What happens when the Boy Detective grows up, moves away, and comes home for a visit? His hometown has turned from American-as-apple-pie to darkest noir, his once-innocent girlfriend has transformed into something both more and less than she was, and his father has become a bum. Both parody and tribute to childhood heroes, Brown Harvest appropriates characters familiar to anyone who grew up reading detective stories. Borrowing from the Hardy Boys to Jay Cantor (Krazy Kat) and setting the characters on a collision path with hard-boiled thrillers, young adult mysteries, and classic noir fiction, Jay Russell creates joyful mayhem.
|Publisher:||Avalon Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.08(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.99(d)|
Read an Excerpt
I. A Man in Brown and a
Woman in White
It's my own stupid fault.
The needle was already kissing the red when I passed the last station six miles back, but I had it figured. Or so I thought. I know the precise capacity of the gas tank I've measured it myself down to the milliliter and I've charted fuel economy over a sufficiently long period of time, using a valid sample of branded and unbranded gasolines, to know the car's exact range under any variety of conditions. My calculations indicated that the last fill-up, back at the Interstate service stop with the filthy bathroom, would land me smack dab in the center of town, where I knew I'd find another station. It's a silly little game I play with myself; just something to occupy my mind and make the drive a little bit more interesting. Running on fumes. Life on the edge.
I was, of course, trusting to the accuracy of the gas pump; to the integrity of the manufacturer of the pump, and the station owner, and the inspector from the State Bureau of Weights and Measures one Mr. E. Stratemeyer whose oh-so-fancy John Hancock graced the official certificate plastered to the side of the pump.
But that gauge must have been off. Or Mr. Stratemeyer got it wrong. Or the station owner was a no good, cheating son-of-a-Bush.
In any case, whatever the explanation, I was out of gas.
Live and learn.
I know I sure have.
I managed to coast onto the softshoulder as the engine kacked and died of thirst. I got out of the car and saw that I'd come to rest no more than ten yards away from the sign. I guess I was so flustered by my miscalculation that I hadn't even noticed the big sucker looming ahead of me. I walked up to it now, hardly believing what I saw.
WELCOME TO IDEAVILLE
Our past is your future
sponsored by Black X Software,
a Blackwell Unlimited Company
They'd gone and changed the town's name to something out of some Stalinist wet dream.
It's not that I didn't know it had happened; I'd read about it and seen it on the maps, of course, but standing there by the side of the Old Post Road a road I'd traveled so many times before on my bike or in my father's prowl car or just hiking with my friends seeing it in stark black and white ... well, it finally hit home.
Or what used to be home.
What's in a name? you might ask.
I know the answer, you see: everything. Every goddamn thing.
There's something startling, unsettling to the deepest part of your soul, to learn that the place where you grew up has changed its name. It sure as hell isn't something you expect to happen in America; even an America as changeable, as shockingly, commercially mutable as our own. After all, it's not like we're living in a post-colonial African nation or some southern hemisphere banana republic, subject to the whims and tides of foment and discontent and billionaire drug lords; changing its name with each incoming regime in order to make a statement against the prison and tragedy of its history. We're supposed to be proud of our past in America, emboldened and challenged by our history. We're taught that we have to live up to and exceed what our forefathers have achieved before us. A place, a name, is supposed to mean something, stand for something; speak to us about our past, in glory and ignominy, in our hearts and in our minds. A name especially the name of the town where you were born should be stamped on you, into your essence, like some indelible, spiritual tattoo. It should be as enduring as a sequoia, unyielding as a mountain, as important to the life of the soul as oxygen is to the life of the body.
Or so I'd always thought.
But then virtually no one, not even my best friends, ever called me by my true name. Few of them hardly even knew it.
So what the hell do I know?
I shook my head at the sign. I felt mocked, laughed at, but what can you do? You get used to it. Believe me. No one had asked me to come back, and lord knows no one invited me. You pays your money and you takes your choice, as the man says.
And here I was.
