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It’s common for students to conflate the “voice” in a given work of literature—be it a poem, novel or short story—with that of the author’s. Of course, even when a narrator speaks in first-person, this does not necessarily signal that this “voice” belongs to that of the real-life author. Obviously, crime fiction author Raymond Chandler is not the same person as his fictional creation, the hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe. It is, at best, usually misguided to assume that novelists or short story authors have direct, first-hand experience of what they choose to write about in fiction. (The term “literary fiction” is meant to distinguish it from such genres as “biography” or “U.S. history,” which are about actual events.) After all, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky never, at least to our knowledge, murdered a pawnbroker in cold blood, as did his Crime and Punishment protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Even if you happen to note some biographical parallels between an author and his protagonist—detective novelist Dashiell Hammett did, for example, once work as a private investigator—a would-be critic can easily lose his way in the thick underbrush where fact and fiction intertwine. Still, despite the stern warnings of the “New Critics,” who disdain those who would view a work of literature through the prism of the author’s life and who deem inadmissible any evidence of an author’s blah, blah, blah.

Who’s the kid?

The one in the picture?

Did you ever have an interest in genealogy? What is sometimes called a “family tree” or a “line of descent”?

To answer your question, this is the author’s great-uncle and namesake. He died when he was 19.


Some cultures believe that a soul transmigrates, or moves, from a dead person to a living person. The tradition of naming a child after a deceased person is sometimes seen as a way to guarantee this transmigration. Were you named after an ancestor or someone who was important to your village, town, or city? If so, who? Divide into groups of three or four. Write a short paragraph about how your parents/guardians chose to name you what they did. What does your name say about the culture you came from? Exchange what you’ve written with your classmates. Explain your answer.


His name was Joël Brooks.

He was always sick. Of the six children of American expatriate Alden Brooks—the author’s great-grandfather and Joël’s father—three died young. Two as toddlers, the third, Joël, at 19. His three daughters all lived to a ripe old age, which is a trite expression and should be purged as such. Joël asked for an accordion on his deathbed. By then the Brookses had moved—first from France to Maryland and finally to Arizona, for the sake of his lungs. Family legend has it that Joël’s father, Alden Brooks, himself an author, encountered Ernest Hemingway in a bar as his son lay dying.

We still have the letter of condolence from the college where Joël had been accepted, which not at all coincidentally was the very same school we have attempted to depict here, the school we are simply calling a “Good School,” the school from which our anti-heroine, Sally Smith, disappeared decades later.

The letter to Joël is signed with elaborate flourish by the president of the Good School, he expressing his sympathy, saying that he was sorry Joël would not be “joining us.”

That, and an accordion, had practically been his dying wish. To attend the same school as his father and his father’s father.

He simply wasn’t well enough.

Then he died.

Meanwhile, years later, you—the you who rode the bus across town, the you who attended anonymous public schools, the you who had quit skateboarding—chose to attend the very same school Joël Brooks had been tragically unable to. The family had long since migrated westward, and no member of the family had attended the school in nearly a century.

“This is a romantic thing you’re doing,” your mother said at the small party shortly after you turned 18. “You’re returning to your country seat,” she said with a boozy laugh, which is another atrocious cliché.

Though your parents rejected “the Establishment,” there were—throughout the small house—these little shrines to this vanished past. Pictures like this one, hung here and there. An old chest with some crest on it that said 1763. It balanced precariously on a pile of newspapers, kept a broken space heater company.

Among your peers in high school, it might be an exaggeration to say that people were shocked you actually got into a “Good School.” But there was surprise that you had gotten it together. On your part there was a certain amount of skater’s satisfaction in proving people wrong. After all, you had, not unfairly, been pigeonholed as the guy going nowhere fast, which is also egregiously trite and seriously you can’t portray yourself as the perpetually rebellious skateboarder.

For example, one time sophomore year, in the dreary hallway, a girl was asked why she did not smoke marijuana (“weed”), and she pointed at you as you passed by carrying a board.

“Because I don’t want to be like that guy,” she said.

