Having previously threatened to retire after his tenth movie, writer/director Quentin Tarantino further clarified his post-film plans a month ago by announcing the release of his first novel, a novelization of his ninth film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s scheduled to hit books store in the summer of 2021.
Those of us who’ve spent much of our lives reading and writing crime fiction of the hard-hitting, pulp-ish variety might want to welcome this as good news. After all, Tarantino could well bring a barrage of new readers — lovers of gritty, tough crime thrillers who tend to get their pulp kicks in the film world while leaving the reading up to the more refined, effete fans of literary fiction.
More precisely, Tarantino could help usher in the re-birth of gritty crime fiction that focuses as much on the seedy world of the criminals as nerdy pathologists that populate much of today’s most popular crime fiction.
I’d say Quentin is as likely a candidate as any to trigger a renaissance in this sub-genre. After all, it’s not hard to imagine a fan of the novelized ‘Once Upon…’ becoming an avid reader of the works of Max Allan Collins, Eric Beetner or Christa Faust. Stay tuned…
Few things in life bore me more than cliches, and sadly, the whole-low-esteem-imposter syndrome-hate everything-I-write thing has become something of a cliche. As with any cliche, it doesn’t matter much how rooted in reality it is. It is tedious, boring, tiresome, repetitive and nearly as redundant as the sentence you are reading.
I like Quentin Tarantino. I don’t just mean I like all his movies that aren’t Deathproof. I mean, I like the guy. Kind of.
Yes, he’s a brash and arrogant blowhard who is way too pleased with himself and his films, but in a weird way, I like that about him.
Let me explain.
A return to the days of the badass scribe would be great, but I suspect a list of true badasses would likely begin and end with Hemingway. And a deeper dive would probably reveal he was terrified of bulls.
Fast forward to today and we get Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker as bold as he is brilliant. No insecurities here. The guy loves his movies as much as you do. The clever dialogue, the stunningly inventive structure, the brave casting choices. He even seems to feel okay about his acting.
And if you’re like me, you probably think he’s going about being a writer/artist in the wrong way. He’s not supposed to consume his art, and he’s certainly not supposed to enjoy it.
David Letterman, on the other hand, hates everything he does and readily adheres to the stereotype of the self-loathing artist, eternally nursing a case of impostor syndrome. After all, what better way to illustrate that you are a real artist than to express the belief that you’re not a real artist?
Outside of rappers, porn stars and occasionally rocks stars, Tarantino’s brand of confidence is nearly unheard of in the arts world. And I like it. It’s a fun change of pace and it provides a great role model. We should all love what we do as much as Quentin does. Not just because it makes you a better talk show guest. But because it’s fun. As an artist, it’s a good idea to lean back from your canvas and savor your creation. It’s healthy and it energizes you to create more. Who doesn’t want to do more of something they enjoy and excel at?
The problem is, it’s not so easy to be Tarantino. Personally, I’d say I rank somewhere between Quentin and Dave on the Self-esteem-o-meter. More precisely, I tend to bounce between the two extremes, unable to make up my mind if I’m brilliant or awful. I suppose I feel I’m capable of good, even — dare I say it? — great writing and writing makes me wonder why I bother.
How about you, fellow scribes and artists? Where do you fall on the spectrum?
It was the weirdest job I’d ever taken. No double-crossed thugs, no unpaid loan sharks, nary a cheating spouse to be seen. Just a creepy loner who needed a bullet to the skull before he could push into motion a sick plan to make the world a lonelier place.
And damned if I’d ever had to do that much travel before. But they told me the payday would be worth my while so I sailed off strapped with a 9mm. and a head swimming with 80s nostalgia.
Fighting off a stiff December breeze I wove through the Manhattan streets, eager to find my mark and get the job over with – but good luck fending off the distractions of that gorgeously insane place. The sidewalks were a freak show, alive with coke-fueled craziness and the promise of dangerous sex.
