this kid who was drowning in the Tijuana River — he couldn’t swim. Garcia saved him.
“Then, down in Tijuana, I met this 18-year-old kid, a guy named Danny Lopez, a coyote. He was real happy to talk to me about what he did, and how.
“The more I found out about the circumstances of undocumented aliens, the more I saw that this actual situation was far more interesting than the fantastic horror story premise I had, which had begun to sound more and more bogus to me. The facts of what went on at the border promised a far better story than that implied by the lyrics of the pop song.
“Then the whole slant, structure, and underpinning of my story shifted. I recognized this could be done as a straight novel about events that occur in real life.
“I loved Raymond Chandler. I’d always wanted to write a detective novel. But I didn’t know enough about detectives or cops, and I had no idea what a private investigator does.”
“So you came up with Wirecutter s hero, York?”
‘Anti-hero, more likely. The gimmick with York is that he’s on the edge, he’s basically a marginal slob.”
“Like men in James M. Cain’s novels?”
“Exactly. Like the guy in Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. He’s a guy who only wants to earn a living and get through his life with the least amount of trouble possible.
“I saw everything about York in a couple of pages, a couple of lines of dialogue. He’s a wiseass. Says things a lot of people would like to say and get away with. He doesn’t always get away with it. But he says what he says anyway.
“This implied a whole other set of characteristics about York. He’s the Byronic hero in the sense that you don’t ever know much about him. Just a few facts about his background. He’s a guy who takes drugs and drinks too much. He’s worked as a bouncer, as a bartender, served in Vietnam. His Vietnam experiences informed a lot of his sensibilities, but he doesn’t go on about Vietnam. He’s pretty cynical, weary. And other than that, it’s up to the reader’s imagination.
“The theme of Wirecutter is the border, the line between one thing and the other. That theme is played with throughout the book. That’s always there. Even with York.
He, for instance, always tries to do the right thing. But at any point, he can cross over the line to being a very bad guy. At any moment, he could become indistinguishable from the people he’s up against.
“He’s also the kind of guy who gets involved in things. A little like Travis McGee in the John D. MacDonald series, he has this affinity for people in trouble. I feel kind of sorry for him — he learns everything the hard way. But I probably won't give him any rest for the next few books. He’s got to get in one bad situation after another.”
York is not, Brizzolara added, “just some macho jerk. You can tell by some of the asides that he makes, his reflections. He’ll look at a marsh hawk in the sunset or dolphins in the surf. I don’t have him being kind to any dogs or children, but he probably is.”
“Did you miss York during the time between finishing Wirecutter and starting Thunder Moon?”
“I did. I really did. I missed writing in his voice. I’d be real happy to keep writing about him. I like him.”
York, fired from his job at the Low Down, gets a gig tending bar in a yacht club at Silver Sands Shores, a “waterfront community” built on a landfill road between Coronado and Imperial Beach. One Friday night, Rachel Cole ties up her 80-foot Hatteras at the club dock. Pocket’s blurbs offer about Rachel: “Her home was a vast palace of illicit pleasure — and secret temple of a ghoulish cult. She invited York in — but getting out again was up to him.” (What the blurb doesn’t mention is that the home to which Rachel invites York — with its courtyard, bell tower, its “pretty, pretty boys” in attendance — is the structure the Eagles describe as Hotel California.)
Brizzolara has York say about Rachel: “I figured Rachel Cole for her early 50s. She wore her chestnut hair tied back tightly in a bun, gold hoop earrings and a white jumpsuit that was probably real silk. She had a figure that would turn the collar on a Jesuit and she knew it.”
Out of what materials did Brizzolara develop Rachel?
“There’s a woman I met when I was tending bar here in San Diego, in a place I’m not going to mention. She was a hooker in San Diego who became a madam. She began as a cocktail waitress in a very famous restaurant here in town.
She started doing tricks, and then she started soliciting other girls to trick. She became a successful madam. Made good money. Started buying up real estate in downtown San Diego. Welfare hotels. She made a fortune when the Gaslamp renovation came through down here.
“I loved her. Thought she was great. Very honest. Straightforward. Like Rachel, she was about 50. She had this tremendous sexuality and real classiness. I imagined her in a situation similar to that woman in the ‘Hotel California.’ ”
Quoting a line from that song: “They stabbed her with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast,”
Brizzolara posed what was obviously a rhetorical question — “It’s like, ‘What does that mean? What kind of thing does this imply?’ ”
And then answered the question. “It’s pure imagination. The beast being, more or less: what’s the worst possible thing that can happen to these people in Wirecutter? So I came up with Rachel as this psychotic version of this very wealthy and sexually attractive woman in order, in part, to make that ‘worst possible thing’ happen.
“Also, Rachel was the right foil. York has two important encounters with women in Wirecutter. There are the scenes with York and Juana, which are soft-focus, even tender sex scenes. There are the scenes with York and Rachel, they’re like this grudge fuck. Almost S&.M. I wanted the contrast.” “The scenes with York and Rachel,” I said, “remind me of the sex scenes in Postman. All that biting.”
“That was very steamy, wasn’t it, Postman? A very steamy book. I like that. I think it’s wrong to shy away from what happens. Writers who cut away to smoking in the dark afterwards — it’s not delivering the goods. It’s deliberately
choosing not to write about a certain part of the life of your characters.”
Rachel has on her staff a guru, Ian Broctor, once leader of “a cult commune out of Santa Cruz or Santa Barbara that made headlines in 1970.” What about him?
