This brutal, philosophical crime novel spans generations in its examination of family myth, cycles of violence, and corruption and racism among police departments. O’Fuel (That Night Filled Mountain) traces the life of Sean Tower, a restless young man from a family of cops, from a childhood fascinated by violent comic books to years spent hoboing across America to eventual deployment as a police officer in an unnamed American city. Sean slowly develops a moral philosophy that places him at bloody odds with a police department infested with racketeers and white supremacists.
O’Fuel’s ambitious novel is an impressionistic swirl of past and present, especially in its first half, as passages of vivid family lore alternate with present-tense accounts of Sean’s childhood. The prose surges with anger, despair, and invention, but it’s not easily approachable. O’Fuel vaults among timelines and perspectives. Dialogue is scant, and at times the prose loses clarity as it strains for poetic effect: “Spooky details cloned in the repetitive scenes of spontaneous destruction will produce macabre moments of déjà vu.” O’Fuel’s scenes often fall into present-tense summary and focus on characters’ internal experiences, skimming through action that might have had greater impact if dramatized.
For readers willing to disorient themselves in O’Fuel’s sweeping and outraged narrative, the novel offers accounts of war, policework both bizarre and mundane, life on the road, suicides and cop murders, and, eventually, the pulpy violence readers might expect from a crime thriller. Even then, O’Fuel bucks simple convention by penning the climax as a lengthy, ruminative colloquy, the text stripped of quotation marks, the scene feverish and unsettling. This ambitious exploration of systemic violence and moral philosophy has a lot to offer for fans of dense, cerebral crime fiction.
A St. Paul cop killed a defenseless, restrained black man in Maryland a couple of days ago. The department fired him and three other officers involved in the incident. Minneapolis is now an eruption of violent unrest. Just as I’m writing this, the same authority that backed the badges and actions of the institutions that killed this defenseless person have acquiesced and detained and charged the officer. Murder/manslaughter. The protests and backlash spreading across a country now filled with unemployed citizens with adjacent angst and pent up frustration thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic grow increasingly dangerous and frenetic. Things are going south in the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.
The Minneapolis/St. Paul PD dispatched officers to investigate George Floyd of suspected fraud. Passing a counterfeit denomination. In the process of Floyd’s arrest, Ofc Derek Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck and strangled him. The video of the incident shows the officer in lackadaisical repose as his suspect cries for help between gasps for air. As difficult as it is to watch so predictable is the outcome, we have seen this before. We have been outraged before. We know how this story unfolds because there is precedent.
What we have not had before is the presence of a blatantly racist (he recently hailed the “bloodline” of Henry Ford whose anti-Semitism gave Hitler himself all kinds of world changing ideas) buffoon (told people to drink disinfectant, said he tested “positively negative” on a coronavirus test) like Donald Trump at the levers of authority. His “party” has looked the other way for over four years as he spews white supremacy from his megaphone. His lunatic underlings defend to our faces his unprecedented villainy as politics as usual. This is different. At least Nixon was afraid of the people. At least Dub Bush was afraid of his party. Trump is—to use his own vernacular—a symbol unlike this nation has ever faced before. Trump is a cult leader, whether he wants that title or not. For whatever reason—stupidity or insanity or indifference—this is different.
This calls for something new. New to this country, anyway.
The crowds stormed a police station in Minneapolis and burned it. This is justified. The crowds of newly unemployed people looted a Target. This is justified. Hundreds of years of slavery, dehumanizing, hate, and murder have left the doors open for violence. You perpetrate violence, you had better expect violence in return.
It is not my place—a person who essentially believes in pacifism at most levels of discourse—to tell an oppressed race of people not to burn down the local Autozone. There aren’t black cops crushing the life out of white guys on the news. It happens. In fact, more white guys have the life crushed out of them by “the cops” than any other race in this country… but that’s just math, as is the stark reality of the higher rate that black men have their lives taken by the police. The math tells a story only math can…
Wait. I’m not doing this. I’m not going to intellectualize this. Not this time.
That’s it. If you are young and without a family to mourn you, rise the fuck up, take to the streets and break shit. This one needs to hurt. They’re storming the Treasury Department today. Fine.
This petulant ass, Donald Chump, has done too much. This constitution we have been told to revere our entire lives is tissue paper in a bonfire. Go in there and chain this asshole to a truck bed. I don’t want to hear about what this will “mean for our future” or what sort of new precedent this will set. The entire judicial and legislative authority will be retooled after this thug is removed either by force or vote anyway. Let’s rip off the bandage.
I know what I’m saying. I know what you’re thinking. But none of it matters. Go in there and grab this piece of garbage and throw him in a dark hole where we can keep him fed grewl and sewer water until he is dead.
