Well, I never had a use for one before, but once I realized that the book I’d embarked on with good cheer would require services of that kind, he wasn’t far to find. My story was located in Northern California and up to Seattle and environs in a summer—2012—that would prove either transitional or transformational for the recreational use of grass (skunk, weed, marijuana, ganja) up and down the Left Coast’s faulted and flamboyant shores. I already had a cop who was involuntarily constrained from busting the people he wanted to because if he did it his town’s economy would fall into the pit and then who would say anything like Eureka about it?
I named this vengeful peace officer after a guy I liked, a free-jazz trumpeter I’d recorded with in Rhode Island in 1967, but his namesake made trouble for the good people in the story—principally a lower-mid level kid in the business and his worried mother—but I needed someone sneakier and more disturbing than Captain Bob Poholek, and I found him by glancing back to Paris in 1966; or rather found a model for him in a guy I’d encountered there on my first visit to Europe, between my junior and senior years at, yes, it was Brooklyn College.
He wasn’t a bad guy really, but he had a hopped-up, jagged manner, high intelligence, an edge of southern accent—not deep south, maybe Tennessee, Kentucky?—that he kept sheathed much of the time but did a little code-switching with. Wiry, early thirty-something, lank hair, crooked teeth he liked to show in a crooked grin—I’ll call him by the name he wears in Street Legal: Kennis Pitcher. He was trying to survive a crushing French divorce—his wife’s wealthy family had contrived to destroy his film business along with whatever the rest of his life in Paris was made of, and he was trying to lash his odds and ends together and take them out of town; first to Lyons and the south, and then the hell out of France entirely.
It had come to this: demoted from a high-luxe apartment on Avénue Montaigne (or somewhere like it) to crashing in one of the upstairs rooms of Shakespeare and Company, the nearly mythic bookshop just across the river from Notre Dame. Pitch’s manner was so abrasive no one there liked him much; even tolerance was wearing thin. One time I walked upstairs when I wasn’t expected and surprised him in the act of mainlining amphetamine into the crook of his arm with a full-scale hypodermic—not some lousy spike, you understand, but the real surgery-level item. He was embarrassed and nonplussed and hyper-talky, but I quickly assured him that I wasn’t going to say a word about it to the proprietor—the memorable George Whitman—or to anyone; he explained to me that he was dosing himself under the orders of his friend and shrink, one Jules, who’d told him it was the only way he’d be able to wire himself together till he was able to get out of Dodge. “Pitch” and I became some kind of friends. At nineteen gaining on twenty, I’d been around a few blocks but I’d never met anyone like him: the high intelligence, the sense of danger, the trace of cracker accent; I liked him both for himself and despite himself. I think we were both aware that I was in part doing some kind of character study. I helped him out in small ways and listened to him when other people had signed off on that gig. When I helped him get his truc to the Gare de Lyon he insisted on giving me a large, expensive, albeit broken radio—“You kin get it fixed easy, man, you’ll love it”—and so . . .
. . . even though he wasn’t a villainous guy at all, just an edgy fella in a painful bind, a mere forty-six years later I pressed his general affect and sense of rhythm into service in Eureka, California, as an alleged employee of the fictional Raleigh Inc., a tobacco company for which he was buying up properties on the sly for the future exploitation of the soon-come gigantesque expansion of the legal recreational ganja market. Of course he was working the angles and looking out for the chance to make his own score in the course of California’s expected Last Roundup before the Law came to town.
His voltage produced the dose of lightning-in-a-bottle the book required. I gave him a few scenes for me to take a glimpse of auld acquaintance and develop him toward actual villainy, and then, after a moment or so of hum and haw, tried giving him a girlfriend, a fine, attractive woman of a certain age—same as his: one side of forty or the other—and, in order to let him be more than just another generic entertaining sociopath, I walked them into the bedroom to see what might happen. No blood is shed, and what goes on in the anatomical sense, I feel sure, would be minuscule potatoes for even mild aficionados of S&M; what is most disturbing about Pitch and Anne’s relations is the intricately conscienceless working of my villain’s consciousness, i.e. what’s most indecent about him is his mind.
Writing the scene was an unsettling experience for the author, and some disturbing questions arose. The first of these—Where is this guy coming from?—was easily answered, and led directly to the second—Is this what I’d be like if I were a psychopath? I could not imagine any real-world circumstances in which I would treat a woman the way he does in that scene. I’d never even fantasized about such things before, so maybe I could plead a kind of innocence: Officer Krupke, I have this character in a novel, see; he’s got a legitimate function to perform in the story so I had to make him real, and in looking for this made-up kind of ‘real’ I took it, um, into, um, that particular arena; but look, no blood was spilled, and twisted though the action is, it’s never exactly non-consensual. So, Officer Krupke, would you please let me off? I swear, he’ll never do that kind of thing again, you won’t find it on any of the subsequent couple hundred pages. He’s a regulation Monster from the Id, and the darkest part of his psyche has been acted out and shown and done and dusted. Just between us, I had a moral purpose in writing the scene as I did: to hold a mirror up to what I took to be a part of nature, and not to let my bad guy talk and charm his way out of being fully and inconveniently seen.
Once the scene was done, I rolled Pitch through the rest of the book like a pair of loaded dice. Shortly he was in medias of this sort of res:
“Why don’t you jump up on the desk, Teddy, so you can get at me with that big blade of yours.”
“Good fucking idea,” and Teddy obligingly jumped up on the desk, agile lad he was, and stood on it waving his Bowie knife in the air, a little incongruously but still making his movie, which just goes to show you how bad taste is eternal.
Pitch had finally gotten past the paperwork and the stapler and the pencils to the back of the drawer and had his hand on the Smith & Wesson knockoff PPK, state license, carry permit, one in the chamber and the safety off, that is he hoped it was in the off position, memory can play tricks. He felt for it with his thumb but crap in the drawer got in the way. “C’mon, Teddy, you just going to stand there waving that thing or are you gonna take a swipe at me? Eli, I hope you’re watching this.”
Eli seemed paralyzed, which was better than him running out the door.
It was like hunting bear, Pitch felt, or hunting some animal that could do you harm, hunt it with bow and arrow, put your life on the line, give the critter a fighting chance.
Then he aims to shoot Teddy in the thigh but wouldn’t you know it, the gun seems to have a mind of its own and the bullet tears right through one of the poor guy’s lungs.
That’s another thing I myself have never done to anyone, but one’s reach must now and then exceed one’s grasp, or what’s a fiction for? As for Kennis Pitcher’s dismissal from existence toward the end of the book, the offhand, untrumpeted nature of his lifelong gambit’s falling curtain would not have pleased his vile, invidious, and aggrandized sense of self-importance.
But one or two disturbing scenes apart, he was fun while he lasted, I must admit.
It’s also an odd and quirky thing but right now, as Street Legal’s being published and I hope purchased everywhere, I’m about two-thirds of the way through an exciting novel set in Paris in the ‘60s and lo, behold, Pitch appears in it, briefly, as I first found him there, not only to add his voice but play a small, mostly friendly role in the plot. Odder still and I don’t know how quirky, he’s about thirty in the Paris novel, as he was in life, 1966 or maybe via a small fiction-advancement to ’67; while in Eureka California 2012 he’s only forty-one, maybe forty-two years old at most. Either he’s got some kind of magic powers or is, perhaps, an immortal little devil. Either way, it looks like My First Villain is villain enough for me.