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Commentary on “The Salinger Files”

Grant Tracey

Eddie Sands, the protagonist of “The Salinger Files,” first appeared in a failed novel I was messing with, an unofficial sequel to Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom. In McBain’s 87th Precinct novel, three kidnappers abduct a chauffeur’s kid and blackmail King, a man preparing a corporate takeover. Anyway, by the end of the novel, two of the kidnappers get away (the kid refuses to identify them to the police because Kathy Folsom and her husband Eddie were kind to him). My idea was to pick up the story of those two nearly seven years later under new identities. Eddie now drives a hack in upstate New York, Winsome. The premise: some mobsters discover Eddie’s new location, and rope him into their plans to rob the town bank and pulp and paper mill using radio technology. Eddie was a radio operator in Korea.

Over the years several crime writers have expressed their feelings that criminals aren’t too clever about adopting aliases. Say a criminal’s name is John Gerard. When Gerard opts for an alias he’s likely to pick something like Jimmy Jarrolds, something close to the sounds or the initials of his birth name. Eddie’s last name is a famous prison. When Eddie gives himself a new moniker he chooses another famous prison, San Quentin, and thus Eddie Sands was born.

Well, I wrote Winsome (64,000 words) and revised it substantially after workshopping it with three readers, Mitchell D. Strauss, Travis Landhuis, and my daughter Effy. Eventually I sent it to Hard Case Crime. Charles Ardai said the writing was strong, it was publishable, but for him it was too slow; he had to really “push his way through it.”

So, I pushed the novel into the back of a desk drawer and a year later returned to it, dropping the whole McBain connection and making Eddie a stand-alone character. He’s no longer under an alias. He was born Eddie Sands. He no longer has a criminal background. He is a radio operator, but he served in Korea, 1952–53. He is no longer married. He’s a tough guy who had been driving a cab for almost fifteen years (first in the UP of Michigan and then in Winsome, a town modeled on my travels to Watertown as a kid, and the university I attended, Trent, in Peterborough, Ontario, population 58,000 at the time). Oh, and maybe a little Webster City tossed in, a town just a few miles down the road from Cedar Falls.

Winsome has a community ice arena; a motel on the edge of town with some of the letters in its neon sign burned out; an armory; Regher’s a drug store where you can get an orange egg cream; and Parkhill Drive, a rich exurb high above the town with brick streets and hexagonal lamps.

Winsome is my Isola (McBain’s fictionalized version of New York City). In case it isn’t obvious by now, I love McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Top Cop Sal Lambertino, in the Hayden Fuller series, is named after McBain’s birth name: Salvatore Albert Lombino. A shout-out. And while I’m at it, let’s clarify one thing: I love J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I read it every four or five years. Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, and Molly Antopol’s The Un-Americans, Pay no attention to what Eddie has to say about Salinger in “The Salinger Files.” That  isn’t what Grant Tracey feels at all. Like Eddie however, I do admire Kerouac and Hemingway.

And I do dislike Ayn Rand.

Anyway, I took a 64,000 word novel and paired it down to a marketable 6000-word short story. Jim O’Loughlin published the story as a chapbook with Final Thursday Press and I find myself continually turning to Eddie Sands. Thus far I have four other Sands stories circulating.

Like Sands I drove a cab, the graveyard shift, six to six. One year, 1983-84 in Peterborough. Some of those experiences work their way into my stories. Most of my clientele were strippers; people liquored up and needing a ride home on a cold night from the bars; folks on welfare who would take a thirty-minute ride with me to spend their government checks on cigarettes, beer, and takeout; First Nations People returning to the reservation; and college students (Trent University). The opening paragraph of “The Salinger Files” comes from a real place:

Eddie Sands was none too pleased. She was polite and all, a nice girl, but the whole “I’m a poor student” thing didn’t sit so well with him. It was her way of saying I can’t afford to give you a tip, but for Eddie if you can’t tip at a restaurant you order takeout, and if you can’t tip a cabbie you thumb a ride, take public transit (such as it is), or walk.

I can’t tell you how many times college students hopped in my hack and began the conversation with an apology up front for not being able to give me a tip. As a cab driver I was working long hours and barely living above the poverty line. These apologies just didn’t sit right.

A real-life cab story that I think Eddie Sands would approve of: one night our dispatcher Robbie got a call after 4 a.m. from a distraught woman. She needed to catch a bus out of town. Robbie relayed the backstory: abusive husband, and I had ten minutes to get her free; her home was past Old Memorial Arena. I picked her up with her one suitcase and broke land speed records on our way to the terminal. When we arrived, the bus was pulling from the station and I drove right in front of it, cutting it off. The woman tossed a twenty dollar bill on the front seat, told me to keep the change (it was a four dollar fare), and climbed on the bus. At that moment I felt I had made a difference, and I often wonder what she’s doing now.

Anyway, I enjoy writing the Sands stories. They allow me to relive some of my cabbie experiences and to inhabit a space different from Hayden Fuller’s world. Sands is a much darker character: he’s a veteran with PTSD; feels chivalric and protective of women and children (and thus beats up abusers with his fists); has regrets, wishing he’d amounted to more in his life; and is a loner, seeking love but unable to hold onto it. He’s me, in a way, when I was twenty-three: lost, cynical, and at the same time strangely hopeful and quietly idealistic.

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Grant Tracey’s Five Hard Bites, a collection of Hayden Fuller novels and stories, was recently published by Twelve Winters Press. Other crime noir pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in Tough and Groovy Gumshoes. “The Salinger Files” is a sequel to “Winsome,” a chapbook that features Eddie Sands, a Korean War veteran and cab driver in upstate New York. Grant drove a cab in Peterborough, Ontario, for a year before going to graduate school. He currently edits North American Review.

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