I almost talked myself out of writing this post, a piece describing the work that has led up to this moment, the release of my new novel River of Blood. It has taken so long to get here. Years. Aside meeting my wife and the birth of our two children—to whom I’ve dedicated the novel, it became the preeminent detail in my life from the moment the vague idea came to me in 2015. Like that black t-shirt that somehow always reappears in the closet for a decade, slowly changing from pristine pitch to vintage charcoal and fraying seams, the story tumbled through my thoughts and hounded my weekends as I scrambled to meet my self-imposed deadlines for serializing the damn thing on this site.
That’s right. After the first seventy-some-odd pages, I began serializing this story here before I even finished, before slaying the many plot monsters I had conjured. A harrowing journey for certain.
I remember the first few days of writing when I failed to recognize the possibility that this thing could escape the tenuous restraints I had imagined for it.
It will be a short examination of free will and determinism. A novella in the vein of Jim Harrison.
The beast outwitted me. A story I originally estimated could land at a hundred pages left a crater in my life over five hundred pages wide. How the hell did this happen? I had the basics of the story strung with perfection and exactitude. A crystal beginning, middle, and end, only the tiniest of details needed to bind them and release it into the either. How could I have known the reproductive possibilities of those details? The collective genitalia of these details whizzed like servos and the hutch of my virgin cuniculture burst.
It took me five years to gain control.
It’s too much. Too much for me to process all at once. The kids and I have only been in the house for a month. I’ve only known Jim for a month longer than that. You all warned me. You all heard the rumors. But I wouldn’t listen. He was everything. Kind. Dashing. Good job. This beautiful home he refurbished with his own hands endeared him even further. He and the kids hit it off as if we had been together for years. He’s a gifted storyteller—that should have been my first clue! Karen, my oldest, loved his yarn about how the upper floors of the house burned in the sixties when two star-crossed teenagers tipped over a lantern in the attic. “They died in a fire as hot and tragic as their love,” he would say. So disgusting now to remember it. But that’s where it all connects, you see? I get it. It’s implausible. Impossible. A mental fabrication. A figment of the trauma. But that can’t be! I saw her! The alarm woke me and she was there under the smoke detector above the kitchen table. Her face besmirched with char, hair burnt to the scalp, bra and panties still smoldering. I screamed in harmony with the siren but as Jim and Karen crashed naked and panicked through the door from the garage, she vanished, leaving me in the vaporous shock of his betrayal, my ears ringing in a jagged, deafening silence.
The last time I saw him was at a Christmas party for the firm. They fired him the next day for grabbing the ass of an intern we all called Glitterbarf. Now here he strolled across the park, his same awkward strut materializing as the same awkward waddle. He looked exactly the same. The same stupid mustache. The slick skullcap hair. Once he found me as I lay between the roots of the tree, my eyes above the spine of the book, I realized I had stared too long. His magical sleaze guided him toward me from the edge of the pond where the satchel under his arm nudged a small girl in a sailor dress ankle deep into the water. I returned to my book, poking myself in my minds eye for letting this happen. I snuck a glance at his splayed stance only an arms length away. Then he dropped beside me and produced a small dish towel, snapped it like a maître d' serving foie gras. Two wine glasses appeared. I looked up hoping my glare might end the performance but he already had the wine and corkscrew in hand. Our eyes met and he turned to the pond for a moment. Fun fact, he said, pivoting back to me, a duck’s penis is shaped like a corkscrew. He puckered as he torqued the tool into the bottle. Fun fact, I said, get lost or yours will be too.
What’s the goal, though?
Later, back in the confines of the garage, Ollie and Hicky and I drank. This foray into their mission had fostered a pinch of camaraderie between myself and the crew. I had labored with them that night. I had participated. Now the beers had me curious about PLA aspirations.
You guys aren’t delusional as far as I can see. But you know these operations won’t stop wars or death. Any media attention you receive is one sparkle in a bucket of glass.
Ollie’s response felt rote.
Good argument. One that I’ve had with myself many times. Ya know, once I broke free of the violence, I stepped back and saw what I had done then I saw the consequential violence around me like ripples around rain drops.
Hicky shook his head at us. I did not come prepared for a poetry contest, fellas.
Then butt out.
You see, Tower, my guilt broke me. As far as I could see, the only way forward was an ironic reversal of sorts.
So you’ve performed some sort of metaphysical accounting of your sins and hope to alleviate your guilt by subtraction?
What happens when you zero out?
Who’s to say I haven’t already, Tower?
You have done a lot. The LAPD armory. Those tanks in Russia…
And a fuckton more. Maybe enough to zero out. Maybe that’s why yer here. Maybe the violence owes me something now.
That’s a lot more anthropomorphizing than I’m comfortable with.
Look, I get it, Ollie. As an endeavor to atone, I see how one might be tempted. But your enemy is colossal. Immense. Bigger than anything. Bigger than everything.
Hicky pointed the open end of his beer bottle at me. That might be the point, Tower.
I used to feel that way.