Broctor, said Brizzolara, also came out of his “Hotel California” idea and is “the only really gothic, weird element in the novel. He’s a Charles Manson, Rasputin-type guy. That sort of character has always intrigued me. Whatever. I wanted to do it, see if I could get away with it.”
“You did. Get away with it.”
Had Brizzolara read Joseph Wambaugh’s nonfiction Lines and Shadows? (It’s described in the Bantam paper edition as telling the story of “a squad of tough cops called the Border Crime Task Force ... a commando team sent to patrol the snake-infested no-man’s-land south of San Diego. Not to apprehend the thousands of illegal aliens slipping into the U.S., but to stop the ruthless bandits who preyed on them nightly.)
“I certainly have. It came out at the time I was writing Wirecutter. At first I put it aside, wondering if I should read it at all. Finally, I did, and although I didn’t care that much for the characters he portrayed, I thought it was a good piece of reportage. Certainly what he was describing, he described accurately, he got it right.”
For Wambaugh, an ex-cop, I noted, writing gunplay should be fairly simple. I asked Brizzolara how he got right the shootings and weapons in Wirecutter. He answered by saying that he’d certainly never shot anybody nor seen anyone shoot anybody. He had seen the results of a shooting. “In New York, in a fleabag hotel I was staying in — the Hotel Bretton Hall — at 75th and Broadway. I used to call it the Bretton Hole. This guy was slumped in the doorway. People were going by saying, ‘Whatsa matter, is he sick?’ Somebody put a coat over him. I looked at the guy and saw he had some holes in him. I said, ‘I don’t think that coat’s gonna do anything for him. He’s dead.’ I discovered that day that a dead body that’s been shot at is really kind of prosaic: a person who once was a person laying very still, with holes in him.
“As for guns, I can probably use a gun, but guns are not one of my things, and I was never in the Army. So I had to do a lot of research at the library about guns. Every gun that’s fired in Wirecutter actually contains the number of bullets that gun can contain. Nobody’s firing 17 shots from a .45. That’s always bugged me when it happens in detective fiction.”
I complimented Brizzolara on a scene in which, during a torrential rainstorm, York, in his ’75 Maverick with its bald tires, is pursued by two men in a Jeep Renegade down a twisting, steep-pitched mountain road. I said, “I was gripping the book so hard, my knuckles were white.”
“That’s genre writing. That’s almost pulp writing. I’ve always loved that stuff. I’m so sick of car chases. But I figured, there’s a reason for this stuff. You need something suspenseful at certain points. I decided I could do this, but I didn’t need to have a conventional car chase.
“I’ve always hated those Jeep Renegades. And I was driving the car York was driving. I had this love-hate relationship with that car, so I sent it off a cliff. York should’ve been killed, right there. But of course, if he’d been killed, the book would have ended about page 180.”
“Do you know how a book’s going to end when you begin writing?”
“I started out life as a musician, and I believe in the wisdom of improvisation. You ought always to give yourself room to improvise. I did, though, know the end with Wirecutter. I didn’t so much with Thunder Moon. But as I’ve written the latter, I began to see the ending; and now I’m holding this ending out to myself as a carrot on a stick that I’m typing toward. That’s the ideal situation, where I can see the story and simply spit out what happened as it physically did. That’s what you live for: when characters start breathing and dictating their dialogue, and you’re racing to type.”
I’d heard, I said, that he’d made money on Wirecutter.
“More than I expected to make. I got an advance of $8500 from Doubleday for the hardcover, and then I sold the paperback rights for ten grand to Pocket, and I got another three grand for royalties, and I optioned it to the movies, three times, for twice that whole amount. I didn’t get rich on it. However, as each book appears, it will bolster the sales of the previous books.”
Brizzolara puts in a 40-hour week at Hunter’s. Had he ever had the opportunity to work only as a writer?
“After I sold Wirecutter and the paperback money came through, I did. For a year I lived down in Mexico, between Rosarita and Ensenada. I did nothing but write. I found all this nonregimented time was a problem I’d never had before. Sometimes I would get terrific stretches of writing accomplished, and then I would go for days staring out windows at pelicans and dolphins and not doing anything.”
During the last six months, Brizzolara has worked simultaneously on finishing the science fiction Empire's Horizon and Thunder Moon. He’d never again, he said, do two books at the same time. “I think there’s wisdom in writing uphill on one book and downhill on another, but to actually be in the middle of two books at the same time is very schizophrenic. Writing a novel finds you dividing your mind among several different characters. To do two books, two wildly different books, is madness.
“Science fiction is something I read a lot as a kid. I’m not a scientist, I don’t know an electron from a neutron. In Empire’s Horizon, I had to create a world and also do the things other writers do — characterization, dialogue, plot. I think the readers for Wirecutter might be a little puzzled by Empire’s Horizon.
“But I don’t want to be pigeonholed. Of course, it’s not a real savvy move, career-wise, to do a piece in one genre and turn around and do another piece in another genre. As a writer, I’m kind’ve the world’s oldest debutante. All my short fiction appeared in science fiction magazines — Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, Amazing Stories, Twilight Zone Magazine, Weird Tales — and then I turn around and do a horror piece for Whispers, a horror anthology. And with my first novel, I make my debut in detective fiction. I keep making these debuts.”
Why did Brizzolara try to write the science fiction and the second York book at one time?
“Money. I got the contract on the synopsis for a science fiction book, and I needed the money, and it was a book I always wanted to write.
