My new novel, Shoot the Moonlight Out, opens with two epigraphs. One comes from the great Garland Jeffreys song that gives the book its name, a New York City ramble that feels partly like a Tunnel of Love carnival ride and partly like following a map to an uncertain destination, providing a jolt of tone and atmospheric energy right out of the gate. Everything I wanted in my book was right there under the surface of that title. The other epigraph comes from a favorite poem of mine, “Riding the D Train” by Enid Dame. In the poem, Dame’s narrator is on the subway, noticing the passing rooftops and people in the windows of buildings and other riders in the car, scarred and scared, full of wonder and their own private little mysteries. “Everything is important,” the narrator reminds herself. She goes on: “Don’t underestimate / any of it. / Anything you don’t see / will come back to haunt you.” Those last lines have haunted me since I first read the poem years ago. I knew I’d use them as an epigraph at some point. They provided so much inspiration beyond that, not just in terms of what I was writing and how I approached writing, but also as far as a general worldview goes. I was haunted by things I’d missed, by stuff I’d underestimated. And since I’m a big proponent of writing about what haunts me, Dame’s reminder has served as a sort of creative engine.
Here are some ghosts—people, places, times, sounds, lines, songs, movies, and feelings—that haunt Shoot the Moonlight Out, a panoramic crime drama where lives crash together in pre-9/11 southern Brooklyn.
I knew Cut-Face Boy was trouble right from the start, but I loved him. We were children together, classmates from about ages six to thirteen at a rinky-dink Catholic school full of cobwebs and unsettled spirits. Cut-Face Boy wasn’t always Cut-Face Boy. First, he was just another kid. Dimples. Clip-on tie. Crust in the corners of his eyes. A quiet, deep voice. By eleven or twelve, he’d changed, walking with his shoulders slumped, cursing a ton, blasting music in his headphones. He was combative. The nuns hated him. They made him stand in the corner. They gave him demerits and detentions. He laughed at them. He started fights with other kids. He showed up with a bandage on his cheek one day in sixth grade. Eventually, the bandage was gone and there was a scar, a shadowy sliver from under his eye all the way down to his jaw. No one asked. He slammed Sal Schiano’s head against the concrete in the church parking lot after school on a Wednesday in winter. Sal’s crime was cracking wise about the scar. I knew Cut-Face Boy had trouble at home. I knew his old man was rotten; I’d heard that from my grandparents and my mom. I knew his cigar-chomping grandpa—Old Bones, we called him—was raising him. I knew Cut-Face Boy spray-painted walls and telephone poles with his tag. I knew he carried a knife. I knew he stole comics and cigarettes. I knew he drank forties with the older kids in Shady Park. I idolized him. I trailed behind him like a goddamn pathetic duckling. I wanted to be bad like him. I couldn’t be. I couldn’t lie at confession. I was scared of trouble.
Shoot the Moonlight Out starts with a couple of kids going down to the Belt Parkway off-ramp by Ceasar’s Bay, throwing rocks at passing cars. It was Cut-Face Boy who hung in my memory as I wrote that opening. It was Cut-Face Boy who led a group of us down there armed with plastic containers of ketchup and mustard and mayo, prompting us to peg cars as they drifted off the parkway toward the stoplight that intersected Bay Parkway. It was Cut-Face Boy who suggested rocks, though none of us ever actually threw rocks, because an off-duty cop chased us after we splattered the windshield of his bulky maroon Buick LeSabre with ketchup and really chewed us out. Cut-Face Boy laughed at him too, but we moved on to the next thing. A ragged game of Kill the Man with the Ball. A journey to the Loew’s Oriental, where we snuck into a movie and Cut-Face Boy orchestrated an aerial gummy bear assault on some lonely guy watching Sister Act. Cut-Face Boy stole porno mags from an Optimo and we looked at them in Mikey Capitano’s moldy basement. I confessed my sins to Father Greg. I wondered if my biggest sin was that I was friends with Cut-Face Boy. I abandoned him, dug deeper into a world of books and movies, aiming to avoid the real life trouble that seemed to swarm around him. In a lot of ways, this book is about lifting the cover on that decision. Who was he? Who could he have been?