I went back to the car and hauled my gear out of the back, then locked it up. In the town of my youth, you never had to think much about things like auto theft, but in a place called Ideaville, who knows? I wasn't about to see my radio ripped-off as some sentimental gesture to days gone by. I secured the steering wheel lock, too, 'cause you can't be too sure, and turned on the immobilizer. Something told me that crimes might not get solved as readily and inexorably as once they did.
Once upon a time, in the age of Boy Detectives.
I reckoned it was a good two miles to the main part of town. Not a bad walk, I suppose, but I felt tired from the long drive two days to get here from the coast; amazing what you can do with a little determination, no one to distract you, and a case of caffeine-rich Mountain Dew by your side and my bags were just heavy enough to make the prospect of the walk unappealing. There was a cruel snap of mid-western winter to come in the October afternoon, too, and though I zipped up my brown leather bomber jacket I felt a shiver run through me as I started down the Old Post Road.
Slinging the black case containing my notebook computer over my left shoulder, the half-empty garment bag over my right, I headed on past the big sign. I'd taken barely a dozen steps when I heard crunching gravel and turned to see a car pulling up on the shoulder behind me. A candy-apple red, vintage sixties Ford Mustang convertible screeched to a stop. The woman behind the wheel wore a tight nurse's uniform, white as bleached talc, with a shock of raven-black hair tucked beneath the cap. Her big eyes were as dark as her hair, but she had the reddest cheeks I've ever seen this side of an apple juice bottle. The Mustang's personalized license plate read: CHERRY.
Somehow I had my doubts.
"You okay there, hon?" she called out. She had a dazzler of a smile, equal parts girl-next-door and Playboy airbrush. The top two buttons of her blouse were undone and as she stood up, leaning over the windshield, I could see her lacy red bra underneath. I had to admit I'd never lived next door to anyone who looked quite like her.
"I'm fine, thanks. I could do with a ride into town, though," I said.
"That your car?"
"What's the matter with it?"
"Won't go," I said with a shrug.
"Too bad. I don't know a thing about 'em, except how to make 'em go fast."
"Me either," I lied and smiled. "And that they're big pains in the butt."
"Ain't that the hard living truth."
"Think I can cadge a ride with you?" I asked.
She flashed the smile at me again. "Indeed you may. Hop on in."
"Much obliged," I said. I tossed my bags on the back seat.
"You a consultant?" she asked.
"That black leather computer bag. You see 'em all over town. Usually it's the hired guns that carry 'em. Almost like doctors. Or hit men. Every fellah in every bar seems to have one tucked 'twixt his legs."
"Pretty sharp observation," I said.
"Bit of a hobby. So you a cyber jockey? Here to work for one of the big boys?"
"I suppose I am. Of sorts. But I don't work for anyone in particular. Purely independent."
"Must be nice. My momma always told me to find myself a fellow of independent means. I've found plenty of mean ones, but they're never all that independent. Well, buckle up and say your prayers," she warned. "Smoke 'em if you got 'em." She peeled out, sending gravel flying as she hopped the Mustang back onto the Old Post Road. She sure wasn't lying about driving fast.
"Not every woman would stop to help out a man on his own. It's very kind of you." I had to yell a bit to make myself heard over the fury of the wind.
"Life's an adventure, I always say. I figure you take a bite out of it, maybe it won't use its gnashers so bad on you." She took a long glance at me. "Besides, you look okay to me, and I am an angel of mercy. I mean, how dangerous can a fellow drives a Pacer be? American Motors, goddamn!"
I nodded. Her driving might be a little dodgy, but her powers of deduction were beyond reproach.
"You a nurse?" I asked.
She glanced at me, down at her uniform, then pityingly back at me. "Kind of a Sherlock Holmes yourself, ain't you? Sorry, honey, just jagging your wires. Yes sir, I work over at IG."
"Ideaville General? I'm assigned over the RSI unit. It's all the way the other side of town."
"Huh," was my response.
