Little Beasts: A Novel

Little Beasts: A Novel

by Matthew McGevna

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Tragedy upends a Long Island town in a crime novel that “captures the familiar rhythms of summertime, following young people on the edge of violence” (Kirkus Reviews).
Turnbull is a working-class town full of weary people who struggle to make ends meet. Evictions, alcoholism, and random violence are commonplace. In the heat of July 1983, when eight-year-olds James, Dallas, and Felix leave their homes to play in the woods, they have to navigate between the potentially violent world of angry adults and even angrier teens. Little do they know that within a few short hours, one of them will lie dead, after a bit of playful bullying from older teens escalates to tragedy.
Loosely based on a real crime that took place on Long Island in 1979, Little Beasts is a panorama of a poor, mostly white neighborhood surrounded by the affluent communities of the East End. After the murder, the novel’s main characters must come to grips with the aftermath, face the decisions they’ve made, and reestablish their faith in the possibility of a better world.
“The reader knows one of the three will be a victim, but not which one, and we read with our hearts in our throats as we grow closer to each boy. . . . In the aftermath of that day, McGevna shows us how the brutality and tragedy of that event affect the families. . . . There will be justice, of some sort, and even redemption. But, as in real life, there is no happy ending.” —
“A gripping exploration of teenage alienation and temporary depravity.” —The East Hampton Star
“All it takes is one or two characters to carry you through to the heartbreaking end—a finale that offers enough hope and redemption to equal the book’s climatic horror.” —
“A brave, beautiful book.” —Richard Bausch, author of Before, During, After

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617753701
Publisher: Akashic Books (Ignition)
Publication date: 06/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 105,914
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Matthew McGevna was born and raised in Mastic Beach, Long Island. Born of Irish descent, he attended fiction and poetry workshops in Galway, Ireland, through the University of Arkansas Writing Program. He received his MFA in creative writing from Long Island University's Southampton College in 2002. An award-winning poet, McGevna has also published numerous short stories in various publications, including Long Island Noir, Epiphany, and Confrontation. He currently lives in Center Moriches, New York, with his wife and two sons, Jackson and Dempsey. Little Beasts is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt


THIS IS THE TOWN OF TURNBULL. In the month of July, in the sweltering town, the heat reminds its people of their limits. There are the day's demands and not much else. The smell of salt from the ocean to the south is faint in the hot air. The people wipe their brows, try to sit still when they can. Damp rags draped over the back of necks. The Pennysaver, usually left rotting off the edge of the mailbox until replaced by the next one, is taken out of its plastic sleeve. Its glossy pages make for hand-held fans. Though hardly a square foot of paint exists not spotted with rust, the men go out to wash their cars anyway and spray their children with hoses as they run by screeching. They silently lament their move from the city, where hydrants were made to be opened. In Turnbull block parties are never spontaneous. They never evolve from a stream of water pouring from a spigot.

Turnbull, a stretch of land on the south shore of Long Island that juts out into the Great South Bay like a sore thumb, has one road in, one road out. Turnbull Road runs north and south, an artery of potholes. On the shoulder the workers huddle near the westside of their yellow truck to grab what little shade they can. Water from their lunch boxes is poured through their scalps rather than their lips as they watch the steam rise from the mound of blacktop and tacitly curse their lot. White tank tops, greased with tar, line up like dirty daisies along the runner of the truck.

The road moves north and south, while a narrow creek cuts the thumb in half by running east and west. And when the heavy rains come, the puddle where Turnbull Road dips into a small valley is knee deep. The barefoot children gather their towels, and frollick in their temporary swimming holes.

But the roadway has been dry all month. See how the blacktop shimmers near the fender of the sheriff's car as it cruises along on cool tires? Just pulled out from the gas station where the sheriff paid an extra three quarters to have them topped off with air. In the front seat is the street map of Turnbull and the page is open to where his red ink has drawn a circle around Meadowgate Road. Set your eyes upon Meadowgate, and how it rises up from the other side of the creek, just after Turnbull Road dips down into the small valley.