“Also, in February 1986, I got diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a malignant proliferation of the lymph tissue. Some doctors refer to it as ‘the young person’s cancer.’ If properly treated, about 70 percent of people apparently recover. And I’m apparently one of that 70 percent. But for 14 months, I was being treated for that, with chemotherapy. During that time, I was so sick I couldn’t concentrate, and writing went by the wayside for all that time.
“I think the science fiction novel may reflect all that, in some ways. I think the second York book — Thunder Moon — may reflect it even more. In this second book, York finds he’s being hunted down by someone who wants him dead, but he can’t find this guy who wants to kill him. This was a therapeutic metaphor for me in dealing with the Hodgkin’s disease, this ‘someone or something that wants you dead.’ In my case, it was my own body; it was me.
“Thunder Moon’s action considers what it’s like to be stalked, to be under a prolonged period of stress, and how York deals with it, which is better than how I dealt with it.”
We sat for a while, then, not saying much.
Someone had told me, about Brizzolara, that he’d run through the money he got for Wirecutter and the subsequent books. They didn’t tell me, however, about the Hodgkin’s disease, and I felt bad about my line of questioning, which was a cheap try at following the money. I felt bad, too, because, having learned about the Hodgkin’s, I knew I would ask how his bout with the disease changed him. My first boss told me, paraphrasing Joan Didion: “Writing is ripping people off.” It is. While I thought about what a bum thing it was I did for money, and while the Dodgers and Giants, tied 2-2 since the 8th inning, headed into the top of the 11th, we lit cigarettes and got more beer. Then we watched the bartender polish glasses and listened to him josh a woman about her behavior of the night before.
“Being a bartender, that’s one.of those jobs everyone thinks is a great source of material,” Brizzolara said. “And it is. But tending bar is so draining, exhausting. I rarely had energy to write after tending bar until two in the morning here, or, in New York, until four in the morning.”
Brizzolara liked drinking in “old-timers’ shots-and-beer joints” back East and tried, when he moved to San Diego, to find similar places and found few. “And now,” he said, “there are all these yuppie bars where I feel extremely uncomfortable.
“For sitting around drinking, I prefer bars where I find characters like those in the first section of Wirecutter, men like Bananas. He was a real guy — called himself Potatoes.
He’s probably still alive, probably still drinking.
“Cannibalizing people for parts of their lives, there’s where the vulture-like aspect of being a fiction writer comes in. In a way, it’s kind of unsavory; but I suppose, in the end, it’s a necessary function, it validates lives.”
“Why do you feel you need to justify what you do? Say ‘It validates lives’?”
“Because I keep thinking I should be doing some more honest kind of work. Being a nurse. A paramedic. I don’t know. Something immediately useful. Maybe it has to do with my Catholic upbringing.”
“Carpenters get lumber. So you’ve got all the old guys in bars.”
“True. I guess it’s just my job. I’m not terribly unhappy about it. But it’s true that I see lifeguards, for instance, and I think, ‘Gee, they do something great every day.’ ”
A writer, Brizzolara continued, “doesn’t get a plaque to hang on his wall saying he’s a doctor or a lawyer. When you’re a writer, it’s, ‘What have you done lately?’ You have to keep reaffirming your own validity.
“Basically, I guess, I see my job as being a storyteller. I’m the guy around the campfire who doesn’t hunt very well or gather nuts and berries efficiently but who still wants to be fed at the end of the night. Therefore, I tell stories.”
So I asked: had the Hodgkin’s disease changed him?
"It did. It certainly did change a lot of things. The things that come to mind are all cliches. They’ve been said. But what it comes down to is so simple but so true, that it’s better to be alive than to be dead. In some way, I never really knew that before.”
Then I changed the subject. “You’ve lived here nine years now. What do you make of California?”
“I am probably far more in love with the state than I think. I hate it in lots of ways. It’s trivial, shallow, gaudy, the promises that it holds out to people too often don’t come true. Nathanael West wrote about this best years ago, in the late ’30s, in Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust. What West wrote about — broken promises, the cheats that people sense, moving out here — has only become more pronounced.”
This sense of the state as a place that tantalizes immigrants with the promise of happy endings and then dashes their hopes, said Brizzolara, makes California “a particularly rich area for novelists and particularly for writers of detective novels. This fiction focuses upon the peculiar, even grotesque events that take place as a result of broken promises, the actually imaginary promises, promises not fulfillable in the real world, that people carry around in their heads.
“People come out here chasing a dream — the rock and roll dream, the new-age dream, Hollywood dream — everyone has his own version. And in California, as everywhere else in the world, 99 percent of the time, the dream goes sour, gets incredibly bent out of shape, perverted, turns into something else than its original intent. The dreamer feels cheated out of something, he snaps.
“Then too, there exists here a sense of license — ‘Come to California, do your own thing, get in touch with yourself,’ blah, blah, blah. People run smack up against themselves.
“Ray Bradbury,” Brizzolara continued, “talking about detective fiction set in California, described it as ‘the literature of sadness and strange endings on the California coast.’ And this has always made sense to me. The land itself is stunning, visually. There’s everything — desert, mountains, ocean, farmland, flatlands, beach. You take away all the people here, the culture, the freeways, the neon, and what it is basically is a nice patch of geography, a truly beautiful place. So human frailty, human venality, evil shows up pretty starkly against this background.”
Brizzolara laughed. “So it is that California offers a setting in which you can play with these themes about which we’ve talked better than you can in Ohio.”
We talked some, then, about how many detective and suspense novels are set in California. We listed the writers of these novels who use California settings: Chandler, James Ellroy, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald, Robert Campbell, A.E. Maxwell, Jefferson Parker, Kern Nunn, Julie Smith, Marcia Mullers, Gregory MacDonald, Sue Grafton, Joseph Hansen. We knew we hadn’t begun to name even half the names.
