Thursday, September 23, 2021

Frank Wheeler Jr. RIP

Ten years ago I was writing the mystery blog for a large book retailer and was overwhelmed with titles sent to me by publishers, publicists and authors out there hustling for themselves. There was zero chance I’d ever get to a quarter of them, but I felt the stacks of the unread calling to me in my sleep and in every moment that I was trying to do anything other than give them a fraction of the attention their creators had.

Most of them were terrible. They sapped my energy, made a lot of noise and clogged the pipeline that I wanted so badly to send a few under-served titles and writers through toward a larger audience and wider recognition. Once in a while though I’d get my hands and my eyes on something I could champion and it powered me through the next score of tepid thrillers I was running out of ways to say they weren’t worth reading.

Most of the good ones showed me things I’d never know about, introduced me to people and problems I was thrilled for the opportunity to observe, but grateful that they were entirely foreign to my own experience. Others I responded to because they catered to my personal tastes regardless of personal background and setting, but only a couple ever grabbed me from the beginning because I felt like I knew the author intimately; that we shared an outlook on the world, a history in the same psychic spaces and were steeped in the same spiritual broth. They didn’t know me, but I recognized them immediately.

One of those authors was Frank Wheeler Jr.

Reading his debut novel, The Wowzer, was one of my favorite experiences of that time. It was set in the Ozarks and populated with the type of psychopaths and fuckups, zealots and deadbeats that I find myself ever drawn to. The language was straightforward and sturdy, lyricism of an economic rather than florid variety and punchy as hell without the histrionics that sometimes accompany this brand of violence and viciousness. The plot too was dark (really went places, dark), unsparing and relentless. 

It was something rather than about something.

His second novel, The Good Life, even more so.

I had the good fortune of meeting Frank a few times and was even blessed to visit with him and his wife Marie in my home. The two of them made sense to me. I knew them before knowing them. They were my kind of people; sharp and curious, serious and sweet, self-possessed without pretense. They confirmed the things I’d sensed when reading him – we’d taken different paths in life, but our roots were entangled.

When they visited St. Louis for a Noir at the Bar event it felt like we had been friends for a long, long time, and I looked forward to many more books from Frank and visits with the two of them, but I’m learning that it usually doesn’t work the way I want it to regardless the intensity and pitch of my desire.

Cancer took Frank last week. He died surrounded by family only a few months after a surprise diagnosis at the age of 43.   

I miss my friend. He was never vociferous and didn’t have an inclination toward self-promotion, so it was not unusual to go long stretches without contact, but the news has hit me hard. I knew him, but I want to know him. I want to make him cringe with my terrible jokes again. I want to goad him until he adds the perfect punctuation under his breath with an impish smile to my tasteless musings and makes me laugh till I cry. I want to share another knowing look while our wives are embarrassed for us. I want to get suddenly serious and sober and trade whispered confessions about how fiercely we love them and don’t deserve our good fortune.

I want to fail all the field sobriety tests you’d give me at parties again. I want to bust your balls about that video of you getting tazed during a police training course. The look of disappointment in your eyes as the volts hit you, the way you clearly regret everything as you seize up and crumple to the floor… I never got tired of watching that shit and bringing it up at every opportunity to embarrass you.

I love you, man. I’m glad that I knew you.

Frank's family are setting up a page in remembrance and I will link to it when it is ready. Here is the memorial page. 

Please keep Marie in your prayers.

I know that Frank was well-regarded in the writing community by those that he knew, and I think he enjoyed most of you, but I don't think you can ever spread the love too thick. I'm sorry that I don't express it often or well enough, but please know that I love you too. 


Nick Lawless said...

Best to you and yours. Blessings for Marie and Frank.

Anonymous said...

I met Frank only once but we shared a meal and a couple of Dr. Peppers at some wildly out of place chain restaurant for lack of a better option. Soft-spoken, generous, and stoic. I thought of him from time to time, wondering what was going on with him and his writing. Life moves far too fast. This is a loss.

Kieran Shea

Ayo Onatade said...

I am so sad to hear this. The last time I actually saw him was also at St Louis. This is a loss.

Angie8 said...

Thank you so much for such a beautiful sentiment reflecting so much of his unique
personality. It really touched me. - Angie (Frank’s cousin)

T.C. Cooke said...

I've known Frank since college. We have written together, played the infamous role playing games (which Frank managed and I often sabotaged with unpredictable and ridiculous moves - for some reason, the dice were always on my side) together, argued, cussed, laughed, waxed pseudo-intellectually, and became good friends. I lost touch with him over the years, but we reconnected after The Wowser hit the presses.

Man, this one really tears me up.

Unknown said...

I remember taking Frank and Angie fishing on my boat. Looked forward to them coming to Minneasota to visting to their grandparents. Love the entire family, thoughts and prays.!!!

Wil Day said...

Frank was my best friend from my days at York and if I am being honest, my best friend in general. Even if the last time we spoke before our conversation shortly before he passed, it doesn’t matter. You have may two or 3 friends like that in your whole life if you’re lucky. He was hands down the greatest storyteller I ever knew. I don’t even care if he was telling a lie, the story itself was always compelling. I wish I had known sooner. I wish I had gotten to see my friend again. I am sad I will never read another story from him. I wish his work had taken off. Anyone reading this, if you haven’t already, go buy his books. They’re not expensive and you’ll be floating a few bucks his widow Marie’s way that will help cover some of those bills.