Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. His stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey, Beat to a Pulp, Crimespree Magazine, Plots with Guns, and The Utne Reader. He is co-editor of Lost Children: A Charity Anthology to benefit PROTECT and Children 1st, which collects 30 hard-hitting tales to protect children at risk. He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about Noir and psychopaths.
Do you think Noir without women is a castrated bull?
Men fear weakness, and strong women make weak men feel weaker, because their sexual power can overrule the advantage of physical strength men have over them. Odd choice, mentioning castration. Perhaps a hysterectomy instead? I think you can write a noir story without women, but please don’t ask me to define noir. I like the genre just as much as any other powerful fiction. But I think it’s the kind of thing you know when you see, and means different things to different people. I’ve read some, the classics, Goodis, Cain. Noir can be about reaching too far, beyond our station, and we class the opposite sex in
the same way. “Unattainable,” “too good for him or her,” so sexual tension is natural for a noir story. My favorite noir stories have women in them, not always as fatales or instigators, but as protagonists. It is still a man’s world, so women have higher to reach, and greater stakes.
But to answer the question directly… no.
If you met a psychopath how would you know he was one?
Psychopaths remain an intriguing fictional character type. We cheer them on, the Tom Ripleys. They are fascinating, playing on our fears. There’s actually a test for them. Long ago I read the seminal work by Robert D. Hare entitled Without Conscience. It has slowly become accepted, as people realize that psychopaths are not charming and hungry Hannibal Lecters, but well-camouflaged human predators among us. If they were all killers, we’d identify them rather quickly. There are only so many drainage ditches and crawlspaces for all the bodies. The lack of empathy is the most outstanding characteristic. I’m not sure if I’m a good spotter, it’s something you learn from contact with them. If it was easy, people wouldn’t become victims. There is genuine charm that comes from human empathy, which gives back, and there is the vampiric type that leeches. The giving only goes in one direction. As greed becomes seen as a virtue, they will become harder and harder to spot.
How would you like to be remembered?
If you want to be remembered, don’t underestimate the ability of one man and a gun to change history. I’m going a more difficult route. I want to be remembered fondly, so I’m writing about what angers me. That can usually be boiled down to the abuse of power. It’s
everywhere, and in many ways it has become accepted. Well, not by me.
Where do you see the abuse of power at its worst and what do you attribute it to?
That’s an easy one, that of parent over the child. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know why people do what they do. I think bullying is epidemic in western society, and not just schoolyard stereotypes. We believe that might makes right. There was a time when we believed reason, intelligence and humanity were superior to strength, but now the ends justify the means, and a Calvinist view of success is in place; whatever one did to achieve success is acceptable, and any criticism is punishment of that success.
The weak are belittled by the powerful. Power is a drug, and throwing your weight around is quite thrilling. When you’re beaten down, the easiest relief is to find someone weaker to beat down yourself. We call it the pecking order, but that comes from chickens. If we can’t rise above a critter than can live for weeks with its head cut off, we’re in trouble.
Tell us about your novel.
Louisiana boy Jay Corso maxed out of Rahway prison 25 years after taking the fall for the murder of the school bully in a quiet New Jersey suburb. The town’s hero cop said his parents would rot in jail if he didn’t, and now Jay wants answers. When he shakes things up with his misfit friends and their families, his two fists unravel a twisted tale of small town secrets and good old Jersey corruption. Jay wants payback, and it’s time to bury the hatchet!
It’s about a group of children who were bullied and took matters into their own hands. One of them paid for it, and the story begins the day he is released from prison, looking for revenge and answers. It’s a bad-ass out of prison story at heart, dealing with New Jersey’s unique flavor of corruption, organized crime, and the lasting effects of bullying and emotional abuse.
Jay Corso is a Cajun boy whose family moved to New Jersey for reasons he’s never known. He’s slow to anger but explodes when provoked, beyond all reason. You’ll get a taste of him in the next issue of Needle, in a story called “Gumbo Weather.”