“The best of them all,” said Brizzolara, “is Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. It’s genuine literature. I’ve been in love with Chandler for years, probably too much so. He turned me on in a big way, mainly because his boozy romantic character of Marlowe was somebody to whom I could really relate. Last year on Chandler’s birthday — this is embarrassing — I went by his house and even knocked on the door. I asked the guy that answered if this was where Chandler lived. He said yes, and I said, ‘Well, I only wanted to stop by and take a look at it.’ We stood there a minute, and then he said, ‘Well, fine, you did. You took a look.’ That same day, I made a pilgrimage out to Chandler’s grave in the cemetery at Mount Hope. I love the guy.”
Was there anything that seemed to make San Diego particularly intriguing for Brizzolara, as a writer?
“Hammett, in, I think, one of his Continental Op stories, described San Diego as a dusty little town, a train stop just on the other side of Tijuana, where he had to stash a witness. San Diego is still a frontier, except there’s less dust and more neon and more concrete. San Diego specifically interests me because thousands of people a day are moving here, legal and illegal migrants, and so what we’ve got all around us is a boomtown frontier atmosphere. It’s Dodge City every night out there in Otay Mesa.
“Living in San Diego is not like living on the border between Canada and the U.S., where the cultures are so similar. The difference here is striking. It is a geographical and a psychological frontier, an area in which two wildly different cultures and standards of living meet. It’s a kettle with the burner cranked up. A writer couldn’t wish for anything better in the way of setting or place.”
Had Brizzolara ever walked in a restaurant, say, or gotten onto a plane or bus and seen a stranger reading Wirecutter?
“No,” he shook his head. “But it’s a fantasy I have, to see somebody on the beach reading this book and walking up to them and asking them how they like it. At Hunter’s, shoppers will ask me for recommendations. I’m such a boor, I will pick up Wirecutter and, without saying I’m its author, tell them, ‘This is really good.’
“When I was living in Mexico, there were a couple of customs guys I ran into who asked, ‘Are you the guy that wrote Wirecutter?’ Yeah, I’d say; and they’d tell me, ‘It was pretty good.’
“I look at Wirecutter now and re-read bits in it and think, ‘Damn, that’s not bad.’ I remember while writing it, however, my agonizing, my thinking, ‘This is nonsense, melodramatic, gothic, preposterous, terrible. Not only will I never get it published, but anyone I submit it to will make sure I never get published anywhere.’
“So I’ve been very gratified at the critical acceptance of the book. All the critics pretty much liked it.
“Wirecutter was perceived as violent, and I don’t know why this perception surprised me, because much of the book’s action is violent. The New York Times called Wirecutter ‘As violent as anything you are going to read this or any other year.’ This turns as many people off as it induces to buy the book. I think the worst thing written about it was written in San Diego Magazine. A reviewer who prefers, I think, what are called ‘cozy murders’ — Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, that kind of thing — suggested that the book was ‘hard-boiled to the point of sadomasochism.’ Which is not necessarily, from my point of view, a negative comment. That, I figured, as with The New York Times review, would sell a few more books.”
Brizzolara recalled an evening when, together with three other suspense writers, he was invited to Grounds for Murder, a San Diego mystery bookstore, to discuss his work. “There was some controversy about Wirecutter. Phyllis Brown, the store’s owner, seemed concerned about the violence in the book. I took issue with her, suggesting that a certain fascination with violence is kind of a given factor in this field and that, further, if you open a bookstore which specializes in mysteries, you have to admit to at least a passing fascination with violence.
“She, as do many people, apparently prefers the cozy mystery, with a body that doesn’t smell bad found tidily arranged in the hydrangea garden under the vicar’s window. Agatha Christie tells a great story, sure, but that whole school of mystery fiction is objectionable to me. I think it’s basically dishonest. Not that violence needs to be treated in a lovingly graphic way, but it should be treated for what it is: sudden, and brutal, and shocking, and nasty.
“The violence I portray in Wirecutter is not gratuitous. It’s what happens to people. A lot worse happens in actual life than what I described. It’s probably happening now. Tonight, in Otay Mesa. If not tonight, tomorrow night. Somebody will get robbed there, beaten, raped, murdered.”
Brizzolara insisted, however, that Wirecutter wasn’t written to propound a message: “Who is it, some movie producer, said, ‘If you got a message, use Western Union. If you give a moral, get a soap box’?
“If I get the sense that a writer in fiction is delivering some kind of message, heavy-handedly, or departing from the text to speak in his own voice and tell you something is good or bad, forget it, that’s the end of my reading experience with that book. You can describe, you can let an event speak for itself. But the writer doesn’t need to tell the reader who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
“But that the book was described by several critics as violent bothered me enough so that in Thunder Moon I don’t spur York into a murder spree. Of course people are getting killed all around him, and the fact that relatively innocent people — inasmuch as anyone’s innocent — do get killed, bothers York. In Thunder Moon, he thinks about this. It’s one of the problems he has. ‘What is it about me?’ he asks himself.”
Readers of detective fiction who object to the genre’s violence, said Brizzolara, seem to him to have a hypocritical fascination with violence. “They’re fascinated but they don’t want to examine the source of their own fascination.”
The source of the fascination?