Town sprang up a lot sooner than I expected it to. Ideaville had grown a lot during my absence. I suppose that everything does, but it came as no less of a shock to see the first signs of what passes for that graceless thing we call civilization fast-food temples, $39.95 do-your-secretary-at-lunch motels, giant warehouse discount stores selling cheaper by the gross so far out of the heart of the quiet, little burg I had known. And the billboards! One after another, like ugly wallpaper down the length of the road. And every third one it seemed for some new computer game: SimHolocaust from Los Bros was getting the big push. I suppose Christmas wasn't all that far off.
Last time I'd been down the Old Post Road, on what I'd always thought was this life's final trip out of town, there'd been nothing but a few rundown farm stands, open according to season and the whims of the local farmers. And, of course, the burned-out ruins of Hellman Amusements. I can still remember the look of beaming pride on my father's face when I cracked the Hellman case and revealed the name of the fiend who'd torched the place. I wonder if Old Lady Hellman's still alive or if she died in stir? The judge who sentenced her swore that she would.
"So there's a hospital in town now, huh?"
"'Course. Two of 'em."
"Man alive," I said, shaking my head.
"Nothing, nothing at all. It's just ... it's so very different. I can remember when there was only Doc Clooney. And, of course, the free clinic run by the county. But I never saw the inside of that."
"You from around here?" she asked.
"Yeah, once upon a time. A long time."
"I hardly been here a year myself. Got recruited by the folks at Blackwell. Lived in Illinois my whole life up to then. Hilton? It was all right there, what with the family connections and all, but they made this place sound like a slice of heaven on earth."
"I can remember when I used to think that's exactly what it was. But like I say that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. What's it like now?" I asked.
"Oh, it's not so bad, I suppose. Little bit chichi, maybe. Those software types make damn good money hell, what am I telling you, Mr. Independent? and it drives all the prices up. Kind of a peculiar bunch, too, if you ask me. No offense intended. That's why I live hell to gone out of town. Rents are cheaper than here in Silicon Slit and the drive isn't too bad, though the traffic can be a panic come Friday rush."
I laughed out loud.
"What's funny about that?"
"Sorry," I said, "but I can't imagine a rush hour in ... Ideaville."
"Believe it, darling. Though where everybody's going, I don't know. Just another of the many mysteries of modern life. Like who put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong and why do birds suddenly appear. Yes sir, Ideaville is one happening place. Though it has its negatives."
"Teething pains, I suppose you'd ca]] it. A place grows this fast, there's bound to be some frictions develop. The rise in Carpal Tunnel Syndrome alone'd make your hair stand on end. I double shift more than I care to say. Those bastards at Blackwell'd work me seven days a week if they could get away with it."
I was about to inquire further and about life working for Blackwell Unlimited but just then we passed a huge car dealership. I took a good look around and realized that it occupied the site of what had been the old town dump. A fleet of gleaming German luxury automobiles sat on an expanse of black tar macadam where I remembered a swampy waste. The dump had sat on the fringe of town, and the local bad boys would come out to shoot off their Wristrockets and air rifles. There had been an old graveyard nearby, too, where ... now what had that case been about?
"So, what brings you back this way?"
"Huh?" I said. "What say?"
"I asked what brings you back to town? Business or pleasure?"
I considered that for a minute. "Neither, really. I'm here for ... a funeral."
"Aw, hell, I'm sorry. Family?"
I had to think about that, too. "Friend," I finally muttered.
"That's rough. I'm a nurse, I know. Damned RSI. Somebody ought to do a telethon."
An old picture the only kind I had of Sandy coalesced in my mind. In the picture, I saw her racing ahead of me up Mile End Road on her big red bicycle, her muscular white legs and bony knees pumping like jackhammers beneath her flapping plaid school skirt, her dark hair trailing out behind her ...
I blinked the image away.
"Into each life some shit must fall," I said.
The nurse cast me a frosty glance, but didn't say anything.
