Friday, November 02, 2012

The Story Behind the Story: “Hell City,”
by Allen Shadow

(Editor’s note: In this 39th installment of The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome Allen Shadow (aka Allen Kovler), a New York poet, songwriter, blogger, and now author of the e-book Hell City, which Kirkus Reviews called “an entertaining mystery that borrows from the best in mystery and noir, while adding a heavy dose of modern paranoia.” Below, Shadow fills us in on some of his new novel’s history.)

It happened one night. The idea for my novel, Hell City, that is. But as we know, Rome wasn’t built in a single day. So, for the full back story to this novel--one in which the city of New York qualifies as a central character--I’ll have to ask you to join me in the proverbial time machine.

Let’s go back to the era when this author was 5 years old, standing on a rooftop in West Harlem, marveling at the hard dark and light of the Meatpacking District while on a trip to my father’s bookkeeping office--trucks with half cows, men with blood-smeared aprons, crows wheeling under the vaulted girders of the West Side Highway viaduct. Then came the poems, during my college days and beyond. Poems that refracted the chiaroscuro of the city’s façades, the dolor of her teeming but lonely streets. Poems that found their way into many a small-press magazine, into chapbooks. Poems that caused Library Journal to cite my work for its “startling imagery.”

Along the way, I worked in the city’s warehouses, drove her cabs, wrote for her newspapers, and sang in her nightclubs. Her underbelly was my beat, forging a gritty, cinematic prose style.

Then, a decade ago, I put out my first rock album, King Kong Serenade. The record was a paean to the city, with songs about the ghosts of Broadway, of Times Square, of Coney Island, songs with lines like “This is Hopper’s town, Edward Hopper’s town.”

New York was a character, if you will, in that album, and she’s a character once again in Hell City. This novel’s protagonist--a former NYPD homicide dick turned counter-terrorism commander--and his colorful crew patrol a shadowy world of clues that takes them through the city’s grittiest precincts, as all the while Gotham’s great façades loom in the background: old pier houses, factories, hotels--again, the city’s dark side.

Now I can flash forward to that night, the single evening the idea for Hell City presented itself. I can’t reveal the precise circumstances, since they would spoil this thriller’s ending, but I can say the plot surrounds another major terrorist attack on New York City. The action in the novel feels like it’s ripped from today’s news pages. Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead. Yes, al-Qaida is on the run. And, yes, the Middle East and Africa are in turmoil. But, al-Qaida and its many affiliates are metastasizing, reforming new alliances, and fomenting new plots. The question is, can one of these new-generation jihadi groups pull off another “big one” in New York? As the subtitle of Hell City suggests, “Al-Qaida isn’t dead yet. New York may be.”

This time, Americans play an integral role in the new generation of al-Qaida, or Qaida 2.0 as it is called. The American jihadists are inspired by Internet imams who have taken on rock-star personae. Prior to starting this novel, I had paid much attention to such real-life figures as the late Anwar al-Awlaki, who had influenced a number of Americans to commit lone-wolf acts, homegrown terrorists like Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, and the Christmas Day bomber and his attempt on an airliner over Detroit, both in 2009. There was the Times Square bomber months later. It seemed like there was a new American-led plot every few weeks: Jihad Jane, a Colorado cell with a plot for New York’s subways--the list went on, and it still does.

I realized that the constant drumbeat of high alerts was having a “boy who cried wolf” affect on the American public. The typical subway rider couldn’t keep up with it all. He was becoming inured to the threats and had also decided that al-Qaida was decimated post-bin Laden, that all they could manage was the lone-wolf attack, that they couldn’t pull off another big one like 9/11. So, he went to sleep on the whole thing.

Well, that attitude sounded fairly familiar to me. It reminded me of our original encounter with al-Qaida, the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993. I’m sure there are young adults today who don’t know there even was a “first” attack. I thought about how that botched attempt to bring down one of the towers in ’93 left us with the impression that al-Qaida was the terrorist “gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” To the guy on the subway, it was like, “You #%@! kidding me, a blind cleric from Jersey City? What’s this, the Three Stooges?” So he went to sleep on them, as most of us did. Then--boom, bam, boom--three airliners in three places: 9/11. If that wasn’t a wake-up call on the capabilities and the long-term tenacity of al-Qaida, I don’t know what is.

So one night the scenario that Qaida 2.0 just might be able to pull off another “big one” in New York was born. And so began Hell City, a novel with a vigilante hero, Jack Oldham, who tracks the newest generation of American-born jihadists through the darkest precincts of New York. And while the city’s dark side is in evidence, this novel’s picaresque characters provide for a darkly comic, if terrifying tale. And, perhaps my favorite character, the city of New York, is in play in all her glory.

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