2004-11-12 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Sour Notes
by Stuart W. Mirsky


When I got home on Friday afternoon my son met me at the door, a troubled look on his face. Blocking my way he blurted out “Dad, I’ve got bad news . . .”

I tried to push past him but he stood his ground. “What?” I said.

“It’s The Wave,” he replied.

“The Wave?” I breathed a sigh of relief because, of all the really bad things his urgent manner could have portended, The Wave did not loom high on the horizon.

“They reviewed your book,” he was speaking breathlessly now. “They panned it.”

“They what?”

“They slammed it Dad . . . I don’t know why . . .”

I thought for a moment and mumbled, “Well, maybe they just didn’t like it. Not everyone likes the same things.”

“But you write for them . . .” he trailed off uncomprehendingly.

I walked past him. “That’s just how it is,” I muttered. “When you write a book you just have to take your chances. It’s better they gave it an honest review than not. Heck, if they didn’t tell the truth then what good would reviews really be to anyone?”

“You want to read what they said?” he asked uncertainly.

“Not right away,” I demurred. And indeed I had a few other things to get to first. Nor was I in any particular hurry to see the fruits of a whole summer, and then some, diminished. But I did read it eventually and, just as my son said, Wave editor Howie Schwach had done little to hide his distaste for what I’d written. Well that’s the prerogative of reviewers, I thought. I demanded it myself, when I reviewed others’ books, so why should I expect anything different in my own case? Still, the tone surprised me.

“Why would anyone want to read a self-published compilation of columns that have already run in local weeklies such as The Wave?” Howie asked. Why, indeed, I thought. The same concern had troubled me all summer while I labored to get the manuscript in order. Of course I knew no publisher would want a book with such a narrow audience. That was part of the reason I never bothered to offer it around. But would local folks even be interested? Why should they be?

“Buyer beware,” was Howie’s answer to his own question. Unless they shared my somewhat idiosyncratic political opinions, were interested in the relatively narrow swatch of Rockaway’s political history I had recorded, were members of my own family, or were Democrats seeking “to see just how weak the other side really is,” there was, he suggested, little reason for anyone to even take a look. But what really got to me was Howie’s repeated emphasis on the fact that this book, like my previous one (an historical novel about Vikings and Indians in 11th century North America) had been self-published. Self-published! The poor author couldn’t even find a publisher willing to pay him! Visions of vanity presses danced in my head, never mind the many authors who have published their own work, from Poe to Whitman to Mark Twain and beyond. Of course I’m not in their class nor could a compilation of my articles ever hope to rise to their level. So what had possessed me to go such a route?

Back in 1994, a colleague of mine who had been a film producer in a former life approached me at work. Eager to get back into the game and knowing my interest in writing, he asked if I had any stories he could turn into a movie. Actually I had been kicking one around in my spare time for years, an adventure about Viking explorers on our shores some 500 years before Columbus. “Well, yes,” I told him, “one.”

“Let’s see what you got,” he grinned.

It took me two years, writing on weekends and holidays, to get it all down and hand it over. And, when I finally did, he and a screenwriter friend of his kept it for weeks. Afterwards we went to lunch in a local Manhattan eatery where they told me all the problems turning it into a movie presented. I lost my appetite. Finally the screenwriter, noting my discomfort, leaned over and said not to worry, he liked it anyway. I started eating again.

Alas, in the end, my colleague proved unable to raise the funds for this project and his screenwriter friend went on to other paying gigs. “What should I do?” I asked the writer rather plaintively at that point. “Get it published,” he said.

But that proved easier for him to say than for me to do. By 1998, after two years of vainly trying to find a publisher, I was ready to throw in the towel when I came across something new on the Internet. For a small one-time fee, companies would take the manuscripts of wannabe authors like me and set them up for printing, making the book available at on-line booksellers (like amazon.com) or through bookstores. Rather than paying substantial sums to print thousands of copies upfront and then having to store and ship these to buyers, all I had to do was pay to have the book encoded on a server so it could be printed, bound and shipped, if and when orders occurred. I decided to stop waiting around for a nod from the mainstream publishing world and use this new-fangled method to “discover” myself instead.

I was lucky. Without promotional support or any kind of marketing budget, my historical novel, THE KING OF VINLAND’S SAGA , found an audience rather quickly. It’s already sold roughly a thousand copies. While that’s hardly the stuff of bestsellerdom, it ain’t hay. In fact, I’m comfortably in the “black” with the book, despite my initial investment. And many readers have responded with kind words on amazon.com (though a few, regrettably, haven’t).

So what about this new one, IRREGULARITIES , my compilation of past articles? Why did I bother and what hope for it, particularly in light of Howie’s adverse reaction? Howie makes light of my references in it to past political figures in the Republican constellation here in Rockaway, from former Councilman Al Stabile who, he suggests, was overrated at the time and failed Rockaway in the end, to local Republican district leader Tom Swift who had, Howie tells us, “all the charisma of an empty glass of water.” How can a glass both have water in it and be empty?) He also mentions my mention of local gadfly John Baxter who once made his political home among Rockaway’s Republicans but who has since re-established himself as leader of the local branch of the Independence Party. “Mirsky’s book,” notes Howie, “moves from the good old days of Stabile to this week’s election for President, always pointing out the strengths of the Republicans and the calumny of the media.” (No news there, I suppose, now that everyone pretty much knows about the forged memos on CBS and ABC’s written instructions to its reporters to hold Republicans to a higher standard than Democrats.)

No use buying Mirsky’s book, Howie seems to say, if you don’t agree with his peculiar viewpoint. Well, I suppose that’s one way to think about this.

If you’re angry over the recent Republican successes across the nation, if George W. Bush gets under your skin and you’re blue in the blue states, then Howie probably has it right.

IRREGULARITIES won’t please your reader’s palate and you should probably take a pass. But if you’re interested in the culture wars and how politics proceeds in Rockaway, or in just seeing a few of my past pieces, restored in some cases to their original form, then perhaps this compilation still has something to commend it.

At the least, as Howie notes, it will remind you of just how weak the Republicans once were here in Rockaway . . . though sometimes, it pays to note, past ain’t prologue.

     

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