We came up to a set of lights at a vast traffic intersection. It took me a minute to realize that this was where the Old Post Road turned into Industry Street: the main drag through town in the good old days. There used to be nothing but a lonesome "Yield" sign to control the flow of cars; now there was a four-way traffic signal. Three of the corners were taken up by busy gas stations, the fourth featured a multi-plex cinema with eight screens. There'd only been the one movie theater in town in the old days, though it was big as a cathedral. I felt utterly at sea.
My vivacious chauffeuse made a right and pulled into the courtyard of one of the service stations: Swift Motors.
"Gonna let you off here, if that's all right. Too much traffic to drive through the center of town this time of day I'll be late to work. These boys here service my 'Tang, and they're about as honest as grease monkeys get, which means they'll only charge you twice what they should for the work. Unlike those crooks opposite at Speedwell Auto. I'm sure they'll fetch your Pacer in for you and do the business on it. You still get parts for that thing?"
I nodded. "I like old stuff. There's a certain comfort to be taken in the past."
"Don't I know it, darling. Why else would I drive a gas-guzzling beast like this? You go on in and ask for Tom-Tom. Tell him that Cherry sent you, and he'll treat you right. But don't you believe what he says about me."
"Cherry's really your name?"
"It's what they've always called me. Named after my grandma, actually. Her name was Charity. Her sisters were Faith and Hope, believe it or not. But don't tell anyone," she said, and winked at me.
"Your secret's safe with me. And thanks again for the ride." I took my bags out of the rear.
"Not a thing to it. Sorry about your friend, sweetie. Hope you manage to have a nice homecoming anyway."
With another sexy wink and a peal of rubber she vanished in a red blur. I waited until the Mustang was out of sight, then walked out of the courtyard. I'd hardly need a mechanic to put gas in the tank. I'd take care of it myself later I even keep an old gasoline can in the back of the car but first I thought I'd take a walk around to try and regain my bearings and get a good whiff of the town where I'd grown up. Twenty years is a long time to be away, after all.
A nice homecoming.
Somehow, I don't think so.
The far end of Industry Street had been nothing but fields and forest when I knew it, and a narrow canal with the rusty wreck of an ancient Model-T at which the kids all hurled empty pop bottles. I recalled the time when some big city developer proposed building an "out of town" supermarket on the site, but the good citizens didn't like the idea, thought it would be bad for local businesses and the environment. The town council voted the plan down unanimously.
Dueling Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble Superstores stood on opposite sides of the road now.
I walked on, past a panoply of near-identical mini-malls that would have done the San Fernando Valley proud. Clearly, the current population of Ideaville need never go in want of low-calorie frozen yogurt or blueberry bagels or one-hour photo processing (with double prints).
I never even ate a bagel when I was a kid, at least not until I ran away. (And bialies: forget about it!) There'd been two delis in town, sure, but you were about as likely to come across a bagel and lox as you were a Maori warrior. The Steins were the only Jewish family that we knew, and while Mr. Stein was a respected accountant, Mrs. Stein was famous in three counties for her Christmas ham and her ambrosia salad. Assimilation city!
Farther on, the new shopping nirvana mercifully gave way to a patch of green. I felt a rising surge of hope that perhaps the main part of town had been spared the ravages of concrete commercialism. Even the sidewalk petered out and I had to walk along a neatly manicured grass verge. I followed the narrowing stretch of green around a bend, the cars whizzing past, the odd driver scowling ferociously at the sight of an impudent pedestrian. Very California. I suddenly realized that I trod nothing less than Dead Man's Curve named after a carload of teens who crashed their Corvair speeding around it about the time that I was born, back when my father was still riding a patrol car. Like all the kids, Sandy and I used to race our bicycles out this way, daring each other to see how fast we could take the curve and risk a dead man's fate. My mom would have waxed wroth if she'd known, and pathetically, it was probably as rebellious an act as I ever engaged in.
