by Rusty Barnes
Originally from Appalachian Pennsylvania, Rusty Barnes is the author of the novels Reckoning, Ridgerunner, and the newly released Knuckledragger, among several other books, including some poetry. Twitter | Facebook | Instagram
Knuckledragger’s milieu is working-class/immigrant-populated but rapidly gentrifying Revere MA, home of America’s first public beach. While walking up and down that very working-class beach and the other city streets, I took inspiration from the many convenience stores, Cambodian markets and bakeries, while trying my best to reimagine it all as the scene of a crime, so to speak.
The neighborhood’s gone from boom to bust and back to its current uneasy equilibrium many times over the past 120 years, and I wanted to capture the feeling I often have about it, the possibility of any crime you can imagine at first glance (it’s actually pretty peaceful; the family and I own a house here, after all) together with people of all creeds and backgrounds. I concentrated on the Beachmont area of Revere, since that’s where I live and what I know best. I love walking around here, the thrill of being close to a big city but far enough away to have an entirely separate identity, and I hope that comes through in the book.
The actual events and characters of the book are inspired by an animated ‘conversation’ I observed from the safety of my favorite bakery, in which a small red-headed man in a hoodie kept getting into another man’s face, and ended with Redhead pushing the man into the street.
I imagined it was a drug deal gone wrong.
That and other moments like it sparked the whole novel, which conflagrated quickly. I knew the red-headed man liked candy, so his nickname became Candy. I wrote in my own physical characteristics for his character, though Candy is more muscular and bad-ass than I am, and the novel took off and never looked back. It took me maybe a month and half or two months to write, and maybe another month of agonizing about getting it right.
I struck gold with the second publisher to look at it, and I’m thrilled with the notion that Candy and Rosario are out there doing their crazy imperiled thing in public.
The novel’s left me now and gone out into the world, and I hope it does well.
I did what any writer does. I paid attention. Every time I stopped at the Beachmont Dunkin’ Donuts for my iced coffee (extra cream/extra sugar) I listened to the old men who gather there every day to bullshit for an hour or two over their black coffee.
I revised portions of the book across the street in Torretta’s Bakery with the smell of fresh bread baking, the temptation of their ricotta pie, the patter of Italian-speaking men, and the kindly woman who took my coffee order every day with the words “Same same?”
I drove up the road toward Lynn and imagined a chop shop along the side of the road that laundered money for Big Otis and the other criminals in the novel. I logged just enough detail on the beach — my skin can only take short exposure — to get myself in trouble for listening to conversations not meant for my ears. Even if the book didn’t revolve around the beach, I needed to get the feel of the thing to be satisfied with it. The family and I drove up into the NH mountains to Lake Winnipesaukee so I could see the place where Candy and Rosario ran to get away. Much of the detail didn’t make sense for the book, but the important thing is, I paid attention.