The Harder They Come Book Trailer < watch the book trailer
 

The Harder They Come, published by Ecco in March of 2015, is my fifteenth novel and twenty-fifth book of fiction.  The book is a meditation on gun violence, set primarily in the vicinity of Fort Bragg, on the northern California coast, very close to the locale of my second novel, Budding Prospects (1984).  I take my epigraph from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.  It has never yet melted”) and make use of it as a point of departure to examine and dramatize the events surrounding an incident that took place there in 2011.  The book opens with Sten Stensen, father of the shooter-to-be, who is on a cruise ship that makes a stop in Costa Rica, where he and his wife join a group of their fellow senior citizens for a nature hike.  The group is attacked by three young muggers and Sten reacts instinctively, killing one of them with his bare hands as the other two run off, an act for which he is hailed in the press as a hero.  On returning home, he finds that his son, Adam, is becoming increasingly delusional.  Adam’s break with reality is swift and violent.  The third major character, Sara Hovarty Jennings, is a member of the Sovereign Citizens’ Movement that rejects governmental authority.  She becomes Adam’s mentor and lover and helps nurture his hatred of authority.  Don’t tread on me, indeed.

Recent events—the massacre in Santa Barbara in the spring of 2014, the Pennsylvania shootings later that year (in which, like Adam, the gunman took to the woods to avoid capture), and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo murders—serve only to underline the central questions here: why is it, I wonder, do the mentally unstable in our societies have access to lethal weapons?  And why are the shooters (in this country, at any rate) young, white and disaffected, let alone hard, isolate, stoic and killers through and through?  I’m not a sociologist.  I have no answers.  But The Harder They Come is an attempt to enter the mind of one such shooter, as well as that of his father and lover, to imagine just how he might see the world, our world, the one in which we all, increasingly, seem to be targets.

The first chapter is excerpted in the April Harper’s and so the excerpt that follows is from the second section of the book, introducing Sara and her skewed but unwavering point of view.

 
Excerpt from The Harder They Come
 

EXCERPT FROM The Harder They Come:

 

PART II:
WILLITS

 

She didn’t like fast food, or not particularly—the grease they used hardened your arteries and they doused everything with corn syrup and sugar, which jacked up the calories and made you put on weight, an issue with her, she knew it—but she stopped at the place on Route 20 in Willits and got a crispy chicken sandwich, if only to put something on her stomach.  It wasn’t like her to oversleep, but that’s what happened, and she’d had to skip breakfast and run out the door with nothing but a cup of yesterday’s coffee microwaved to an angry boil—and she still wound up being half an hour late for her morning appointment.  As a concession to the little voice nagging in her head, she skipped the fries and ordered a diet drink instead of regular, though she did ask for crispy instead of grilled because grilled had no more taste than warmed-over cardboard with a spatter of ketchup on it.  Kutya was in the backseat, generally behaving himself, but he came to attention when she pulled into the drive-thru lane.  He must have recognized the place, if not by sight, then smell, though she hadn’t stopped here more than a handful of times.  At any rate, he began whining and tap dancing around on the seat he’d rendered filthy despite the towel she’d spread over it, and she gave in and ordered him a burger (no bun, no condiments, no pickles), feeding it to him over her shoulder as she put the trusty blue Nissan Sentra in drive and sailed on out of the lot and down the long winding road to Fort Bragg and the coast. 

There was talk on the radio, but it was mainly left-wing Communist crap—NPR, and how was it their signal was stronger than anybody else’s?—and even that faded out once she started down the grade and hit the first few switchbacks, so she popped in a CD instead.  She favored country, but the old stuff, the classic stuff, Loretta and Merle and Hank, because all the new singers with their custom-made boots and blow-dried hair were just pale imitators, anyway.  And if people criticized her for being a once-divorced forty-year-old woman with no romantic prospects on the horizon who really wasn’t in step with the times (You mean not even Brad Paisley?), so much the worse.  She liked what she liked.  And when she went out on a Saturday night with her best friend Christabel Walsh and had a few beers, she just let the music wash right over her like the vapid stares of all the losers lined up at the bar who were too small-minded and self-absorbed to ask a woman to dance. 