On the other side of the bend, the anticipated clover field where that legendary Corvair had come to its fiery rest had been transformed into an immense parking lot, and behind that stood a hideous mirrored-glass office complex. It looked like something built from a Girder & Panel set, an architectural carbuncle on the green of the land. The whole site was fenced off, though a smattering of tiny white flowers, like Baby's Breath, had been planted along the border in a meager attempt at landscaping. There wasn't even room to walk safely between the flower beds and the road, so I dashed across the traffic to the other side to continue my stroll. A steady stream of cars came and went by way of the manned gate. The sign informed me that this was the headquarters of Black X Software.
I felt my heart skip a beat.
On up Industry Street, I recognized nothing at all. The mom-and-pop storefronts of my youth had all given way to the familiar franchise names that litter main streets everywhere, offering the comfort of the dull, the easy, the familiar and monstrously corporate. A Vision Express had replaced Copper's E-Z Eyes Optometry. Old Mr. Copper had, himself, been cross-eyed, but that was half his charm. A Foot Locker, boasting three hundred different kinds of sneakers, stood on the site of Frankly Footwear, where my mom used to take me to buy PF Flyers at the start of every school year. (I counted no less than six "athletic shoe" shops on my wander through town.) The National Bank was now a Citibank. There used to only be four banks in town all told; I'd already passed more Citibank ATMs than that.
I remembered the one-armed security guard who used to work in the National, who likely couldn't have tied his own shoes (I suppose he must have worn loafers), much less stopped a robbery; for some reason the flap of the empty sleeve pinned to the shoulder of his neatly pressed uniform used to terrify me when I was a little boy. At the peak of my investigative "career," and with Sandy's help, I helped to catch a no-good villain who had robbed the bank. The one-armed guard smiled and patted my head on the day of the award ceremony. (I got a certificate and a stack of penny rolls empty penny rolls and was overjoyed. What a bunch of cheapskates they were; what an asshole I was.) I never admitted to anyone that the guard frightened me even then. Of course, he was also the only black man I knew, and I never did solve the mystery of where in town he lived. Or what, exactly, had happened to his arm.
The ubiquitous commercialism that had changed the face of my old town shouldn't have surprised me; there are probably few places left in America that don't look largely the same these days, that retain any sense of character or charm not officially sanctioned by the multinational behemoths who seem to rule the world under a bewildering assortment of brand names and trademarks. But beyond the boring storefronts that now make up Anytown, USA, I saw, too, the signs of the cyber-boom that had made Ideaville "special," even in these post-bubble days: the software dealers and hardware merchants; the glassy-eyed teens in YellowHat T-shirts stumbling out of gaudy VR arcades promising thrills unseen in life as we know it; the faux art galleries with their "limited edition" prints, the gadget shops and Sharper Image stores hawking genuine retro lava lamps and twenty-first century X-ray specs and all manner of gewgaw and doo-dad that no one can figure exactly what the hell they're supposed to gew or doo, but without which we are supposedly unable to endure.
And patisserie after boulangerie after coffee bar after fern-riddled café. Okay, I appreciate a caffeine rush as much as the next Joe, but jumping Jesus on the java-jive, how much latte can anyone drink?
As I approached Fleet Street, I could see the clock tower of City Hall looming in front of me, and I froze. I didn't think I was quite up to walking past there just yet. You never know exactly who you might run into.
I walked up Pinkwater Avenue instead, tried not get depressed by the enormous Blockbuster Video that stood where a row of stores, including the old taxidermy shop, used to be. Mr. Goldoni, the Tony Perkins-dude who owned the place, once gave me a stuffed vole for helping him nail a shoplifter, but my mom made me throw it away because she said it was infested. I offered to buy a flea-collar for it, but she just wouldn't have it in the house. My old pal Dink used to haunt the alleyway in back of the store hoping to find discarded animal bits among the rubbish. Dink used to collect "dead stuff." What a strange little fucker Dink was; I wonder whatever became of him?