This is a romantic thing you’re doing.

It was about doing something different, pulling a 180, restoration.

Everything was still skateboarding. It felt like just another trick. A big gap.

“This is Joel,” your best friend would say by way of introduction at parties in Pac Heights. “He quit skateboarding to write in his journal.”

Of course, almost the minute you arrived at a Good School and saw that there were no fireplaces in the dorms, only fire-retardant furniture and white cinderblocks, you realized…


That you had not wanted to go back East—but back in time. You realized it at freshmen orientation, the second some Exeter/Choate dude saddled up and said, “Sup yo?”

These kids dressed almost the same way they did in California—like skaters, actually—just a couple years out of date. Starter caps cocked to the sides. Camouflage pants.

It was a change of scenery but not of scene.


There are two known copies of that picture. The first we found in a photo album my grandmother had lying around. It was the kind of old photo album where the paper is black and you stick the pictures directly to the pages. Under this picture of Joël Brooks someone had written in white pencil, “Don Juan.”

The second known copy of the picture arrived in your P.O. box your oh-so-alienated sophomore year, about a week after your brother found your grandmother lying naked on the kitchen floor babbling1 incoherently and it switched from first- to second-person.

As was her habit, she had been visiting for the day, had just taken a shower, probably planned to put a tortilla and cheese in the broiler, drink a beer, sit at the kitchen table under the skylight before driving back home.

Your younger brother came back from school to find her on the floor.

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Just a couple of days before her collapse in the kitchen, you and she had had a big blowout before you went back to school. She said she didn’t want to see you come back with “your tail between your legs.”

She’d paid for school and didn’t want you dropping out “just to do drugs and ride that thing.” Then she had to bring up the tattoo, which was, as far as your relationship was concerned, still an open wound. “That thing on your arm,” she said of the skull with the two crossed skateboards beneath it instead of bones. “They’re quite common these days,” you said. “Oh, they’re common,” she said.

Then you were supposed to meet her in the Mission for burritos, pick up your brother.

Instead you’d been off in the park, photographing two barely legal blondes dressed up in equestrian gear, their shirts splattered with fake blood in an attempt at making some artistic statement about the dark side of “preppy” life. (Like a lot of ex-skaters, you briefly turned to fine-art color photography in a quest to find something that would feel as good, be as meaningful, as skateboarding. News flash: Nothing will.)

Completely forgot the other thing. Totally spaced.

We called her Baba, Swedish for grandmother.

When you got back, Baba and your brother were in the other room eating burritos out of Styrofoam containers courtesy of the depressing little taqueria by the bus stop, the one between the two bars, the neon COORS signs smoke-obscured in the back as though sunk to the bottom of a muddy pond, the dudes in Raiders jackets waiting for the bus, some with a misty look in their eyes. In the distance, bay-windowed row houses ring the foothills in the dying light.

“He’s an asshole,” she said to your brother, in earshot but ignoring you.

Had she not sent the letter, those would have been her last words to you.

He’s an asshole.

But the next day, the day before she died, she sent you a photograph with a little note of apology.

You had just been to her sparsely attended funeral, a tiny plot in Colma, and you had flown back across the continental United States and found in your otherwise empty P.O. box a note from her and this photograph waiting for you in the dead of winter and other trite expressions to establish the melodramatic mood.

“I feel I did not thank you enough for the photograph you gave me,” she wrote on the back of the picture. “I know you like this one.”


Because that picture seemed to promise, in the words of Goethe, the chivalric aspects of an earlier life.

In the background are a couple details worth pointing out.

Most of the books on the top left shelf are the collected works of Shakespeare, belonging to Alden Brooks. If you can believe it, he was actually a Shakespeare denier, one of those people who claim that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare. He dedicated his book Will Shakspere and the Dyer’s Hand to Joël. The editor was none other than Maxwell Perkins, famous for editing, among other works, The Great Gatsby. For some reason Perkins had an affinity for the book that accused the “poet” and “playwright” Shakespeare of being a brothel-keeper “of low-birth” who had “no literary talent whatsoever.”