“Death, their own mortality, the question of ‘What’s the worst possible thing that could happen to me without my dying.’ ”
It was the 12th inning. The Dodgers had loaded the bases. There was shouting at the bar as a long fly to center scored what would be the winning run. I asked Brizzolara if he followed baseball. He said he had, but not as much recently. “The temptation for a writer is to sit and write all the time. But I recognize that you have to have a life apart from your writing life. Something about which to write other than writing and books.”
So Brizzolara plays music, alone and with friends. “For me, playing is contemplation, meditation, or like going to the gym or ... something. Even when I’m writing, if my back starts to hurt or I get distracted, I walk around the house playing Muddy Waters tunes on my acoustic Yamaha. Music is a big thing to me. It’s vital. Listening, really surrendering to music, can help a fiction writer to make the narrator’s voice acceptable to the ear. I’m doing all this talking right now, but generally my habit is to listen.” □
Among the crop of contemporary science fiction and thriller novels, Brizzolara’s current favorites are:
The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley
Replay, Ker Grimwood
Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess
Brothers, William Goldman
Song of Kali, Dan Simmons
The Neon Rain, James Lee Burke
Deserted Cities of the Heart, Lewis Shiner
The Penal Colony, Richard Herley
Cold in July, Joe R. Lansdale
The Ideal, Genuine Man, Don Robertson
The following excerpts are taken from John Brizzolara’s Wirecutter.
I kept drinking my beer and resumed my conversation with Bananas — a sixty-seven-year-old, shell-shocked Anzio vet and a pleasant drunk — a great guy to talk to when you didn’t have anything in particular to say and felt like saying it.
“Why is it,” 1 asked him, “that every joint like this one in San Diego County has plastic ferns? I mean anything will grow in this part of the country, even in the dark, choked by alcohol and tobacco fumes. Why phony plants? You tell me that.”
The old man smiled a gummy smile and said the only thing I’d ever heard him say in the three years I’d known him, the only thing anyone had heard him say — as far as I know — since Anzio. “God bless America,” he intoned, “nickel and dime.”
That was Bananas’ act. His entire act except for holding out his thumb and forefinger horizontally when he wanted another shot of Kessler. More often than not he made as much sense as anyone else in that place.
As I was agreeing with Bananas, I noticed the two guys who had just come in sidle down the bar toward me. A San Diego Gas and Electric worker on the barstool next to mine decided it was time to take a leak. The taller guy, sleek black razor-cut hair, Wayne Newton mustache and knife scar at the edge of one eye, occupied the vacated seat. He turned and spoke to me in quiet Spanish, smiling like we were old friends. He looked vaguely familiar, but we weren’t old friends. I had a nagging suspicion we weren’t going to be new friends either.
“You are a very nosy cabr'on,” he said. The smile he wore was like a cellophane bag that was making it hard for him to breathe.
I didn’t say anything, no gems came to mind.
“Very nosy, much huevos, eh? You must be tough, such a curious little cat. You are tough, eh?”
“Just who in hell are you?” — a reasonable question I thought — “or would that be telling?” Actually, I now recognized both him and his partner as the pimps I had seen around Coahuila. I noticed his friend had maneuvered himself toward the rear door and was pretending to study the jukebox.
“I asked you if you were a tough guy.” His smile was history now. I was quickly trying to figure why a Tijuana pimp who looked like Conan the Barbarian in a Pierre Cardin suit and his sidekick would follow me across the border and pick a fight in a San Diego bar, but nothing added up. Okay, they weren’t pimps.
I tapped the photo indicating the boy in the Western shirt, his thumbs hooked into his Levi’s. “This is who I’m looking for. His sister lives here now. She sent money to him to pay a pollero to bring him across. She told him to see a man with pockmarks somewhere in Coahuila. Said his name was Morelos, but of course everyone’s name is Morelos, no? I didn’t know his name was Nabor.” I smiled at him. “Anyway, this Herman Villez paid somebody. He was supposed to meet his sister in San Ysidro. He never showed. She hasn’t heard from him and she’s worried.”
I walked back to the Hillcrest through my neighborhood — the only area in San Diego, aside from the Barrio in Logan Heights, that you could really call a neighborhood. A lot of the old residents were complaining about the number of gays coming in opening boutiques featuring unicorns and X-rated greeting cards. It didn’t bother me except that it was hard to find a place to drink without a guy in a mustache and work boots singing Streisand songs or some overweight girl in a flannel shirt calling you “Jocko.” When the area wasn’t being called “Homo Hill” it was called “Little Saigon.” The Vietnamese opened restaurants, barber shops, delicatessens, flower shops and produce stands. Unicom boutiques and hair salons came and went, but the immigrant businesses did a solid trade.
Sometimes during the rainy season I would stand outside the Phuong Nam and listen to the waiters or the old men who gathered at the Number One Barber Shop and I would close my eyes to find myself in another time, another life.
At the detention center a woman behind a sliding glass window asked me my business. I told her I was a reporter for the San Diego Reader doing a piece on the treatment of illegals by the San Diego Border Patrol. As just a curious citizen 1 could wait weeks or months to get clearance and then I would get only the sunshine tour, but as a representative of the press I hoped I would have a little leverage if I needed it. She told me to have a seat and wait for a Mr. Weintraub.
“So, you’re with the Reader,” he said, standing.
“If I sell them this story, I am. I’m free-lance.”
“Then the Reader didn’t send you here?”
“You’re writing this article on ... whattyacallit? Speculation?” “Right.”
“You didn’t tell the receptionist that.”
“It didn’t come up.” I smiled, trying to look like a clever cub reporter.
He didn’t smile back. “You mind if I ask who you’ve written for in the past?”