I spent my first ninety minutes spinning deeper into that breathtaking web, absorbing everything.
The sights – even the subway graffiti was somehow beautiful.
The smells – real food, made by real first generation immigrants.
And the voices – Deborah Harry cooing, David Byrne hiccupping, Joey Ramone whimpering, Grandmaster Flash cutting, scratching, reinventing the beat.
How could I not lose track of time? Shit.
I raced from the subway, determined to get across town to The Dakota before it was too late.
It was too late. A cloaked figure – arms extended – closed in on his target rising from a limousine.
“Everybody get down!” I shouted, and both bodies dutifully dropped.
I waited for the gunfire. But it never came.
The autograph seeker turned, his face frozen. Unfamiliar. He wasn’t my mark.
I slipped into the shadows, chagrined.
Then I heard the steps and the gun being loaded. But saw nothing.
“Get down!” I wheezed, no voice left after the false alarm.
I still saw nothing, but tried again:
“Somebody’s got a gun!”
Smirks all around. Who’s the wiseguy? they had to wonder.
My head swiveled, swept the shadows, the alleys, behind the dumpster. Nothing.
Another click. A hammer yanked back. No more steps.
A silhouette emerged, stepped into the moonlight.
“Mr. Chapman?” I asked.
He turned. This was my mark. Sharing that demented grin, glassy eyes shinning on. Like the moon and the stars and the sun. I could see the marquee beaming in his head. He was there already, finished, famous, complete. Nothing left to do but add the exclamation point.
But I had to fuck things up by being a quicker draw.
“The dream is over, motherfucker,” I said.
And I shattered his face into a mess his mother wouldn’t recognize. Twice.
I dove back into the shadows and scampered away, the scene now bathing in stunned silence.
It was time to get back to where I once belonged, back to the winter of 2020, a world that could now watch Yoko grow old with her walrus.
Check out this new series of shorts: popular songs from the 70s and 80s (yeah, I’m old) re-invented as hard hitting tales of pulp.
Now let me channel my inner Casey Kasem:
Our number ten tale is How Long Can you Stand the Heat? is a story of betrayal, deceit and excessive gunplay. (Bonus points if you can guess the song that inspired it)
Steve never had a chance. From the second he got off that Greyhound straight from some Nebraska cornfield, it was clear that he’d get swallowed up by the game one way or the other. He was a boy getting mixed up with men and all the gangster movies in the world wouldn’t prepare him for us.
I wasn’t there at the time, but I’m guessing that when the others decided they’d rat me out and split the remaining take eight ways, it wasn’t Steve’s idea. He probably needed persuading, maybe even an easing of his conscience. But in the end, he must have said ‘yes,’ or at least ‘okay,’ so I didn’t waste an ounce of guilt over what happened next. Served his ass right for being so compliant.
For a job like this — late at night, public street — I’d usually go with something quiet and compact. A Sig Sauer maybe or a nine mm. Anything bigger might be a little loud, make too much of a mess.
But in this case, I wanted to make a mess.
I wanted the unlucky fucks who found Steve and the countless rubbernecking assholes who saw his shredded body on the pavement to know what happened when you crossed the wrong guy.
Anybody who mattered in that neighborhood had to know this wasn’t random. They all knew this was my turf, knew I must have had something to do with that misshapen collection of body parts they saw behind the police tape.
I was sending a message. Fuck with me, and you’ll wind up just like the rest. Another one gone. Hey! I was saying to anybody with ears to listen. I’m gonna get you too.
We waited there, crouched behind the door of JB’s, peeping through the mail slot as Steve crept down the street, body cloaked and head covered like he could hide those naive Nebraska eyes under his fedora’s brim.
Soon as he got close enough, the storm came, bullet after bullet finding him, shaking his body into something spastic and crazed. Knees buckling inward while his upper body jerked and twisted and splayed. Like Jerry Lewis making fun of a stroke victim.