The sheriff almost always notices the sink in the road and sighs with relief that on this day, for this whole month even, he hasn't had to chase the children away as they splash and twist out of reach, cursing at him in the rain. Instead he makes his right turn onto Meadowgate Road and narrows his eyes when he sees the movers — three of them — sitting in front of the house, fat as frogs.

One of them is sprawled on his back across the hood of his truck with his shades on, sunning. Another is wiping sweat from his neck and rubbing it onto his pants. The third one has taken refuge from the sun by sitting on the ground in the slip of shade near the tires of their pickup. This one sees the sheriff's car approaching and squints. He says something. The one sunning on the hood sits up and moves his shades to the top of his head. That's all the movement the sheriff will get, until he pulls over, gets out, and points out that the sticker with the red seal from the county office is on the door, so what in the hell are they waiting for?

"Waiting to win the lottery," one says as the two resting on top of the truck slide and melt off like slugs.

The one squatting in the shade eventually rises to his feet. "And for a little rain," he adds to the sheriff, who has already retreated to the air- conditioning of his car.

* * *

In Turnbull the children, off for the summer and set loose throughout the day, make their plans early. Transportation is a rare thing, and where would they go? Staying inside means possibly getting taxed with chores. And yet there is plenty to do.

A construction site for a new home makes a treasure of dirt-bombs nestled in the mountains of earth created by the bulldozers. In the winter they have snowball fights, but in the summer dirt-bomb fights are a fine replacement. Better if the foundation has already been poured, for the walls and bump-outs from which the chimney will eventually rise are great corners for sneak attacks. Even better if some kids from another part of Turnbull wander into the neighborhood, for rather than bickering to make teams, they can unite and descend upon the outsiders with a hail of dirt and shouts about their territory.

For the boys who live nearer to the creek, a relief from dirt-bomb fights is to wrap muck into a skunk cabbage leaf and hurl it at an opponent.

A third option on a hot day like this is to go and secretly watch the evictions. Spy on the men who carry them out by hiding in the woods nearby. Each child, each wild group running with untied shoelaces, will make its own plan.

* * *

It takes straws, but on this day, as the muck seems to crust beneath the sun, James Illworth, Dallas Darwin, and Felix Cassidy crouch in the woods near the top of the hill on the other side of the creek, waiting for something to happen. Eventually they spy the sheriff's car pulling onto Meadowgate Road, and they know what it means.

See the sheriff searching the empty house for drugs and weapons? Observe the men standing in the heat waiting to be let inside. Look just behind the house where the woods from the creek abruptly stop and the tall grass of the overgrown backyard takes over the landscape. The three boys crawl on their stomachs inching ever closer to watch. When the sheriff, from inside the house, bangs open the back door, a dog bolts out and in only two bounds seems to make it across the backyard and into the dense woods. The boys, ears pressed into the grass, close their eyes as though it might render them invisible.

Dallas crawls ahead of them once the sheriff goes back inside, and makes it to a thicket of evergreen bushes at the front edge of the driveway. Once inside the bushes, he pulls his knees in like a fetus and looks past his toes to see if the others are following.

His father, Michael, drove him past two evictions this summer, slowing down as they approached the pile of belongings stacked at the edge of the property. His father pointed at the pile and said, "Lesson learned, Dallas. Take care of your responsibilities."

James Illworth's father hates when his son goes to the evictions, but he will never tell him why. All James ever gets from his father is a grunt, or a wave, or he'll mutter, "Gross," as he walks out the back door and retreats to his horse barn to read the newspaper. Dallas laughs whenever James tries to explain his father's strange reaction.

Felix never shares his parents' opinions on much of anything. They are an occasional ride to the movies. A hand waving out of a passing car window to James and Dallas as they play ball in the street in autumn. James and Dallas haven't yet made up their minds about this fact. They sense sometimes that Felix is shielding his parents from his friends, rather than the other way around.

In any case, it never stops Felix from watching the evictions. And perhaps Felix's behavior during the task provides all the answer Dallas and James need, for Felix almost always leads the charge, picks up his head in the tall grass, looks around for places to take cover, and inches closer to being caught than the other two would ever dare.