You are paid a sum of money to carry out a hit. How would you do it to avoid
A gentleman never asks, and a lady never tells!
If I was to hit a complete stranger I would find an old knife or tool that couldn’t be traced to me and wipe it down, run it through the dishwasher to get any stray pubes off it, and wrap it in plastic bags and tape it up. A hammer would do. I am a big man with a beard. I
stand out. I buy a clipboard and some yellow triplicate at the office supply store, and wear work boots and a drab uniform. I am a delivery man.
If you are not paranoid like me, you have awful situational awareness. I buy a pay as you go cell phone with cash. I follow you to work. In the parking lot, as you are getting out of your car, I call your number. I leave the phone in my pocket. I hold the hammer under my
clipboard. I ask you where the delivery entrance is. You are distracted. The hammer comes down. My work uniform and gloves go into a donation bin.
Even better, I read a great blog post by a female crime writer whose rear wheel well was smoking. A man tried to get her to pull off to a secluded street to assist. She didn’t get out of her car, luckily. A mechanic later told her the car was fine, and the man had probably
sprayed her brake disc with WD-40 to create the smoke. That would work quite well in the right area. You don’t want your victim pulling into a gas station. If they don’t have a garage, spray the tires before they leave home, then follow them. Start honking. Offer a fire extinguisher. Then bash their head in with it.
If you have time, eat an everything bagel over their corpse. The CSI guys will spend hours cataloging that shit.
Do you think revenge is lawless justice?
Justice is not an objective term. The man I strangle for killing my kin, has kin of his own. Who call me the murderer. Revenge is a dish best served in fiction.
I love revenge stories, I must say. In civilized society they exist as wish fulfillment, because we trade our ability to exact personal revenge to live under the protective umbrella of the rule of law. Look at famous blood feuds, fought for centuries, where the original crime is long forgotten.
When I am wronged, I want revenge. It is a self-destructive impulse. I’ve learned over the years to control my temper, but my characters have not. Jay has a hard time learning the consequences of revenge, even after serving 25 years in prison for it. Denny, from “Junkyard Dog” at Plots With Guns, and other stories in Crimespree and Pulp Modern, is less realistic. He’s kind of my urban myth character, a hulking beast with a good heart who metes out his own justice.
I can’t say whether my hands would go unbloodied if someone killed or hurt someone I love. Whether justice was served to the state’s satisfaction or not.
How do you see the concept represented in Art?
When I visited the Louvre, I only had half an hour. I saw the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and Hammurabi’s Code. The lex talionis, law of the fang. The Idol of Vengeance. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.
It is either human nature, or so deeply ingrained in my own that I think it so. I have forgiven those who have wronged me. I’m not a monster. With me, revenge is born of fear. Fear that harm would come to my wife, my family, and I could not protect them. That fear inspires rage. My temples are on fire just thinking of it, now. And that rage is what makes me write.
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you
make of his observation?
It wouldn’t be very interesting reading stories written by someone who didn’t. A writer is a jealous and vengeful God who sows pestilence on Creation. A story is struggle of some sort, whether it’s two starvelings wrestling to thrust an icicle in the other’s eye or an invalid pondering the decisions she’s made in life. It doesn’t have to be a cold story in itself, but that struggle comes from somewhere. You imagine a character, and watch them grow in your mind, and then you break their heart because it tells a good story. That’s pretty cold stuff.
William Burroughs used addiction in his fictions as an analogy of the power
mechanisms at work in US and Western society. How do you view his
It’s a very apt metaphor. An addictive drug is the perfect product. It has no intrinsic value, it is consumed immediately and the consumer wants more and more. Like Pepsi or the eponymous Coke. As everything becomes more disposable, it nears the status of a drug.
With the abolition of slavery and indentured servitude, they have to keep us working somehow. Imagine if people could live off the land, it wouldn’t be very productive. Why would we sell you our labor, the best years of our lives, if we could eke by and live a life of leisure.
Americans can’t imagine a life without work. It’s our one true religion.
Thank you Thomas for a perceptive and memorable interview.