The sirens rang out quickly and the rest of the guys took off, leapt into the van. But I had to stoop to his now-empty face to make sure it was over. In once sense it was. In another, it was just beginning.
Jerry was next, the kind of cat whose knife I’d always suspected would find my back. Tall, gawky, heroin-thin and East coast stupid, he looked like a Ramone who had somehow lived into his seventies and still couldn’t be trusted.
He made the mistake of checking his mailbox one morning, ignoring the ’67 Mustang driving past his home way too slowly. Once again, we used fully automatic subs. And once again, we sent just the message we needed to. Another one gone.
The others were trickier, harder to find because they’d gotten the message loud as a roman candle and decided this was a good time for a change of address. But I found them.
I found Gringo Cris at his boat, cramming his stuff into an Uber at nearly two am, hoping he could get to the airport before we got to him. Bad move, Gringo Cris.
I found Bradley at the East Side Market, thinking his six-foot-two Rastafarian ass could blend into a flood of Koreans.
I found Arthur at the train station, figuring it made more sense than the airport and forgetting who he was fucking with. I found Kyle, Orin and Ted on their way somewhere else. It wasn’t easy, but there’s something about getting fucked out of your money by a teammate that gets the gears shifting.
I got home after a busy Thursday, thinking good thing I don’t need to find Kiva. I sifted through our memories, good and bad, happy that she’d still be there. The last person on earth I could trust.
But then I opened the front door and stepped into a nightmare.
The furniture was gone. So was the plasma TV, the pictures, the clothes, the appliances. All Kiva’s now, wherever the fuck she was.
None of this made sense. I had taken her in when the rest of the world couldn’t take her shit anymore. I helped her see that somebody with her tits and her brains her conniving ways didn’t need to beg for anything anymore. I’d taught her to shoot, to sneak into homes, to send a forearm to somebody’s jaw. And this is what happens?
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find Kiva. But the gears were shifting again.
In the end, it wasn’t that hard to find her. Her sister couldn’t keep a secret and it’s not like anybody who’d pissed off that many people would have tons of options.
“You know where Kiva is?” I asked her sister.
“Kiva?” Aura asked. Eyebrows up like a kid with her mitts in the cookie jar.
“Yes, your sister. You remember Kiva, don’t you?”
“Where is she?”
“Kiva?” Voice higher now. I can hear the secret itching to get out.
“She’s not at home?”
“She’s not at home and you know where she is, don’t you?”
“She’s my sister,” Aura said, her voice firm. But she added: “In spite of everything, I gave her my word.” Less firm now.
“You owe her nothing and you know it, Aura. She owes you though. Big time.”
“She’s my sister.” Wavering now, ready to break.
“Your sister who lied to you about your car?”
“She needed help and I gave her help.”
“And two days later, she gave you a Mazda with a dented hood and a bullshit story about how it got that way,” I said. “I repeat. You owe her nothing.”
Aura unloaded a long sigh. “She’s not here with me.”
“Remember what she told the police when they came over?” I asked. “She said, of course, ‘I wasn’t driving. It’s not my car.’” I paused, waited for the granite in Aura’s face to melt away. “She didn’t say in so many words ‘my sister was driving that car. The car that was used in the robbery.’ But she didn’t have to have to. Sometimes you can tell people things without telling them things.” As if my hint wasn’t clear enough, I repeated it: “Sometimes you can tell people things without telling them things.”
The corner of Aura’s mouth lifted a little. She liked my subtle nudge. “She’s not here. As for where she is now, I don’t know? Where would you go when you need protection? Back home maybe?”
I nodded. Aura told me what I needed to hear without saying the words. Her sister was back home in Indigo Valley, an eastern suburb she grew up in years earlier. I did Aura the favor of not telling her what was waiting for her sister, although honestly she may not have cared.
From there, finding Kiva’s place was easy. She was clever, but not clever enough to come up with an alias I wouldn’t recognize. She barely even tried. Gelli Bean? Her cat’s name completed with a stupid pun. Come on, Kiva.