No matter.  She dwelled within herself.  She was content and self-sufficient.  She had her own business, she had Kutya, a rented two-bedroom clapboard house that looked down on the crotch of the Noyo Valley and half the horses in the world available to her anytime she wanted to ride.  If another relationship came along, fine.  If not, too bad for him—or them, whoever they might be—because she wasn’t desperate, not in the least, not even close, and there was no way in the world she was going to pretend to like Brad Paisley or whoever because to her it was all just more of the same singsong bastardized crap, and she’d told Christabel that and she’d tell anybody else who might want to stick their nose in too.

So there she was, driving in her own personal property with her dog by her side and a living to earn, winding down Route 20 so she could get to the Coast Highway and head forty-four-point-five miles south to the little flyspeck town of Calpurnia, where there were three horses—and if the veterinarian showed up on time, at least one sable antelope with three-foot horns—that needed her ministrations.  It was the middle of the summer.  The sky was clear, the sun fixed like a compass point ahead of her.  When she looped around a turn and saw the coast off in the distance, it was clear there too, the fog burned back and exiled in a linty gray band out at sea.  Was she wearing her seatbelt?  No, she wasn’t, and she was never going to wear it either.  Seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing.  But she wasn’t a citizen of the U.S.I.G.A., she was a sovereign citizen, a U.S. national, born and raised, and she didn’t now and never would again acknowledge anybody’s illegitimate authority over her.  So no, she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt.  And she didn’t have legal plates, or the sort of plates the republic of California deemed legal, that is (the sticker that had come with the ones on the car was long-since expired because she wasn’t about to play that game), and if she was traveling on the public roads in her own personal property, it was her business and nobody else’s. 

When the cop pulled her over, he claimed it was because she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, but of course he would have had to have raptor’s eyes to see that from three hundred feet away where he was fooling nobody behind a roadside clump of madrone except maybe the drifting black vultures overhead.  She’d watched him swing out behind her, pulling a U-turn and settling in on her tail with his gumball-machine spinning and his siren whoop-whoop-whooping.  She might have gone half a mile or more before she finally pulled over—in a spot at the mouth of a dirt drive that seemed sufficiently safe, the whole road to this point bristling with jagged pines and dried-up weeds that snatched at the side of the car every time she drifted toward the shoulder.  Looking back on it, she supposed she could have stopped sooner, and she supposed too that that might have had something to do with this particular cop’s agitation, but you did what you did and you couldn’t have regrets, not in this life that just marched you on toward the grave day by day. 

He was lean, young, fresh-faced.  He had to tap at the window three times before she rolled it down.  Kutya lurched forward to give him a low warning growl and then he was barking and she didn’t do a thing about it.  Let him bark, that was what she felt.  It was his right.

“Do you know why I stopped you, ma’am?” the cop said.

Of course she did: he was the oppressor and she was the oppressed.  She said nothing.

“License and registration,” the cop said, raising his voice to be heard over the clamor of the dog.  “And proof of insurance.”

What she told him in response, in a voice as steady as she could hold it, even as Kutya settled into a ragged gasping continuous low-throated bark and people slowed to gape at her as if she were some circus attraction, was that she was not engaged in a contract with the republic of California.  “I’m a sovereign citizen,” she said, speaking as clearly as she could, given the noise of the dog and the clank and hiss of the traffic as all the white-haired Baby Boomer tourists applied their brakes and then stepped back on the gas once they’d got a good look.  “You have no authority over me.”

The cop just stared at her.  After a moment he flipped up his sunglasses so she could see the fine red fissures of irritation fracturing his frog-belly eyes.  “Maybe you didn’t hear me,” he said, “but I asked for your license and registration.”

She said nothing.  Just fixed her gaze straight ahead to where the road ran on into the sunshine past a field of stiff yellow grass and a shadowy fringe of trees, the road that ran true to her destination, to the place where she had business when she had no business here at all.

“Ma’am?”

She turned her head back to him, locked her eyes on his, and her heart was going, all right, because she could tell where this was leading and it scared her and made the anger come up in her too, and why couldn’t they just leave well enough alone?  “I told you,” she said, “I have no contract with you.”

“Does that mean you refuse?”

“Let me repeat,” she said.  “I—have—no—contract—with—you.”