Mr. Bay Ridge
Let’s just call him Mr. Bay Ridge. That’s not his name. Let’s just say he stole from us, from me, from my family, from many people in my neighborhood. Let’s just say he was soft and slouchy and doe-eyed. Let’s just say his lies lit a million fires. Let’s just say he still calls from jail. Let’s just say you get to kill people like this on the page for all the ways they killed people you loved without any weapons, armed only with deceit.
The feeling of that month, in particular, hovers over me, which is why the book is primarily set then. It was the end of something, though we didn’t know it at the time. It had a feeling, has even more of a feeling in retrospect. I was twenty-two, adrift, stuck—to crib a line from Craig Finn—between stations. I was staggered by the bigness of the world. I was lost in narrow hallways, ceilings pressing down. The world was still all radios and open windows and possibilities. I still wanted the road. I still dreamed dumbly of American majesty in the Beat sense. That month lingers—more even than July or August—because it was far enough away from what was to come, closer to the past. It felt like the last month of the ’90s somehow. It’s a poem in my memory. My girlfriend reading The Last Temptation of Christ at the bar where she worked. Kissing after beers in the rain. Used bookstores and boomboxes playing mixtapes and a sky that felt like cellophane. The heavy damage that lostness inflicts. I wandered the streets of my southern Brooklyn neighborhood. Everyone I talked to is a ghost now. Every bar I went into is a ghost. Every kiss is a ghost. Every lost thing is a ghost.
A car radio playing Dion
Some of my most vivid memories as a kid circle around being in the backseat as my mom and stepdad drove from Brooklyn to Jersey or Pennsylvania or Long Island, Dion and the Belmonts on the radio. Those songs that shaped my imagination. The sound of them. All yearning. Big city prayers. That feel. King of the New York Streets. Vines around my heart. Some were born to greatness. Some were born to die. Never knowing the difference, never knowing why. Some were born to change the world. Some never even try. But darling, you and I, we were born to cry. Windows down on the Belt Parkway. A thrum, a lingering, lightning in my mind.
A Joseph Cornell box of ghosts: partial inventory
Moonlight over the El
Bob Kaufman (“Remember not to forget the dying colors of yesterday”)
Peggy’s Runway, that old dive of my imagination
The Holiday Cocktail Lounge
TVs in the roof of the church
The sound of a bat on flesh
Aunt Martha’s yard
My grandparents’ kitchen with the windows open
An imaginary ballgame in the driveway
Being afraid in a certain way
The Woman with the Sparkling Cheeks
Eating a falafel at midnight under a string of Christmas lights in the summer
What lives in the cracks in the sidewalk (after Joe Brainard)
I remember shadowy images. I remember how memories crawled in the cracks in the sidewalk. I remember every footfall, every cheap shoe, every stagger, and every leap. How the cracks were veins. How the city pulsed. I remember digging between the latches of concrete. I remember thinking that the concrete was a lid and that there was some great underneath. I remember dreaming of tunnels. I remember wanting to live in a folktale. Evil comes but some kind of strange happiness too. A long table. Dinner. Drinks. Meeting where we survive. Everything broken becoming better. Talking to ghosts in the cracks. Talking on the phone. A long list of loves. A long list of graves. A tunnel world that’s bright. Another kiss in the rain. I remember dumb daydreams. I remember my grandmother’s hands. I remember wanting something and not knowing what it was. I remember the feeling of murder in the streets. Those spinning lights. Heat. Air conditioners dripping. I was a red rosy fainting. I was a memory kicked in the heart. Christ had dripped into those cracks too. Turned to liquid. A dark seeping. I remember the cemetery coldness. I remember the cracks like maps. I remember maps. I remember Richie the Putz. What he was hiding. I remember fences. I remember running, traced by those cracks. I remember the sky breaking like glass. I remember the night the moon melted, milky on the concrete, spilling into the gutters. I remember drains. I remember sewers. I remember the boy who died, a hole in his head. I remember ice cream trucks and starlight. I remember Carl Sagan. I remember Walt Whitman. I remember a million deaths. I remember praying. I remember “Junkie’s Promise.” I remember a bracelet on her wrist that looked stitched on. I remember scars on my arms. I remember “Meth of a Rockette’s Kick.” I remember Your fume baby soon baby kaboom kaboom kaboom tonight I’ll dig tunnels to your nightmare room. I remember snowfall in June. I remember blood in the snow. I remember Radiant and Cool Baby running north. How it all slipped into the cracks. How it all became blood or a storm. All that. All that and so much more.