“I wrote for the Village Voice in New York. I did stringer stuff for the Daily News back there. I did a story on the American Nazi Party for Rolling Stone last year, a piece on male pattern baldness for Esquire ... ” I was just getting going when he interrupted me.
“I never read any of those ...” He thought and then said,
“publications.” He said it as if it were a clever euphemism for toilet paper. “I don’t read the San Diego Reader either.”
“Over a hundred thousand people in this county do.” I made up their circulation figure.
I ignored the small army of guys hawking body and upholstery work along Third Avenue and parked at Tijuana Tillie’s — 260 pesos, or about $1.75, all day. Walking north along Revolucion, I passed blocks of ceramic figurines of everything from Darth Vader to the Virgin of Guadalupe, mass-produced blankets in Day-Glo colors, velvet paintings of crying Elvises and billiard-playing dogs, suede rifle cases and leather jackets. It was only late afternoon, but the discos were beginning to crank up for the night. Sailors from North Island and trainees from Miramar were already drunk outside The Long Bar. Marines from Camp Pendleton were smoking “Horseshit” cigarettes and leaning against taxicabs or having their pictures taken in madcap poses on zebra-striped burros. Families from Phoenix or Duluth or Sacramento paraded up and down the street with gag T-shirts, Japanese cameras and waxen expressions, pausing now and then to ask a vendor how much his wares were in “real money.”
Two blocks later and I was walking downhill into the shadowed, crowded Barrio where the tourists don’t find much that’s quaint or charming: Coahuila, or “the little village.” It lies between Revolucion, Constitucion and the bottom of the hill where the overflow from backed-up sewers silts up. This is the section of town where all the myths about T.J. originate. Like the one about bars where you can see a girl screw a donkey, or the one about every little kid’s sister being available for a price, or the one about how you can get anything you want in the way of drugs, stolen goods and weapons from some sloe-eyed pirate. Myself, I’d never seen a girl screw a donkey — I suspected that that particular show closed somewhere back in the forties — but the rest were no myths.
“Why are you looking for the boy?”
“Why does anybody look for anything? He’s missing.”
“He’s a wirecutter? A pollo?”
I drank my beer.
“Then he’s dead. Otay Mesa is full of unmarked graves. Look for him there.”
“Why do you say that?”
She laughed and shrugged. “That’s the best information you’ll get here. I won’t charge you for it.”
When I turned the key in my hotel room door, I discovered it was no longer locked. I tried to swing it open but something was blocking it about halfway. I stepped back from the door and to the left as the cops do in movies when they pull their .38s and yell, “Police!”
I didn’t have a .38 and all I could think of to yell was, “Hey!” The silence was something I could feel high in my chest and on the back of my neck.
After a full ten seconds had passed, I knelt on the floor of the hallway and craned my neck around the bottom of the oorjamb. I was looking at the sole of a size-ten shoe, top pointed downward. Beyond that I could see a liver-spotted hand stretched palm upward toward the bedpost on the floor. A silver cufflink glistened against a patch of starched white shirt. The shoes were polished wing tips, the pants were charcoal gray with permanent polyester creases. Sunday best. I stood up and shifted position so that I could see that the room was empty except for the old man. I got up and stepped over him. I knelt and put a finger against the scholar’s neck and saw where he had been hit in the back of the head.
There was no blood, just an ugly mark that looked like a bruise on a grapefruit. His skin was colder than a San Francisco summer.
His other hand was closed over a matchbook cover from La Charrita. In pencil I had written “Azteca de Oro #4.”
I picked up the phone next to the bed. It was as dead as the bartender but that didn’t mean anything. It was just a telephone in Tijuana.
I drove up 15 to Rancho Santa Palma. It took about twenty minutes. The sun had set but the clouds were still stained with the color of cheap California ros£ wine. I passed General Dynamics and Miramar Naval Air Station, reminders that paradise is ground zero. Fighter planes floated gracefully toward or away from the landing fields like slow, outsized and deadly insects.
Rancho Santa Palma was the place for money. New or old, it didn’t matter. Coronado and
La Jolla had the old money in San Diego, places like Rancho Bernardo and Carlsbad had the new money, but none of them had as much of it as Rancho Santa Palma. I drove through the town itself, which was nothing but a dozen banks and twice as many liquor stores, until I found the street I wanted. The address on the Rolodex card took me to a winding country road lined with eucalyptus, manicured yucca, oleander and hibiscus trees dotted with wrought iron gates and tasteful mailboxes at the mouths of discreetly shaded driveways. Santa Palma Drive snaked its way up the mesa and the driveways got more manicured, tasteful and discreet.
Walter’s house was at the top of the hill, set back from the cul-de-sac “vista point” that looked out on Lake Hodges, Escondido and Mira Mesa. The mailbox was guarded by a pair of small jockeys with their faces painted black.
The gate was de rigueur wrought iron and locked. A wolfs head was fashioned into the spiked bars and the name “Walters” was emblazoned in gold leaf above the intercom box. 1 got out of my car and pressed the talk button.
Walters put a robe over his milky pink body. He wasn’t fat so much as shapeless and doughy. “You must be York," he said in his mellow voice. He smiled and put on his square, rimless glasses. Now he looked like a Hollywood Nazi... or an Orange County evangelist. “If I tell Carlos to let you go, will you sit down and behave yourself?”
“Tell me where Juana is and I’ll think about it.”
