Author keeps it close to home
Christopher Cook has a kinship with his characters
By Jerome Weeks / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – The Stars Cafe on I-35 near the University of Texas campus is one of those battered roadside diners that seem to survive anything – economic booms, busts, even art on the walls. It’s open this Sunday morning, so Christopher Cook steers his hulking ’86 Dodge pickup into the parking lot.
With its worn vinyl booths and scuffed floor, the cafe looks like a setting from Mr. Cook’s new thriller, Robbers (Carroll & Graf, $24.95). The novel actually begins across town with a pair of shootings, one in a 7-Eleven on South Lamar and the other in the parking lot of Threadgill’s, the landmark, down-home restaurant.
But the Stars Cafe will do for a decent breakfast – and for setting the right funky Texas atmosphere.
Robbers has come out with high praise from authors such as James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential, and favorable comparisons to Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke. The description that Mr. Cook has heard and likes best is “a chicken-fried Pulp Fiction.” The novel concerns a pair of killers on the lam in a stolen Caddy, the troubled single mother they hook up with in Houston and the Texas Ranger who doggedly tracks them around the state, from Austin to the Big Thicket. Readers will be surprised by Robbers, not only by the assurance and talent of this first-time novelist but, in terms of narrative, by at least one killing, a killing that twists the story in abrupt and surprising ways.
“It surprised the hell out of me, too,” Mr. Cook says over coffee. “Didn’t know it was going to happen until I wrote it. Keep in mind, I’ve lived inside this story for a while, but there were things about the characters I didn’t know until I discovered them in the writing.”
At 48, Mr. Cook would seem to be a little late to start in the fiction-writing game (he holds down a day job at a power cooperative in Austin). But he has actually been writing for years, gaining some attention – in France.
The oil refinery-Beaumont-Port Arthur area of East Texas, which has produced such musicians as Clifton Chenier and Janis Joplin, seems to have hit a small gusher of authors. Growing up there, Mr. Cook knew best-selling memoirist Mary Karr, author of The Liar’s Club. (When asked if he appears in Ms. Karr’s new book, Cherry, with its tales of junior high sex and drug arrests, he blushes and refuses to tell.)
Like Ms. Karr, Mr. Cook has a troubled family background. One uncle was killed in a prison knife fight.
“And one Easter,” he recalls, “we had our egg hunt on the county courthouse lawn. My stepfather was in jail.”
As a young man, Mr. Cook got “caught up in the counter-culture,” hitchhiked to San Francisco in 1971, studied pre med and psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He wound up working as a lay minister at halfway houses, and later as a crime reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald in Alabama.
“Maybe because I had some training in journalism,” he says, “I was a bit idealistic about newspapering.” He laughs. In other words, he was a troublemaker. He was fired from one newspaper and quit another – after he ran a story the publisher didn’t agree with. More important, he discovered that although “journalism is an important place to learn to write on a daily basis, it didn’t satisfy my need to do literary work.”
For nine of these years, Mr. Cook was raising his daughter Athena by himself – he and his first wife broke up when the girl was 3. But when the 12-year-old Athena decided she wanted to live with her mother, Mr. Cook was at loose ends. So when he met photographer Corinne Dune in Austin and she invited Mr. Cook to Paris, “I sold everything and went. That was seven years ago.”
In France, while working for a human rights organization, monitoring conditions in the former Soviet Union, he wrote short stories for Paris Transcontinental and Pharos magazines. In 1996, he and Ms. Dune, now his wife, moved to Mexico, where he started two novels, abandoned them and started a third: Robbers. He wrote it in four months, he says, leaving the house only for food or cigarettes.
Robbers first caught the attention of the American book industry last year when Nat Sobel of Sobel Weber Associates, James Ellroy’s agent, put it up for auction. An auction is held when an agent believes he has a hot manuscript, something that publishers and Hollywood producers will bid against each other to acquire.
“We sent out 27 letters,” Mr. Cook recalls, “and got 25 back, all saying the same thing. They were highly complimentary, they enjoyed it, but they turned it down flat. Thought it was too dark.”
“This,” he says with a grin, “was a disturbing turn of events.”
But once again, he had an audience in France. Mr. Sobel found eager buyers there and in England – “the backdoor strategy,” Mr. Cook calls it. Sure enough, Robbers was picked up in America by Carroll & Graf and released last month. Barnes & Noble is promoting the novel in its bookstores as part of its “Discovery” program, and the warehouses, Mr. Cook reports, are already empty of the first-print run of 10,000 copies.
One reason that readers may find Robbers dark is the lack of any clear-cut, well-intentioned hero. Rule Hooks, the Texas Ranger and, at first, the most obvious candidate, turns out to be a hard-hearted heel, a skilled and professional manhunter but a failure as a human being.
“He’s the Law,” Mr. Cook says. “And the Law is not likable. The Law is not even human. I spent a year in law school, and that’s the first thing you learn. The Law is not about justice. It’s about who can win an argument.”
For its terse, ironic dialogue and its mix of tough and comic-oddball characters, Robbers is being called a Texas version of Mr. Leonard’s books, such as Get Shorty. But the following passage, including its eccentric spellings, is distinctly unlike anything Mr. Leonard would write. It’s why Mr. Cook is also being compared to James Lee Burke:
“Crossing the low bridge, he saw dawn splintering the eastern sky above the cypress and tupelo in the bayou bottom. Amber streaks over a dark green canopy strewn with old widows locks of Spanish moss, white spots of egrets perched low in the trees. The bayou running high, its coffeecolored waters spilling over cypress knees and dense bottom growth, spreading back into wet woods and tangled thicket. … An eerie brooding place, where beauty married death.”
Mr. Cook mixes his bad-boy urban crime drama with passages like that – “reflective of an intricate ecology,” as he says – because, “at heart, I’m a Southern writer more than a typical Texan writer.” It’s those East Texas piney woods. Growing up, he says, he knew more Cajuns than he did anyone else.
In fact, Mr. Cook cites Southern gothic mainstay Flannery O’Connor as a major literary influence. He hopes his second book will be a short-story collection, Screen Door Jesus and Other Tales – “even though it’ll probably ruin my reputation as a thriller writer.”
But then, that’s part of the problem he sees in American publishing and book marketing – the division of fiction into genre works and serious novels.
He hates the way American literature has been split into these “two polarized camps,” he says. “There are the pop-fiction entertainers, the Grishams and the Steeles, who appeal to a need for stories but lack any literary merit. And then there are the academics, who monopolize literary aesthetics and write things ordinary people can’t read. They’re technically experimental, even brilliant, but they’re weak in narrative. If they had to make a living, they’d starve to death.”
So this first-timer plans on bridging the chasm? A major ambition. But then, why not?
“Hell,” he says, “for me, it’s been a real accomplishment just making it to 48. And not being in jail.”
Christopher Cook will be signing books in Dallas at 8 p.m. on Feb. 8 at the Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Park, across Northwest Highway from NorthPark.