Getting inside was a little tougher. I’d taught her breaking in, so she knew how to protect her place against people as skilled as us. She made good choices for locks, bars on the windows, all of that. But the choices weren’t good enough. I’d taught her everything she knew. But not everything I knew.
The place looked good. Like ours would have looked without my expensive bad taste and clumsy sense of design. A hardwood floor instead of my cigarette burned carpet. The walls cleaner, prettier. She’d covered the Playboy insignia on the coffee table and added a bar in the living room corner.
I sat there, waiting hours, steady hands, emotions on ice. Even her crazy cat’s occasional sprints from under the couch didn’t startle me.
This time I would use the Sig Sauer.
Less noise seemed a good idea. This wasn’t the hood. It was indigo Valley. A quiet place with neighbors who’d call the cops if the dog next door was shitting too loud. Plus there’d be no point in sending a message in the sunny suburbs. So I chose the Sig. And waited.
I kept my gun trained on the front door, ready for her to step inside. But she got me.
By the time I heard anything from behind it was her revolver’s hammer slipping into place.
I turned, but too late. A burn grazed my shoulder, another shot clipped my inner ankle.
Shit! But my arms were fine. I fired twice, missing both times. She jumped behind a couch that could hide her but not stop bullets. I shot twice, then a third time.
A long, soft whimper. I got something.
I stumbled to my legs, hoping to get her trapped there, but no. My ankle gave way and brought me down and she squirted from the couch’s other end, springing loose. She turned to fire again twice before racing to the corner behind the bar, leaving behind a trail a crimson from her ribcage, her arm tucked tight against the wound.
None of her shots connected this time. But the shoulder and ankle were enough to slow me down.
A few shots at the bar gave me nothing but loud clanks. A bulletproof bar. Of course.
She slipped from the side, took more shots.
Then nothing. I heard a metallic clank that told me she was re-loading.
Gun out, I raced to the bar, knowing that if I moved quickly —
But I wasn’t quick enough.
She’d slipped back by then, reappearing at the other end, giving me one to the belly that sent my gun crashing to the floor and turned my breath into incomplete stutters.
Reaching for my gun gave her a chance to spring out of the bar’s top and fire again. Maybe she connected again, maybe not. Everything was going numb now, pulling away from me like the past.
With a tuck and roll, I got the gun and stumbled to the coffee table, turning it on its side. We traded more shots, but when one broke through the table and buried itself in my left elbow, it was time for plan B.
More bullets, buzzing past like insects. Glass breaking, Gelli yowling to the ceiling, echoes of errant shots ending in thuds and thumps.
Silence. For a while. Was she waiting me out? Out of ammo?
Maybe I could get to the hallway, slip behind better cover. My only chance really.
I found my feet, then lost them, lifted myself up with the gun and a lame left arm. With a grunt, I was up, but not for long. She rose up and took more shots, mostly misses, but the one to my leg was all she needed.
Back to the wall, I flipped a chair to its side, fired away while slowly easing myself to unsteady feet. Then nothing. I stood there waiting to see where all this was going.
I guess I thought that after all we’d been through — three years, eleven jobs, trust, fights, intense makeup sex, gun lessons — she wouldn’t have the balls to finish the job.
But she proved me wrong. It only took one more shot.
She strolled out from the bar, arms crossed, back reclined, face split by a slanted grin. Like a painter gazing at the canvas in admiration of her masterpiece.
With the wall barely bracing me up, she must have figured I was done. But not quite. My eyes sparked to life, catching her off-guard. Her mouth swung open as she made a desperate scramble back to the bar. Hands and knees like an infant chasing daddy’s ankles.
I had a bullet left, maybe two. A well-timed shot could get her…
Gun weighing a ton, hand stiff with pain, I gave my trigger a final tug.
But I didn’t get a chance to see what damage I did. Or if my shot even landed.
Instead, my knees gave out and met the hardwood floor with a conclusive thud right as the world cut to black.