“[T]he book had been a mania with him and every editorial conference Perkins brought it up and the board unanimously voted it down,” writes A. Scott Berg in Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius. “Indeed, the book had convinced Perkins that the man Shakespeare was not the author of what we consider Shakespeare’s work. Eventually, the board gave in to please Perkins. It made him aware, he told Hemingway, of ‘how frightfully ignorant of literature I am. For a publishing man ought not to be.’”

In the Class Notes for his Fiftieth Reunion at Harvard, Alden Brooks writes, “The best years of my life will have been spent in Shakespeare study, more especially ‘the Shakespeare Problem.’ Since every academy denies the existence of a ‘Shakespeare Problem’, my years of labor resulting in Will Shakspere and the Dyer’s Hand are universally regarded as trivial nonsense and my book, at the kindest, as ‘a monument of misspent energy.’ My only small position in Shakespeare study is that of being a mad originator of another candidate for Shakespearean authorship, Sir Edward Dyer…It is an experience, of course, to find the whole world set against one. But that I am in the minority is part of the vibrant thrill. And for me personally the conviction ever remains that in Will Shakspere and the Dyer’s Hand there in general, if not always in exact detail, is just about the ways the Shakespearean plays came into being.”

He does not mention that he dedicated Dyer’s Hand to Joël and that it was published the year Joël died.

The small statue visible in the background is by Gauguin, as is the painting of the ocean partially visible in the right-hand corner above the bookshelf.

The statue is long since sold, the painting long since stolen.

You saw the painting of the ocean in person once, while visiting your great-aunt Valerie in Long Beach. It’s one of your earliest memories. Valerie, Joël Brooks’ sister. Though it was early in the morning, she was already raving. There was a volcano pile of ash spilling out of the fireplace. Above the fireplace hung the painting of the ocean. They drank vodka with cranberry juice. The cups and the plastic six-pack rings were spread out on the counter. Her “common law” husband had glaucoma; his eye was a rotting fish eye. He wore a weird wig. Not so long after he moved out, gang members moved in, writing graffiti on the walls of her home, cashing her checks.

You were only 11 when your mother said over dinner, “Maybe we should go in and get it.”

We never did.


A keeper of the family flame, she first heard about her deceased uncle Joël Brooks when she saw his name on a New Yorker. They had kept a subscription in his name, the way some people will never erase a loved one’s message off an answering machine. “Who is Joël Brooks?” she asked Hilma, her grandmother, on one of her childhood visits to Topanga. “Oh, he died,” she replied. “We don’t talk about him.”

“Who was he?” she asked Baba on the car ride back to Santa Monica. “He was my brother,” she replied with typical taciturnity. (When she was once asked by this aspiring author what dinner had been like at the Perkins’, she said, “Good food.”)

They lived in Santa Monica. Skateboarding was still being called “sidewalk surfing.” It held no appeal for your mother, who didn’t even go to prom or enjoy the water. Her father warned her about the ocean after she tried to surf once.

“You can get a lot more tired paddling out then you realize,” he said.

When she now writes her own austere poetry, she will often carefully lay these same old family photographs of Joël, Alden and Hilma across the dining room table as though they were tarot cards. In a sense these are the figures that have decided, if not quite sealed, our fate.

You can see fog-shrouded Sutro Tower in the window. Doves coo on the sill. The eucalyptuses shiver in the wind.

If the atmosphere in this house is too heavy with history—laden with lost time—just grab your board and go. Skate down the street. You’ll feel better. Even if it brings you closer to an empty intersection—condominium-capped foothills, pampas grass pressing against the chain-link fence, tract homes trailing off into the sunset—you’ll feel better just being on your board. Yes. California has not been kind. The hill is steep even by the city’s standards. We’ve declined. Our lives are no longer like the ones in the pictures. They lack their celestial light.

But whatever.

To paraphrase Satan in Paradise Lost, at least here we can be free.