He shifted his boots in the gravel along the roadside, a dull grating intolerable sound that got Kutya back up into the high register.  The cop put his hands on his hips, as if to show her where the gun was and the nightstick and handcuffs too.  He said, “I’m going to have to ask you to get out of the car.”

“No,” she said.  “I won’t.”

“Suit yourself.”  He straightened up then and stalked back to his car, where she could see him in her rearview as he leaned in, pulled out the cord of the radio mike and started moving his lips.

Ten long minutes crept by.  Each one of them, each second, dripped acid through her veins, and she thought of just putting the car in gear and driving off, but resisted because that would only make things worse.  Kutya—he was a puli, a white puli—settled into the discolored basket of his dreadlocks and fell off to sleep, thinking the threat had passed.  Foolishly.  But then he was a dog, and dogs had other concerns.

Finally another cruiser appeared, lights flashing, siren screaming, swooping on up the road behind her like a black steel shroud and nosing in at an angle so close to her front bumper she thought it was going to hit her.  In the next instant she was staring across the passenger’s seat of this new car and into the face—the hard demanding unforgiving put-upon face—of a female officer, who picked something up off the seat, squared herself and swung out of the car.  Next thing she knew, both cops were there, one on either side of her, and Kutya was back on his feet, back at it again, barking in a renewed frenzy that just made everything that much harder. 

“Good afternoon,” the female cop said, her eyes roaming over the interior as if she was thinking of making an offer on the car.  “I understand that you refuse to comply with Officer Switzer’s request for identification, is that right?”

She said nothing.

The female officer—she was tall, thin, no shape to her at all, and she wore no makeup, not a trace, not even lipstick—asked her to get out of the car.  Or no, commanded her.

She said nothing. 

“Just to be sure you understand me,” the male cop cut in now—he was stationed by the passenger’s-side window, leaning in so he could watch her, and if that didn’t make her feel paranoid she couldn’t imagine what would because this was like being squeezed between two pincers and it was wrong, intolerable, a violation of every natural right there was—“I have to inform you that state law requires you to show a valid driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance at the reasonable request of a peace officer.”

She threw it right back at him.  “Reasonable?  You call this reasonable?  You have no authority here—you’re nothing more to me than a man dressed up in a Halloween costume.”

“If you refuse,” he said, the muscles tightening around his mouth, “we will have no recourse but to remove you forcibly from your vehicle—”

“Which will be impounded,” the female added, as if they’d switched speakers on a stereo, his voice assaulting her on the right, hers on the left.  “And your dog will be taken to the shelter.”  She paused.  A top-heavy camper swished delicately past them, ten miles under the limit.  A pickup going the opposite way swung with elaborate courtesy off onto the shoulder to give it room and then continued on in a slow-motion crawl.  “And you yourself, if you don’t comply this minute, will be arrested, I promise you that—and I personally will escort you to the county jail.”

It was hopeless, she could see that.  The day was ruined.  The week, the whole month.  This was the mega-state in all its glory.  She’d stated her status in plain English and they still didn’t seem to understand.  Well, they could go to hell, all of them.  She started screaming then, calling them every name in the book, shouting “TDC!  TDC!  Threat, Duress and Coercion!” over and over again, even as the female forced open the door and took hold of her by her left arm and Kutya, good dog, faithful dog, went right at her.

 

They took her to the county jail in Ukiah, retracing her route back up Route 20, though now she was in restraints and in the backseat of a police cruiser, separated by a heavy wire grid and Plexiglas shield from the female cop, whose right hand, resting at one o’clock on the wheel, sported two bright shining flesh-colored bandaids where the dog’s teeth had broken the skin, though it wasn’t much more than a scratch.  Her own car was back alongside the road, awaiting the tow truck, and Kutya—poor Kutya—after having been poked, prodded and muzzled by two numbnuts from Animal Control, had been forced into a boxy white van, which must have been somewhere behind her now, on its way up this same road to the animal shelter, also in Ukiah.  She’d missed her appointment, of course—and for what, for nothing, for a seatbelt?—and she’d had no way of letting the Burnsides know she wasn’t coming, that she’d been unavoidably and illegally detained and wasn’t just blowing off her responsibility, and who could blame them if they went online and found another farrier to shoe their horses and trim the hooves of their sable antelope?  She had a reputation to maintain, a business to run, and she was doing no harm to anybody, doing nothing more than using the public byways as was her inalienable right, and now look at the mess she was in. 