The movers have drifted over to the front lawn while they await permission to start. One of them lights up a cigarette. Just yards away, huddled in the bushes, the three boys catch the faint smell of menthol.

Abruptly the front door bursts open and the sheriff strides off the porch and stands there with his hands on his belt. He nods at the men. The one smoking drops his cigarette into the grass and steps on it as he makes his way to the front door.

This is what denial looks like. Piled beside the door in an unruly stack lies a bundle of unopened letters. The bank calling upon payment. LILCO demanding satisfaction of two month's negligence on electric. Jury duty. Your subscription is ending. Final notice. Like a team of wranglers hopelessly shouting at a doomed horse to rise up from the mud bank.

The movers ignore the envelopes and step inside the empty house. The scattered trail of human vacancy continues. Two holes punched into the wall opposite the front door. Imprints like white knuckles where the fist struck a stud on the wall. This is what anger looks like.

The men start with the couch that runs under the large front window, dragging it out of the house by its legs. They carry it to the overgrown bushes and turn it over to discourage a bevy of smart-aleck kids who no doubt will plop down on it and pretend to watch TV. The end tables go next — into the bushes — the lamps placed gently against them. Shades on the evergreens like paper cups tossed from a moving car.

Inside once again, the men look at bargaining. In the kitchen, written in pencil on the bare white wall — a list of phone numbers. Connie — Dept. Social Services. Margaret — Loan Assistance (need proof unemployment). Tony — lawyer, bankrpcy. $850 (will take small payment). Tax returns for larger payment. Bargaining.

Outside, the sheriff sits in his running car and pulls apart the Newsday. He chuckles as he glances at something Elly said in For Better or For Worse. Then he flips the paper over and sniffs. Dave Righetti's no-hitter against the Red Sox still dominates the coverage. A Mets fan, he turns it over once more. Every morning the real news makes his head shake. Gaddafi. Andropov. The Ayatollah. The rapidly dwindling column space devoted to April's embassy bombing in Beirut. In Reagan's greatest nightmares, how will they get off this island? Immersed in the few sentences updating the embassy bombing, he doesn't notice the bushes rattling, nor the three boys who shift their restless bodies.

All three men break new sweat when they carry out the kitchen table. It rolls over the couch and lands atop the lampshades in the bushes. One of the men plants his palms on his knees and stares down at the ground to catch his breath. He straightens when the sheriff honks his horn at him. The one next to him, whose boots are only feet from Dallas, stares up at the sky when he hears the familiar sound of seagulls. A flock has perched atop the phone lines, waiting for the refrigerator to come out.

The third man, whose shades are sliding off his head on beads of sweat, brings out the chairs.

The refrigerator follows, opening as it topples over to the other side of the pile. A rotten orange, three beers, and a near-empty bottle of cheap whiskey rattle out and roll into the street. This is what depression looks like.

Stripped of its sheets and pillows, the stained corpse of a mattress is added to the pile. Then the frame. A dresser with crooked drawers. A mirror. This the movers also turn over, along with the small TV — the invitation for kids to break too great. A bag of hangers. Another nightstand. The men let two abandoned hairpins slide off the stand and bounce onto the carpet.

The spare room gives up a bookshelf, which the men feed out the window rather than carry through the house. It crashes and falls into pieces when it hits the ground. A small couch. A stack of papers, a black tray filled with stationery. Two lamps. All go to the pile, which begins to rise above the evergreens like a pyramid. An empty dog's cage goes more easily through the back door.

A pantry full of detergents, dog food, three flashlights empty of batteries, a bicycle with a missing front wheel, a box of newspapers — the movers, cursing, drag them from around back and toss them against the bushes before heading inside again.

Paintings of wheat fields, the hillsides of Italy, a lake house overlooking its reflection in the water, lean against a rickety wooden chair at the front entrance. One of the men gathers the frames under his armpit and grabs the chair. On his way out he inspects a painting. Debates whether or not it would make a nice gift for his wife, then tosses it onto the pile.

The lights have already been turned off at the switch. As if the evictees glanced back for one last look and shut them off before closing the door behind them. This is acceptance.

