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Now What, Champ?

Standing tall Saturday in the fruit section of Wegman’s in Wilkes-Barre Township, among the orange oranges, green limes and red delicious apples, I said to manager/wife/Stephanie, “Bet TC Boyle doesn’t get all this attention when he goes food shopping.”

Boyle, maybe America’s best contemporary novelist, lives in a pampered wealthy enclave in Santa Barbara County on the California Central Coast. In normal times when wild fires aren’t threatening lives and property, too many snooty people there are aloof, detached and indifferent. At least Boyle answered my email asking if I could send him a copy of “Blood Red Syrah,” telling me he was too busy but thanks for thinking of him.

For better or worse, hard coal crackers are more engaged. One after another, people approached me in the store to talk about “Blood Red Syrah,” if I’m going back on the radio or what’s happening to America. The book is doing well, I said. No, I’m not stepping back into the wasteland of news talk radio and, yes, America faces issues we must face together unless we look forward to falling apart.

I felt good.

The Saturday before I spent a few hours talking about reading, writing and thinking at the Barnes & Noble in the Arena Hub Plaza, participating in the store’s much-anticipated grand re-opening in the aftermath of the June tornado that slammed the shopping center and tore through the surrounding area.

Serious rebuilding teaches serious lessons. I know because I’ve rebuilt myself more than once.

When I read executive editor Joe Soprano’s coverage about my book store appearance in the Sunday Times Leader, I thought back to when I first moved to Wilkes-Barre in 1985 and pushed my way into a news columnist job at the same paper. I thought about the 17 years I spent there chronicling the lives and times of people who shared our rugged section of Northeastern Pennsylvania. I remembered leaving in 2002 for the California Central Coast and another newspaper job, selling the South River Street house Stephanie and I bought, never expecting to return. When new owners fired me at the Santa Maria paper in 2006 we returned, this time to Scranton. I worked for another decade rattling cages, this time on the air before greedy, timid bosses fired me in 2017 for taking a stand and refusing to buckle in the best spirit of American free speech.

First I wrote a journalism memoir. No agent or publisher expressed interest. Then I wrote a novel about the 2016 presidential election in Wilkes-Barre and how Irish-America, my tribe, helped play a crucial role in electing Donald Trump. No agent or publisher expressed interest in that, either, including a publisher in Ireland who knows my family and hobnobs with groovy beautiful people in the literary land of my ancestors.

Stephanie basked in California until the end, teaching at Cal Poly while I became a depressed victim of paradise with an avocado tree in the front yard. Too loud, too brash, too East Coast, I worried I’d die there if I didn’t have another chance to mix it up with the locals. So after moving back and spending another decade energized and facing off with local advertisers, bigots and an assortment of kiss-asses, I left with my integrity intact, a local media martyr willing to fall on my sword in the name of radical politics and free expression.

Ok, now what champ, Stephanie wanted to know?

When would I would write about her California dreaming and my California screaming? We learned a lot on that raw western edge of America and made friends for life on the Central Coast. I bit deeply into the rotten core of the newspaper business and the wine industry. I learned magic from dead Mexican legends and the power of superstition from the living. I wrote about unsolved murders, outlaw bikers and Chicano gangs. Michael Jackson, too. Even visited Neverland. Yeah, a novel that draws from those many Californias would work.

Funky, freaky and fun, the novel takes you higher than weed wine as the spirit of “Blood Red Syrah” pulses in my veins.

I even dreamed about a man wearing a mysterious Jesús Malverde tattoo on the inside of his right forearm – a portrait of the Sinaloan bandit who took from the rich and gave to the poor, a likeness superimposed over a red/orange tequila sunset that inspires the never-ending fight against injustice.

“Blood Red Syrah” embraces that vision of justicia.

See you at the border.