The Silver Sands Shores is what they call a “waterfront community.” It was built on a landfill road between Coronado, an island full of wealthy retired admirals living with their parents, and Imperial Beach, a shabby border town full of bikers and rednecks. The Shores was the kind of place you might like to live after your first million if boats and Bloody Marys were your idea of a good time. The houses were all too close together as if they were huddling and afraid of something, the lawns looked like postage stamps and the trees and shrubbery were as calculated as a corporate tax return. Outside of everyone’s sliding glass kitchen door was a ramp leading to a slip with a boat that was hopefully bigger than the neighbor’s boat. There was no one on the streets or the patios, all the Chryslers and Lincolns were in their garages behind remote-control doors, I didn’t see any bicycles or roller skates and no one was on the boats; they just sat there in a row, covered with canvas like half-bleached white sea elephants, skewered by masts and cobwebbed with rigging.
It looked like everyone had died and gone to Republican heaven.
In a hushed voice he said, “Mrs. Cole sits on the Coastal Commission, and she’s tight with the mayor —’ he paused for emphasis — “and the governor. Here.” He crossed the room and grabbed a magazine from the stack of free ones on the Welcome Aboard table. There were magazines like Senior Citizen, San Diego Log, Yachting Life and Golden Years. He opened Bridge and Bay to a spread of pictures. There was Rachel Cole with the mayors of San Diego ... and Coronado. “She’s very, very important, my friend ... and last night, well... you’re in a position of responsibility here and what she saw going on ... ”
“Relax, Commodore. She thinks I’m refreshing. She’s having a great time, loves the place.”
Rachel Cole was seated in a sunken conversation pit off to the left. Her fingers played with the hair of some Hollywood starlet I had seen on television, but whose name I couldn’t remember. The starlet had her hand on Rachel’s thigh. They were both listening to a man whose back was to me. Another man next to him nodded gravely. He was the Republican congressman from my district.
Walters and the congressman looked at me. “Jesus Christ!” Walters said. “What the hell is he doing here? Rachel, is this some amusing party game of yours?”
I swung and hit him along the side of his left eye. His glasses flew across the room and he went to the floor of the conversation pit, head first.
I went after him. The congressman tried to stop me and I pushed him aside. I lifted Walters by his lapels. “Get up,” I said. “Where’s Juana?”
Rachel clapped her hands. “Yes, get up, Gene, and tell us about this Juana.”
“Juana told Liz she was calling from Las Vegas. Said she had a job up there dancing. She asked about you, said she tried to call you, but you weren’t home. According to Liz, she’s doing great. Walters has her in a house with a pool, parties, hobnobbing with Vegas wise guys, like that. If you still have any ideas about her being a damsel in distress, I’d forget them.”
The drive south took a little over two hours. We stopped at a department store in Imperial Beach where I bought a pair of thick-framed reading glasses I could see through, some underwear, socks and a toothbrush. I changed five hundred dollars into pesos at a casa de cambio in San Ysidro.
Eight of us filed outside onto the dimly lit Avenido Segundo.
We marched in silence uphill toward the lights of El Centro and Mariachi Square. He led us a block west to First Avenue and then down into Coahuila. What was left of the sun was spread low across the sky like a fading bloodstain.
A group of boys lounging in a doorway called to us like a group of merry farmers summoning their chickens in for feeding. “Pollos, pollos, pollos. ;Aqui, pollos!”
It occurred to me that only twenty-four hours earlier I had been standing on Market Street in San Diego at a pay phone talking to Juana about her swimming pool and her new Pinto. It seemed like a lifetime ago and continents away, but it was only yesterday and fifteen miles from where I stood now waiting for a light to change with seven other people like myself with very little to lose.
We edged past bodies until we came to the windows overlooking the main road. He pointed across the street at a tall fence, cut and trampled in several places that I could see. Beyond it was the Tijuana River levee, bone dry. Beyond that, on a ridge, sat four Border Patrol Ram Chargers. Though I couldn’t see it, behind them, at the bottom of the ridge was Monument Road, a winding dirt track with farmhouses. In the distance beyond, I could make out the lights of Imperial Beach.
“C’mon, Jose. Back down.” The man, who sounded more like a boy, got up and sprinted for the canyon once again. Gunshots were still coming from below, illuminating the pitch walls like flashes of subterranean lightning. He disappeared over the edge just as the searchlight caught him. I could see that he held a knife in his hands and I remembered his name was Pedro.
Everything happened very fast. The pinned agent crouched over his boulder; guessing that a pair of shotguns, or maybe one double-barreled one, needed a few seconds to reload, he got off four rounds from his .357. I wished he hadn’t done that because two of his bullets ricocheted much too near me, one of them biting into the dirt just beneath my boot heel. The helicopter put in another appearance and bathed the whole scene in garish white light. The chopper hovered and skewered the two men behind the man-made rock break with a few thousand watts of brilliance. They were about ten feet from where I was.
One of them saw me.
The other one was aiming at the chopper. I pulled back the breech on my pistol and shot the guy who was about to shoot me. The gun jumped in my hand. I brought it back down, held it a little more firmly and shot him again. He collapsed and rolled downhill a few feet. The agent behind the boulder jumped out and got off two rounds that didn’t hit anything. It would have been hard.
The floor was covered with sleeping bodies. A double bed in the middle of the room held three adults and two children. I stepped on someone, who hissed and shifted his position to clear a path. Looking for a place to sit or even stand, I found myself in the bathroom of a motel room that should have been condemned during Kennedy’s administration. For all I knew, it had been.
Someone was sleeping in the shower stall. Someone else was sleeping next to the toilet. A woman with gray streaks in her hair was sleeping on the toilet, her head on the tank. A child lay under the sink. I backed out of the bathroom and leaned against a vinyl plastic wall that gave way to my weight. I fell into a closet the size of a phone booth. Bingo. Bedtime.