I walked around the corner to glance down the alley just for old times' sake but as I approached the entrance I jumped back when, as if summoned by the memory of Dink's collection, a little dog came running out carrying a human hand in its mouth. As the mangy terrier emerged unto the sunlight, I saw that it was only a plastic hand, off a mannequin perhaps. A short fat man in the alley called out, "Jimbo. Yo, Jimbo!" and the dog scurried back toward its master. It left the hand at my feet, but I turned and walked away.
Pinkwater Avenue terminated at the entrance to the park. The park had always been known as "the park;" it had no official name so far as I can remember. It was the only official park in town, and had a bandstand and a big statue of Abraham Lincoln in the center square to prove it. It was one of the two places kids went to play ball; the other was the field behind the school. You either went to "the park" or "the field," so your mom always knew where to find you.
A bronze plaque announced:
Excerpted from Brown Harvest by Jay Russell. Copyright © 2001 by Jay Russell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
CAMPAIGN AMERICA '96: Marlowe & Company
The View From the Couch
By William O'Rourke
Copyright © 1997 William O'Rourke. All rights reserved.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What goes up must come down, the saying goes, and Jay Russell has imagined a world in which all our childhood heroes have done just that, not simply reaching Earth, but bypassing it and sinking more deeply into the mire than I would have thought possible. Deconstructionism and continuation have been a part of literature, almost as long as there has been literature. New authors with new ideas use the ideas, words and characters of old authors in order to illuminate the present or make some other kind of statement. Witness 'The New Testament', 'The Wide Sargasso Sea', 'The Wind Done Gone', 'Paradise Lost' or any Sherlock Holmes pastiche to see what I mean. Sometimes these attempts are profound; mostly they are dull and add nothing. Then there's 'Brown Harvest', which is both a tongue-in-cheek update to Hammet's 'Red Harvest' and a continuation of the stories of nearly every child detective you ever read. Ch*rry Ames is here, as are D*nny Dunne, J*piter Jones and the H*ppy H*llisters. The H*rdy Boys are major characters. So are B*gs Meany and Curious Ge*rge. But the story truly belongs to the smartest kid in Id(e)aville, *ncycl*p*d** Br*wn. Yes, I've hidden the identities of these characters, just as Russell did, to protect their memories. In Russell's mean streets, nothing good ever happens to a fictional character when he grows up. These once-pure literary entities are now alcoholics, drug-addicts, prostitutes, wastrels, murderers, crooks and sodomites. If you loved these characters, then learning how they turned out will break your heart. Fortunately, this is only one possible ending for these kids and I'd like to think that other books, as yet unwritten, hold a brighter future for them. But that's another matter entirely. The story looesly follows its hard-boiled inspiration, 'Red Harvest', in that a lone man enters a town gone wild, run by three opposing gangs (in this case, violent software companies). Each gang hires the loner who, in turn, begins turning the gangs against one another in order to force them to wipe the others out. The goal is to gain revenge and be the last man standing. Jay Russell is a sly and unflinching reporter, able to bring both humor and pathos to nearly every paragraph. I did find myself laughing out loud and relating the plot or dialog to my friends (most of whom never read the originals, sadly). But on nearly every page I also felt a piece of my childhood die when I saw what Russell had done to my beloved childhood friends. This is not a book for sentimentalists or the faint of heart. But if you can stomach it, this is a hell of an entertaining book, one that will keep you reading, keep you guessing, keeping you rummaging through the attic to retrieve those relics of the past and read them again, to assure yourself they are still as they were. And if you get a chance, read Jay Russell's 'Marty Burns' series. This book led me in that direction and I'm now a huge fan
I don't think I've ever read anything like this before. The premise is that lots of characters from kids' books have grown up - pretty badly, too - and now populate one very weird town. There are a lot of detective types around, like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and the book has lots of references to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It's all pretty wild, but it's also really funny and a lot of fun to read. Some of it is a little disturbing, too, but I thought it made for a great read. Very highly recommended.