Still, as the cruiser looped through the turns and climbed back up out of the Noyo Valley, she began to rethink her position, until degree by degree she felt the indignation cooling in her.  This was going to cost her.  Fines, towing and Christ knew what else.  They’d make her renew that sticker, and there’d be paperwork, a layout of cash she really didn’t have and every sort of hassle the authorities (authorities, what a joke) could devise.  By the time they arrived at the police station and they’d photographed and fingerprinted her, given her her one phone call—to Christabel, who else?—and escorted her to an empty cell and locked her in, she was contrite.  Or no: chastened was a better word.  And enlightened.  Enlightened too.  These people didn’t recognize her status, didn’t know a damned thing about the Uniform Commercial Code or her rights under it, and they didn’t care either.  They had all the power, all the muscle, and she was nothing, reduced to this, to groveling and ass-kissing and giving lip service to the System, as if she was grateful they’d assaulted her and taken away her rights and her property.  All right.  If that was how they wanted it, fine.  She sat in that cell and kept her mouth firmly shut and fed her hate and resentment till Christabel showed up an hour later with the bail money and she was out.

“I told you,” Christabel said, once they’d slammed into her pickup in the lot out back of the station.  “You may have your theories or beliefs or whatever, but these people?  They don’t care.  They’re on another planet—this planet, planet earth.”  She gave her a look, all eye shadow and glistening black mascara.  “And you—you’re in outer space.  I mean it, Sara.  I really do.”

Christabel was two years older than she was, also divorced, also childless.  She’d kept her figure and had men sniffing after her seven days a week but she was done with men, or that’s what she said, anyway—at least till the next one came along.  She was Sara’s best friend and here she was proving it all over again, taking time out from her work as a teacher’s aide at the elementary school to be there for her, but she was wrong on this, dead wrong. 

“It’s not theory,” she said.  “It’s law.  Natural law.” 

“There you go—I mean, don’t you ever learn?”  They were heading out of the parking lot now, the police lot, and the idiot dinger started in because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt.  “And buckle your belt, will you?”

Contrite?  Who was contrite?  Not her.  “No,” she said.  “No way.”

That was when Christabel hit the brake so hard she nearly went through the window.  “I swear I’m not going another inch until you buckle up—and not just because of what happened here and not for safety’s sake either, but because I can’t stand that fucking noise one more second!”

“You don’t have to shout,” she said.  “I mean there’s nothing wrong with my hearing.”  Still she didn’t touch the belt.  It was as if her hands were paralyzed.

 The noise kept up, ding-ding-ding, a beat, then ding-ding-ding and ding-ding-ding.

“Sara, I’m warning you, I mean it, I do—”

She let her gaze roll on out over the scene. She was calm now, utterly calm.  Traffic flicked by on the street.  Ding-ding-dingDing-ding-ding.  A girl who honestly couldn’t have been more than sixteen went by pushing one of those double baby strollers as if there was nothing wrong with that, as if that was the way people were supposed to live.  She looked over her shoulder and saw that there was a car in the lot behind them, a face trapped in the blaze of the windshield, some other soul trying to get out of this purgatory and back to real life, but nobody was going anywhere unless something changed right here and now.  Christabel was glaring at her, actually glaring.  

In the next moment, and she hardly knew what she was doing, she flipped the handle and pushed the door open wide, and then she was out on the sidewalk, her feet moving and the door gaping behind her, hurrying down the street as fast as her boots would take her, thinking, The bank, the bank before it closes.  And Christabel?  Christabel was just an afterthought because she wasn’t going to sit there arguing.  She had to get to the bank because she knew she was going to have to suck everything out of her savings and put it into a cashier’s check if she was going to get the car out of hock.  That was the first priority, the car, because without it she was stuck.  Once she had it back, the minute they handed her the keys, she’d head straight to the animal shelter, because when she thought about how scared and hurt and confused that dog must have been, it just made her heart seize.  He’d never been separated from her since she’d got him as a pup, never, not for a single day, and what had he done?  Just defend her, that was all.  And now he was locked up in a concrete pen with a bunch of strays and pit bulls and god knew what else.  She didn’t care what anybody said, and they could go ahead and crucify her, but that was as wrong as wrong got.

 

 


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