Saturday, May 3, 2014

"Don't Ever Look Back"

Daniel Friedman is a graduate of the University of Maryland and NYU School of Law. His first novel, Don't Ever Get Old was nominated for the Edgar, Thriller, Anthony and Macavity awards, and was optioned for film by the producers of the "Sherlock Holmes" movies.

Friedman applied the Page 69 Test to his new book, Don't Ever Look Back, and reported the following:
In Don't Ever Look Back my series protagonist faces off against a master thief named Elijah in two intertwining narratives; one in the present day, when they're both elderly men and Elijah asks Buck to help him protect him from mysterious killers, and one in the 1965, when Buck was a police detective trying to thwart Elijah's scheme to rob a Memphis bank.

On page 69, Buck, in 1965, is trying to figure out what Elijah is up to. A snitch told him that Elijah's robbery is somehow connected to a civil rights strike, so Buck is visiting a labor organizer and civil rights activist named Longfellow Molloy, who is not happy about being questioned by the police.

Since Buck is an 88 year-old retired Memphis police detective, his career would have spanned from the late 1940's to the late 1970's, a period which included the integration of the Memphis public schools, the Memphis sanitation strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King. The law and the people who enforce it tend to protect the established power structure and the status quo, and Southern state and local officials during that era, including the police, were generally on the wrong side of the civil rights issue.

I wanted to explore where Buck had fit into that conflict. Brian, Buck's son, believes Jews have a special responsibility, as members of a historically persecuted group, to stand with the victims of oppression. But the Holocaust is recent history for Buck, who was captured and tortured by the Nazis. As one of very few Jews on the police force and part of a fairly small Jewish community in the city of Memphis, Buck feels vulnerable. He's not sure whether Jews are white people, or some kind of other, and he would prefer not to encourage people to ask that question.

So, when Buck meets Longfellow Molloy, he's not necessarily hostile to the strikers' goals. Buck's interests and identity aren't premised an idea of white supremacy, because Buck isn't even sure if he's white. But Buck isn't particularly sympathetic either. And he knows something suspicious is going on, but he doesn't know what, so there's conflict between these characters.

From page 69:
“Let me tell you something about Memphis, Detective,” said Longfellow Molloy, the labor agitator. “Memphis don’t make nothin’. Memphis don’t grow nothin’. Memphis exists but for one purpose: Memphis moves things. The rail lines and the highway and the river all come together in this place. Memphis is one of the five biggest inland ports in the history of Western civilization. Fifteen million tons of cargo come through here, ship to shore, and shore to ship. Loaded and unloaded, from the bellies of barges into the trailers of trucks. Onto train cars. And do you know how fifteen million tons of cargo gets loaded and unloaded in this town every year?”

I knew he’d only asked the question so he could answer it himself, so I sat quiet and let him blow off steam.

“Black hands,” he said. “Black hands do all that lifting. Memphis earns its bread from moving things, and black folks do all the moving. Fifteen million tons, ship to shore, and shore to ship. We carry it. Those men marching outside the offices of Kluge Shipping bear this city on their backs seven days a week for a dollar seventy-five an hour. We’re trying to organize and ask for the square deal every hardworking American deserves. And you come up here and you treat us like criminals. You come into my office, where I do the Lord’s work, and you treat me like a low-life thug. Sir, I will not have it.”

Paul Schulman had given me two leads on Elijah: that the target was somehow related to striking freight workers, and that Ari Plotkin had a piece of the job. Plotkin was simpler to get at; I could just pick him up and kick the shit out of him until he spilled whatever he knew. But if I did, Elijah would know about it immediately, and my best lead would be burned. So I’d decided to sniff around the strike first. And since I didn’t really know who else to talk to, I decided to pay a visit to the angry black man I’d seen on the TV. Not exactly brilliant deductive work on my part, I’ll admit, but I never said I was Sherlock Holmes.

Molloy described himself an “activist” or an “organizer,” but he was more of an instigator. He’d come to Memphis a few months earlier and rented a small office across the street from the downtown skyscraper that housed the headquarters of Kluge Shipping and Freight. Kluge was one of dozens of companies that handled river cargo, and it was a medium-sized outfit at best, but it was notable for paying poorly, and its laborers were almost all black, so it was an ideal target for a civil rights rabble-rouser. The forklift operators and longshoremen were receptive to his talk about wage inequalities and dignity, and he was starting to cause pain in many rich, white asses.

Over the course of the last couple of months, Molloy had gotten more than half the company’s colored workers organized. Six weeks previous, 120 men walked out of the company’s facility on Governor’s Island. Since then, they’d been marching around in front of Kluge’s downtown office, waving signs, hassling businessmen, and frightening secretaries.
Visit Daniel Friedman's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue