The ultimate reason for this essay is, duh, the forthcomingness of my forthcoming genre novel, which I of course hope you will buy, read, enjoy, tweet, gift and laugh aloud reading in airplanes, sports arenas, reality TV shows, etc. (Also, a reminder: Christmas is just around the corner.)
The proximate reason, though, is more along the lines of confessional. I didn't really write the book so much as Google it.
Bedfellows (Thomas & Mercer, $14.95) is a mob story set in a fictional Brooklyn Neighborhood called Ebbets Beach and populated with many colorful characters in varying degrees of sociopathic criminality. This naturally suggests a question: "Bob, did you grow up in Brooklyn or ever experience such an anti-social subculture?" And the answer is "yes and no."
Yes, I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, where my father ran a paper-plate factory. And no, I've never encountered organized crime, if you don't count Congress. Everything I know about mob life I acquired through extensive research. Not in the mean streets. Or the library. Not even Godfather Part II. All of my relentless digging took place within my imagination, plus the 1½ square inches of my Google search bar. Especially the second one.
It's amazing what a major, major literary figure can accomplish chained to his keyboard in a cloud of his own stench. I mean, these search engines know everything. Lucchese crime family history? Check. Educational background of notorious mob lawyers? Check. Street maps of Brookyn neighborhoods where fictional bad stuff happens? Check. And it's not just mafia lore I harvested there, either. Without troubling you with plot details, along the way toward its thrilling and wholly unexpected climax the story concerns itself with all manner of arcana.
Stamp collecting, for example:
His particular philatelic interest was the stamps of countries that no longer exist. He had specimens from Zanzibar, Czechoslovakia, Zaire, Transjordan, Austria-Hungary, Basutoland, East Germany, Ceylon, Siam, Gran Colombia, and Rhodesia. His favorites were a 1936 Yugoslavia stamp honoring Nikola Tesla, an 1890 sheet from Abyssinia, a ten-centime Corsican issue featuring the Moorish head that was the briefly sovereign island's national symbol, and a 1971 five-rial stamp from Persia sporting the profile of Cyrus Cylinder, whoever the fuck he was.
All of that philately was news to me. But that's the great thing about the internet. Turns out, they keep tons of information there. No charge, and no tedious bathing required to access it. That is so handy when your most evil character's character was heavily informed by late 20th-century Moldovan history and you don't know any late 20th-century Moldovan history to draw upon.
Yet, in all modesty, I am the author of this:
He hailed from Tiraspol, Moldova's second-largest city and capital of the breakaway Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic -- aka, Transnistria -- dominated by ethnic Russians. From 1990 to mid-1992, Smirdov fought with the separatists against the mainly Romanian-speaking Moldovan army and enhanced -- although did not originate -- his reputation for cruelty that he had long since acquired at the State Orphanage #3, where he had been warehoused from the age of four and reared in a laboratory of Darwinian struggle.
Remember the old Doonesbury comics about George Will's "quote boy." The real-life quote boy was an eccentric and impecunious Georgetown fixture named Timothy Dickinson whom Will would rent for his astonishing English erudition. Timothy is a piece of work, all right, but he has been obsoleted by technology. Google is my quote boy, my encyclopedia, my atlas, my catalogue, my private eye and, let's face it, my co-author. If one were to seek the illusion of authenticity in a setting such as one has never personally found oneself, erudition is useless. It's worse than useless, because it tends to be a little snooty.
But Google is utterly unselfconscious. It doesn't care what you think about who it knows and where it has been:
Down the boulevard at Tanning Expo--where the dominant color was teal and the dominant odor was Island Princess lotion with pomegranate mango and hearty vanilla--Sunny Kaplan heard a mouthful from her boss, Tina. Sunny was spraying Lucasol on the bed interiors, and Tina was on and off the phone confirming appointments.
You know what else Google doesn't do? It doesn't lay any bourgeois morality trips on you. Suppose -- and we are just supposing here -- you or someone you knew wanted to contrive a murder technique uniquely suited to a healthcare professional/hitman? Consult with actual healthcare professionals and you're a good bet to arouse suspicion, righteous indignation or worse. Google, by contrast, is like a stoolpigeon on sodium pentothal. It knows no compunction.
The Chiropractor nodded, grabbed a tiny chair from one of the other tiny tables, and huddled with his prospects. "Very simple," he whispered. "I have what you might call a special technique. By applying firm pressure to the baroreceptors of the carotid sinus at the base of the neck, I can trigger what we call the 'baroceptor reflex,' which almost instantly and very dramatically slows the heart rate -- we call this bradycardia -- until the subject loses consciousness."
Look, as long as I'm confessing my reliance on an algorithm for all the legwork that fiction authors used to do by themselves by reading books and venturing outdoors and so forth, I should acknowledge that Google was my source for another unfamiliar body of knowledge.
Namely: the Sacrament of Confession itself:
"There are conditions for absolution. Very serious conditions. We discussed contrition. Tell me what that means to you."
"Apologizing, like, to God."
"And?" prompted the confessor.
The follow-up stumped the penitent. "The widow?"
"Listen carefully, please. Penitence means righting a wrong in your heart, in the eyes of God, in the eyes of society. You cannot come into this church and clear the slate without the intention of true reparations. If you have murdered, you must confess to the police. Then, and only then, can the Church bestow absolution. Do you understand?"
"You will turn yourself in for your crimes?"
Now the silence shrieked, boomed, deafened from the penitent's side of the screen.
"Father, can you gimme two, three days to think about this?"
"That isn't my decision. It's yours. What hangs in the balance is your immortal soul."
"You talkin' hell?"
"I am talking about eternity without God."
I won't tell you what happened next with this character, who at that point was facing more crises than conscience. However, I can reveal that in the periods surrounding the mafioso's encounter in church, another character confirmed the identity of a ruthless Russian mobster, another placed ads promoting the local Mr. Mattress store, and yet another sussed out the checkered past of Mr. Mattress himself.
How did they do that?
Duh. With Google.