The men drag the last of what they can carry and pull the door closed. From there the chains go on easy. With a lag bolt, one of the men mounts the chain from the doorjamb to the doorknob and slaps on the padlock. Then the sheriff gets out of his car and reaches into his top pocket. He tacks a white sheet of paper to the door as the men pick up the remains of what they've pulled from the house.

Buried beneath a graveyard of belongings the boys hold their breath as the sheriff approaches with the three men trailing behind. All four drift past them.

"Sorry, boys, no melodrama today," the boys hear the sheriff say. The men laugh and one of them says he'll always take an empty house over a full one. The men amble across the street and ease themselves into their truck. The sheriff stands inside his open door. The air-conditioning wafts across his midsection. It lightens his mood.

"Let me know if there's anything you can do for me," the sheriff yells to the men, as he squats down into his cruiser. He chuckles at his selfish twist on the phrase.

James peers through the branches to the front door. The silver padlock catches a ray of sun and flickers at him. The boys hear the sheriff's car door slam and the big vehicle rolls past the pile above their heads. The truck drives off in the other direction, but the boys still wait a full ten Mississippis before they finally crawl out of their hiding spots, laughing.

"I swear, the one who dropped his cigarette in the grass looked right at me," Dallas says.

"When that other guy leaned down to catch his breath, all he had to do was look to his left and he would have nailed me," says Felix.

James pulls on the leg of an upturned end table and in so doing, sets off an avalanche of furniture that nearly spills out into the road. He rights the end table and sets it down properly on all four legs. Then he stares at the table and wonders why he did it. The other two seem to be wondering the same thing, and might have asked him but they all suddenly fix their attention on the sound of a clanking chain and immediately recognize Motor Murray. The old man is wheeling his bicycle over to the pile. The shopping cart he has affixed with chains to the back of the frame rattles like a can of pins.

Murray's nickname is simple enough. Drenched in all the sarcasm of his neighbors. His bicycle is his only vehicle. His pumping legs his only motor. The shopping cart, his trunk. The boys don't know if Motor Murray is aware of his moniker, but somehow they get the feeling that even if he does know it, he wouldn't mind.

In the coming nuclear apocalypse, we will all be stranded to our fate. Only Murray will escape on his bicycle and restart civilization. That's how it is in the movies the boys watch, after the TV screen flashes blood-red and the hillsides and treetops blush with light. A lone survivor pedaling westward. Weaving through the catastrophic debris and corpses strewn along the roadways.

Murray has a pride about his transportation that angers everybody.

Just about every morning during the school year the kids would watch Murray, racing along Turnbull Road on his bicycle as the school bus navigated the choking clogs of traffic and stop signs. Did he ever hear the tin echo of the children's laughter? He never looked over at them, otherwise he'd have seen the coach stuffed with little eyes and greasy hands pressed against the windows, giggling. And when he peeled away from the bus's trajectory by heading down a side street, the children would settle down and chant:

Motor Murray/in a hurry/for the bar was soon to close. When along came another/who'd been with his mother /and was wearing the same kind of clothes. I've got such a cramp/but I need a new lamp/said the one with the scraggly toes. So he saw Motor Murray/pedaled on with a fury/and stole one from under his nose.

There were variations. New adventures. New vices to give Murray, though none of them knew if he'd ever had a drink in his life. The bus driver would curse at them and ask them how they were raised, which only added to the mirth. Dallas would remain quiet and grin while looking out the window beside James, but Felix always had an answer for the driver.

Now that the boys are not whipping past Murray in their school bus, chanting poems, they can get a better look at him.

Motor Murray is dressed in his usual reflector vest, which he got after being struck by a car two years ago. He was riding his normal route along Turnbull Road, only in the tricky shadows of dusk. When Murray was hit, he lay there for hours. Neighbors came out to the porch and raised their faces to the air as though some foul smell had wafted in, but they never went to him. Eventually, he pulled himself up to one foot and limped home. His right leg was shattered, and since the accident, he has walked with a considerable limp — his foot turned slightly inward. At some point he fished a cane out of a garbage pile and has grown dependent on it when he isn't on his bicycle.


Excerpted from "Little Beasts"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Matthew McGevna.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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