Monday, September 16, 2019

The Story Behind the Story:
“The Dead Beat Scroll,” by Mark Coggins

(Editor’s note: This is the 86th entry in The Rap Sheet’s surprisingly durable “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s essay comes from all-too-infrequent contributor Mark Coggins, the San Francisco-area photographer and author, whose previous “Story Behind the Story” piece addressed 2015’s No Hard Feelings, the sixth of his books starring Bay Area private eye August Riordan. He follows that up, below, by providing some background to his latest Riordan mystery, The Dead Beat Scroll, which is due for release this week from Down & Out Books.)

Late one night in January 1952, Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac appeared on the doorstep of Neal and Carolyn Cassady’s tiny A-frame house at 29 Russell Street, on Russian Hill in San Francisco. Neal was to serve as the model for the character of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's most famous work, On the Road (1957). In fact, Kerouac’s description of his reception—“He [Neal] came to the door stark naked and it might have been the President knocking for all he cared. He received the world in the raw”—made its way into the book.

Kerouac stayed with the Cassadys for the next six months, working on several novels, including On the Road, Doctor Sax, and Visions of Cody. He lived in the attic, writing on a desk made from a sheet of plywood. In 2003’s The Beat Generation in San Francisco, writer Bill Morgan catalogued the other attic furnishings: “There was a bed on the floor and a typewriter, paper, Dexedrine, a radio, bongo drums, and a tape recorder for the new spontaneous prose style he was developing.”

The original manuscript of On the Road was typed on what Kerouac referred to as “the scroll”: a continuous, 120-foot-long roll of sheets of tracing paper taped together. The text was single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks.

The first publisher to which Kerouac submitted On the Road, Ace Books, rejected it. Ace editor Carl Solomon explained why in a 1973 interview conducted by John Tytell:
CS: [He] sent us this long scroll. My uncle [the owner] said it looked like he took it from his trunk.

JT: The teletype roll. Did he get that from Lucien Carr at United Press?

CS: I don’t know where he got it, but we were used to these neat manuscripts, and I thought, “Gee, I can’t read this.”
Ultimately, the reading public in general, and book collectors in particular, came to have a very different opinion of On the Road. The book is now considered a defining work of the postwar Beat and Counterculture generations, and the scroll itself was bought in 2001 by a collector for $2.43 million—equal to $3.44 million in today’s dollars.

(Left) Author Mark Coggins

I first learned that Kerouac had stayed with the Cassadys on Russian Hill when I lived there myself in the mid-1990s. A friend pointed out the Russell Street house when we were walking in the neighborhood and related its unique place in San Francisco literary history. Later, after I’d finished work on my fourth novel, Runoff (2007), I remembered that house and began to toy with the idea of plotting my next book around another Kerouac scroll that is discovered when the Russell house is demolished. As you’ll see in this 2007 interview I did with author Julia Buckley for her blog, Mysterious Musings, I had even come up with a title: The Dead Beat Scroll.

But fate in the form of a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, intervened, and I was inspired to write instead about the bizarre story of Evita Perón’s “afterlife” in my 2009 novel, The Big Wake-Up. Next came No Hard Feelings, which sent my P.I. protagonist, August Riordan, away from San Francisco to a kind of exile in a double-wide trailer on the outskirts of Palm Springs, California.

While contemplating how to bring Riordan back to the City by the Bay, I hit on the idea of his being summoned by his former administrative assistant, Gretchen Sabatini, to help locate his old sidekick, cross-dressing techno-geek Chris Duckworth, who has gone missing after taking on a case involving a murderous polyamorous family. I then decided to resurrect the Kerouac manuscript as the MacGuffin that summons that family to town, and I threw in the Chinatown gang that Riordan mixed it up with in Runoff for good measure.

The Dead Beat Scroll is my seventh August Riordan novel and its debut occurs simultaneously with the 20th anniversary of the publication of my first novel, The Immortal Game, back in 1999.

On a personal note, its release also closely coincides with what would have been my 20th wedding anniversary. Tragically, my wife passed away several months before the book reached print. As I describe in this essay, “Who Was Linda Zhou?,” she was always my biggest supporter and fan, and I owe much of my success to her. It goes without saying that the dedication of The Dead Beat Scroll is to her—in both English and Chinese.

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An excerpt from Coggins’ The Dead Beat Scroll is available on the Thrilling Detective Web Site. Background on all of his August Riordan tales can be found in Ben Boulden’s Gravetapping blog.

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