Author: Had you encountered a crime scene like that before?2

Cop: Ah, no. Nothing like that one. And the reason I say that is because of the disarray of the contents of the trailer. You know, everything was just strewn about.

It was more sad than anything. For a person to end that way. To just be wrapped up in a rug and left like that.

Author: Hm.

Cop: The weather was pleasant. We was running around in shirtsleeves. But during the investigation out there, snow came in. We got a tent from a National Guard unit set up. Got a kerosene heater in it, where we could come in and try to get warm. ‘Cause we was…by that time, you know, we found Sally’s body. And then other information came to us. And we started looking around. And we found some remains of Larry Jones, another black male who was missing. So we was trying to search the premises for any more remains there. Everybody was miserable because of the weather and stuff. It was right up on top of the hill where the wind blows across there.

I guess when it really hit me was when they brought all of her belongings from up at the college and I was sitting in the office and looking at it and everything in her life was sitting there in front of me in boxes. All her stuff.

Everybody that I talked to only had good things to say about her. I talked to her parents, and they said how she was always so full of life and everything.

And I think the other guy was killed over drugs. But Sally…I can’t see her…Everything that I read about her and heard about her…I can’t see her being involved in the drugs. Like I said, I’ve worked five other murders. I occasionally think about them in passing, but not like this one. This one will probably always be on my mind.

Author: What’s different about this one? Why does it still preoccupy you?

Cop: I don’t know. I think it is a combination of things. As young as she was, as free and full of life as she was, and then for him to bring her all the way down there and for her life to end the way it did I think is just so senseless. It’s meaningless. I don’t know whether he had intentions of raping her or what, or if she fought him off and he shot her. I don’t know. And that’s part of what bothers me about it is not knowing. Most of my other cases there was some motive there and that gave some closure to them. This one you know…what was the motive?

I guess God really wanted her.

Author: I guess part of the reason I’m calling is…I still find myself to some degree wondering why…what possible motivation he could have had. Have you ever conjectured as to what his motivation might have been?

Cop: I can’t stop thinking about it.

Matter of fact when I took him to prison and transported him, I went back in there to take the chains off him. I told him if he ever decided to talk he could give me a call, and he said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘If you ever decide you want to tell me what really happened, you can call me.’

He looked at me and he said, ‘I will.’

I’m waiting every day.

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1 To maintain the skater-comes-to-the-establishment theme, we should add some current skateboarding-related phrase such as “g-code” which means something like “gangster code,” but somehow synthesize these elements gracefully so it does not all seem like a cynical ploy or a clumsy, hypocritical attempt to criticize youth culture while also taking unfair advantage of its vitality, or come off as a transparent attempt to enliven what would otherwise be a rather tepid personal essay of the kind that would inevitably open with a quirky skateboarding-related hook such as “Shortly after my son/daughter/sibling/father/mother/spouse/girlfriend/aunt died in a tragic hunting/boat accident/shark/terrorist attack/violent crime/none of the above, I started skateboarding again. The skateboard was just lying there in the garage. I decided to take it out for a spin for the first time in years. I can’t say that I am very good. I don’t have hot moves like Tony Hawk. Yet somehow my grief/loss found solace in the movements of these four wheels….I felt ready, if not to move on, to keep pushing the end.”

2 It’s tempting to add that I think a lot about that particular picture, that I think it represents one state of the Soul (“innocence”) and as an author I have thought a lot about how to contrast it in the Reader’s mind with the crime scene (“experience”), and it’s tempting to also add that one night not long ago I couldn’t stand the not-knowing-what-really-happened-that-night feeling any longer so I told my wife I was going to the store and drove down the street and called the number and THE VOICE said hello and THE VOICE saying hello was THE VOICE of the officer who first found Sally’s car and ran the plates and then found Sally and while he was talking to the author he was working the graveyard shift in some tiny hamlet and while I was talking to him someone knocked on the window of the car and asked me to move and it was weird because it was almost like the cop had been waiting for that call, the call in which I painfully refrained from telling him about this picture (see above) though I ask you now O Reader how are these pictures the same and how are they different?