Ollie laughed at me. There’s a pile of dead cops that says you’ve felt that way recently.
This is not a debate I wanna have right now.
Hicky straightened himself and pointed the bottle at me again. You said the enemy is colossal, Tower. You’re right. But only out of dumb luck. The enemy is gargantuan only because the enemy is in your own head. It is your head, your mind. And we both know that one mind contains the entire universe. The enemy is not the state or any singular shitbag like Cruz. They are vines to be hacked down on the journey, my friend. I think maybe you know this. The proximate obstacles are hurting you right now is all.
Proximate obstacles? That’s some pretty heavy shit, Hicky. And here you thought you weren’t a poet.
I’m an empath. It’s a curse. He paused for effect. Please don’t kill me.
This sent Ollie into violent amusement that bent him at the waist.
Cute, I said. You’re real cute.
Three years ago, he found a baby in a trash bag about a mile off the road. A young couple from Indianapolis adopted her in a storm of media a year later. He walks past the spot every weekend on his way to the river. He stops and looks and takes into account how time and growth have changed the geometry of the shadows under the scrub. He wouldn’t have seen the bag if it had happened this year. The grass is too tall. The rotten log has collapsed. This spring has been overcast. That baby girl would have died this year. A lot of things would be different if it had happened this year. The train is roaring through the valley. The wind rattles the poplar leaves above him. He would’ve been consumed in other thoughts if it had happened today. He never would have seen it. All he would have seen was the past. His wife. The tubes in her nose. He’s crying now, consumed in the slow grind of his past.
Three boys of various heights stood in stilted shock staring at the wadded lump of the pilot’s body as the deputy stood over it, speaking into the radio clipped to his lapel. The distorted tail of the small plane jutted from the jagged opening in third floor of the courthouse above them. Smoldering bricks, glass, and lumber granulated the verdant lawn of the square. An undulating intestine of black smoke bent over the top floor, the singular clue of the event for the townsfolk who had begun arriving by foot and vehicle. The deputy returned to his truck where he again directed the trio of youth to move across the street to the vacant store front. Sheriff Connery’s voice leapt from the speaker near near his ear. Jackson? Yeah, Sheriff. Tell me there ain’t a crop dusting rig on it. There is Sheriff; there’s a rig. Goddammit. Yeah, Sheriff, and Wally’s body is out here in the open, all broke up. Goddammit. I’m grabbin a sheet right now. Don’t bother, Jackson. But Sheriff—. I said leave him! he wanted this; he deserves the embarrassment! But Sheriff, there’s kids and women out here. Grow up, Jackson, just keep em off the grass!
A white raptor wing stretched from horizon to horizon. Uncle Frazier sat on the dead oak trunk, kicking at a column of red ants flowing just out in front of his foot. I think I should take time off, Uncle. His head bobbed at the sound of my voice. Not a nod. Just movement in recognition. He wiped the apple juice from his knife across a dirty pant leg. I already told you what I think. Yeah, you did. Don’t do it; you had a whole bunch of time, kid; I know it don’t feel like it but you did. He tracked the cloud from end to end with his eyes then gave me a serious glance. Go back to school; forget about anything but the present and buckle down. I wanted to point out the paradox in his worry over my future as he pressed me to stay in the present. But I could see that was exactly what he was contemplating. I wasted so much, he said, I wasted a lot of time not sticking it out when I was your age, boy. I get it, Uncle. You better. He handed me half of the apple and I took a bite. I don’t have any left, he said, all I can do is commandeer yours, you see? I hear you, Uncle. If you’re not careful, you wake up one day with memory of the time you spent and none left to spend on anything that means anything, you see? I see. You better.
Let’s consider time. Time.
The word demands a capital T.
We argue over it. We agonize over it. We long and lust for more of it. Even those of us who are told every Sunday that our Time will go on after we die frown at the thought of losing it before we die. Time is everything. I myself have argued that Struggle is all but in reality, if there is no Time on which to anchor that struggle, there is nothing at all. Without Time, our physical world ceases to exist.
“Till the end of time” is our truest cliche, our truest truth. The end of Time is The End. Each of us must realize that Time ends every day. Every hour. Wrap yourself in it. Clothe yourself in your Time. Remind yourself until it is involuntary that you must remain one with your Time. It is all you have. Spend it wisely. Time will not allow you any more than you have at this very second.
Do something with it. Use it for good.
Spend it on those you cherish.
Spend it on improving yourself.
Don’t squander the Time you have on some phantom of eternity that if truly considered is an actual horror. Mundane. Unchanging. Pascal feared we might gamble on there being no eternity. I fear we gamble there is. Trust me. Eternity is not real. Not for me. Not for you or anyone. Now is all you will ever have. Right this very instant is all you will ever have.
Chrysalis, a growing collection of very short fiction.
Unless noted, all pics credited to Skitz O'Fuel.