Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Twisted Shikse: Charlie Birger, The KKK and the Book of Judges

Hey if you're gonna be at Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC this week, come say 'hi" at the Noir at the Bar Eryk Pruitt is hosting on Thursday night where I'll read with some of my favorite writers. Or Friday morning check out the Jewish Noir panel with Jason Starr, Kenneth Wishnia, Travis Richardson and S.A. Solomon. I might make that one as it's about a book of the same name that I have a little piece of.

Over at her blog, The First Two Pages fellow Jewish Noir contributor B.K. Stevens has been running a series for the anthology's contributors to talk about their contributions. Go check em out - here's fellow St. Louisan Tasha Kaminsky's piece about her story Your Judaism.

And here's me flapping my yap on the multifaceted origins of my story, Twisted Shikse.

So, Jed - you're not Jewish and you're probably best known for writing a book about rednecks in Southern Missouri... how the hell did you end up included in a book called Jewish Noir?

Great question.

First off, my name is Jedidiah and while these days it may be most associated with reality TV types from Arkansas or cement pond swimming hillbillies out of place in Beverly Hills, it's actually a Hebrew name. Jewish Noir's editor, Kenneth Wishnia noted that 'Jedidiah' meant 'Beloved of Jaweh'  (2 Samuel 2:25) and teased me that it wasn't very noir of me to have that moniker.

After I punched him in the nose and said, how noir am I now, motherfucker, I pointed out that as a preacher's kid my work is very influenced by the Bible and that I'd once aspired to write a book of short crime stories adapted from or inspired by selections from the old testament (I've had one of them published so far - The Adversary originally appeared in Surreal South '11 edited by Pinckny Benedict & Laura Benedict, and is based on King Saul's encounter with the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28). Ken stuck a tampon in his bloody nose and said I might be 'brew enough for a project he was working on after all. Could I get him a story in a couple of weeks?

I probably could.

In fact I had an idea already. The story of Samson & Delilah (Judges 13-16) always struck me as a prototypical noir story - tough guy, arrogant, the kind of asshole who'll murder a bunch of folks if he thinks people are laughing at him - meets a lust bucket he's got such a raging hard on for it hardly matters to him at all that she's actively trying to do him harm... or maybe that's part of the appeal. Scratch that, it's definitely part of the appeal.

So yeah, I had a crime story based on literature of Hebrew origin. I also had a title that got at the heart of the matter - Twisted Shikse. 

Saint Kate, the titular redheaded firecracker who so thoroughly bonerfies our hero against his own best interests, sings for a band called The Taoist Cowboys - a cow punk outfit based in my mind on the wonderful and much missed 1990s outfit Pamper the Madman from Kansas City. I play with time a little bit by having the Cowboys play shows in a St. Louis locale alongside current Missouri billycrack rock acts like The Hooten Hallers at Carl's Bad Tavern, a venue mentioned in a few of my short stories, and the place our ex-con, Jewish redneck Charlie Malmon works.

Now... how about some Jewish rednecks? What - not a thing? Pssh. When Kate and Charlie bond over references to the James McMurtry song Choctaw Bingo, she asks him, "What kind of Jewboy likes country music, anyway?" and Charlie shuts her down with "You never heard of Kinky Friedman?"

But you don't have to go to a flamboyant showman casting his dual heritages in stark relief for maximum conundrum. Nope around St. Louis you have to look no further than prohibition-era gangster Charlie Birger. Birger was a soldier turned bootlegger whose territory was just across the Mississippi river in southern Illinois. The wars he fought with rival gangs included homemade armored cars and aerial bombings (seriously somebody hire me to write a TV show about St. Louis gangs like Egan's Rats, Birger's crew and the Shelton Brothers - Boardwalk Empire meets Justified - that's my pitch).

Two things that me and my protagonist (who is named after "the tough old Yid") admire about Birger...

1) When the Ku Klux Klan, acting as under the table or at least blind-eye deputies of the federal government, started going door to door enforcing prohibition in southern Illinois (largely as a way to suppress immigrant influence on the lily-white power structure), Birger's gang and their rivals The Shelton Brothers teamed up to kick the Klan's ass in an honest to goodness tommy-gun firefight in Herrin, Illinois. Of course they went back to fighting each other as soon as those asshole vigilantes in hoods were out of the picture, but hey, that story's awesome.

2) Charlie was the last legally hanged man in the state of Illinois in 1928 (he's buried in Chesterfield a town just beyond the western suburbs of St. Louis). He was hanged after spending a year in jail for ordering the killing of Joseph Adams, the mayor of West City, Illinois, whom he believed to have taken up with the Sheltons. He had a rabbi with him at the gallows and, after making a hell of a show of bravado, smiling at the assembled crowd, insisted on wearing a black execution hood rather than the commonly used white - in order not to look like one of those hated Klansmen.

Panache.

All of these elements swirled together in my mind last year as my city was under national and international spotlights after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer and the resulting riots that polarized the community and country in general. A buddy of mine who's an ex-con, a convert to Islam, a cab driver and a community activist was down on the front lines of that scene peaceably demonstrating and getting arrested. Night after night after night...

And that's not all. My friend's family started being harassed. People were calling his day job trying to get him fired (and he was finally fired a couple months ago over his political image). There was organization to the anti-demonstrators demonstrators. Fuckin "I am Darren Wilson" T-shirts were sold (almost exclusively in the south and western suburbs), the KKK did a fund-raiser for the guy... Armed militias started arriving on the scene to intimidate demonstrators and "uphold the constitution." It was an ugly time. The pent up violence was palpable and not just in the city. It was in the suburbs. A million crazy white folk preparing for the outbreak of a race war that their darker-skinned neighbors knew had started generations ago.
The story began to stray from the strictly Samson-&-Delilah-femme-fatale-mutilation-and-revenge narrative to incorporate a counterpart to Charlie. A secular Jew and a backslid Baptist meet in prison... they emerge a shamed sell-out who needs to get his swastika tattoo obscured and an educated and impassioned Muslim with a social conscience.

Twisted Shikse is a story of the fringe violence that connects to the larger picture when the whole town loses its damn mind, and it incorporates all these elements.

Shabbat Shalom, motherfuckers.

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