When everyone was in position, Ryder said, “You men have been selected as the fittest wirecutters for our game. You have one hour to disperse in any direction you care to go.” One of the guards translated this into Spanish.
“This estate is one hundred and twenty-eight square acres. It’s surrounded by a high-voltage fence. There’s water out there, even some food hidden around. Of course there’s some fruit, berries, like that too. You will be hunted. Most of you will be killed. Any one of you who survives until sundown tomorrow night will be given a thousand dollars and transportation to anywhere in the United States.”
The gun lay in his open palm. I picked it up and held it to the side of his head while I felt for a pulse on his neck. He was still alive. One of his legs buckled, probably involuntarily, beneath me and I pulled the trigger. The bullet entered neatly and exited messily. After a second or two, blood spouted in a small stream from the entrance wound and covered the gun and my hand before I pulled it away.
I got up and my knees folded. Kneeling, I vomited some watery stuff, shook, felt the sweat cool everywhere on me. With detachment I watched myself scrape my hand and the gun into the dirt to clean the blood from them.
I took the radio from Carlos and gave him a little water. With the gun still on him I said, “Talk, fast. What the fuck is this?” “What do you mean? What do you think it is?”
“Why are you and Walters and all those fat-ass business types massacring unarmed people? Are you all completely fucking insane?”
First Rachel saw the dead man floating in her carp pond. 1 saw him too, and recognized him as the guy who had attempted to rape the Indian girl back in San Ysidro.
“They pay. It’s fun.”
I repeated what he said as if the words registered but didn’t mean anything.
“We do it two or three times a year. There’s a lot of guys that will pay ten grand for a weekend of game like this. That’s a lot of money. Give me some more water, I’m dying.”
From the ground floor, a set of wooden French doors swung open. Rachel Cole came running out onto the patio wearing a beige caftan and sandals. She was followed by Maria and the old mustached woman, Consuela.
First Rachel saw the dead man floating in her carp pond. I saw him now too and recognized him as the guy, Ed, who had attempted to rape the Indian girl in the trailer back in San Ysidro.
Back in the library I picked up the phone. It was Ybarra.
“Remember me, Jose Gato. Out in the canyons that night. I’ve got it for you, Ybarra. The north county money behind the Morelos thing. Proof. That’s all the proof you need. There’s also a small army of armed men up here, so bring help. You’ve got to do it fast, though.”
“Wait a minute, slow down. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I don’t have time.” I gave him the directions and the names of Rachel Cole and Eugene Walters. “You need choppers, Ram Chargers and a hundred guys if you can get them, all of them armed, you understand. Now is the time, the place is up for grabs. It’s me and a couple of kids holding this down. I’m exhausted ... there’s bodies all over the fucking place ... you’ll probably find mass graves... there’s records ... witnesses...” I stopped myself before I said, “They’re slicing up fucking virgins in the basement too.”
“Are you on drugs?”
“No. Look, I know what I sound like, but you won’t believe this shit. You’ve got to get some people up here.”
There was a long pause.
“We can’t go into some north county estate like the Marines because some guy named Jose Gato calls up with a story about bodies and guns. Did you call the police?”
“The police are no good. Look, you gave me a chance to turn this up. Well, I’m giving it to you. I’m handing it to you. This is it.”
“All right, the best I can do is get up there with as many units as I can round up, but it’s going to take a few hours and it’s not going to be any army. I’m going to need authorization. If I get it, I’ll call El Cajon sector, and Encinitas. I’ll come up on my own either way, but it’s going to take time, man. That’s all I can do.”
There had to be another route off the estate because I saw only a few of the four-wheel drives full of rapidly sobering businessmen high-tailing it back to Rancho Santa Palma, La Jolla, Bel Air, LAX or wherever they’d come from. The fire was winning its battle for prominence with the sunset that was now just a smudge of pink on the horizon.
By the end of September, low clouds had moved into San Diego for a month-long visit like a brood of damp, gray tourists from Seattle. I sat on the deck at Anthony’s at the Embarcadero eating oysters and drinking Beck’s. In two hours I would have to be at work behind the bar at the Whaler in Mission Valley, but that was two hours I could stare at the water or the sky, listen to the plaintive screeching of gulls and empty my thoughts into the bay.
Maria and I had stayed with Dick for two weeks until I found a job and a cheap apartment downtown. She moved in with me for a few days and then I drove her up to Santa Barbara — her original destination before being sidetracked for a year by Rachel Cole — where she had family. Dick had listened to what I told him, which wasn’t everything, with his usual stoic wariness. He didn’t press me for details or anymore than I wanted to go over. He had quit the Low Down and was getting ready for a six-month survival trip in the Sonora Desert. When he left, I’d take over his place.
Ybarra called me once to let me know that from what he could gather there was some kind of low-key investigation going on up at the estate. The FBI and the INS were crawling over the place and being very quiet about what they found. Nothing appeared in any newspaper except a brief account of the tragic fire and death of Southern California businesswoman, socialite and community leader Rachel Cole. He added that there was a guy from the San Diego Reader who wanted to dig into it. “His name is McGraw. He knows there’s something in it, I can’t talk to him, it’s hearsay to me. If you wanna try him ... what the hell? Maybe he can get it out.”
I told Ybarra no thanks, that I had a knack for getting people croaked and I was trying to break the habit. □
Copyright 1987 by John Brizzolara. Published by Doubleday.