Wire to Wire assembles a cast of train-hopping, drug-dealing, glue-huffing lowlifes, in a stunning homage to one of our most popular enduring genres—the American crime novel.
While riding a freight car through Detroit, Michael Slater suffers a near-fatal accident—a power line to the head. After a questionable recovery and a broken relationship, he abandons his new home in the Arizona desert, though not before leaving a man for dead. Slater returns to Michigan in a busted-up Ford to reunite with an old train-hopping pal, but quickly discovers that the Pleasant Peninsula of his youth is none too pleasant. As Slater’s past catches up with his present—a love triangle, a local drug dealer, the damaged residents of a destitute Northern Michigan town—rock bottom keeps slipping farther away.
Three years later, Slater sits in a dark video-editing suite, popping speed like penny candy, attempting to reconcile himself with the unfilmed memories that haunt his screens and his conscience.
For more information about Wire to Wire, visit http://scottsparling.net/
“Sparling's debut is well crafted and thrilling, tying together an obvious love for both Michigan and railroads with an expert sense of timing and plot. The world he has created is both overwhelming and exhilarating, thanks in no small part to a large ensemble of memorable characters and a relentless pace. Indeed, hardly a page goes by without some sort of fantastic calamity throwing Slater and company into further turmoil—when the most peaceful passages of the story are speed-addled, that's saying something—but it's done so well that hopping off this runaway train would never cross a reader's mind.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review and Pick of the Week
“A strange, formidable novel about crossed signals and damage done, with plenty of peek-between-your-fingers moments for good measure."
“Sparling creates compelling, many-faceted characters and a nuanced portrait of a beautiful and tragic place. His writing is self-assured, suffused with a streetwise insouciance, always edgy, and frequently lyrical, particularly on the pleasures of riding the rails to find some kind of peace—or escape.”
In this impressive debut, Scott Sparling lends contemporary grunge to the genre as he embraces its trademark obsessions with sex, cash and dead ends. His all-too-human cast of contemporary boxcar drifters, glue sniffers and thugs is drawn in an impressionistic style that makes for stunning emotional depth."
“Smart, thrilling, and darkly funny . . . it reads like lightning . . . a muscular cross between Jim Thompson and Cormac McCarthy.”
“[Scott Sparling’s] first novel moves along at a gallop, as a gallery of misfits, fuckups, and outright crooks circle around a shady criminal enterprise in the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.”
“Electric . . . it crackles.”
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“The characters are as complex as the plot and Sparling does a masterful job of tangling them up while keeping the details lucid and telling.”
“An exciting chase through the mind and through Michigan . . . you don’t want to hop off or even go to the club car for a fast drink.”
“Wire to Wire ends up being what so many pulp writers think they’re making but end up missing: an exploration of the proper aims of existence.”
—Open Letters Monthly
“It’s rare to find so many interesting and compelling characters in a single book. Wire to Wire, the first novel from Portland-based author Scott Sparling, shines.”
—Portland Book Review
"In the tradition of the great noir novels, Wire to Wire, is really something. Like being in a stolen car with no brakes in a world of train hopping, sex, violence, and drugs. It’s all edge from start to finish."
—Willy Vlautin, author of The Motel Life
“Scott Sparling writes like a man on fire, and Wire to Wire is the wickedly brilliant crime novel forged in the white-hot heat of his talent. It's an electrifying debut by a writer who knows the wrong side of town like the back if his hand. People, if there is a God, this book will win prizes.”
—Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff and The Devil All the Time
“Sparling's spare prose comes with a glint of wit and a persistent quirky intelligence that does two singular things--it completely seduces the reader and convincingly asserts that even the most hapless among us lead rich and complicated lives.”
A railroad bridge rose over the Mississippi near Winona—an elaborate structure with steel trestles and wrought-iron truss work, spanning a full mile across the river, tying Minnesota to Wisconsin. The bridge had been built in four sections, each forming its own arch. The second span, over the deepest part of the river, could swing open to let ships pass. Near the top of the span was a wooden bridgetender’s shack—a cabin up in the trusses where, in the old days, an operator would sit with nothing but a radio and a flask of whiskey, watching miles of open river. The shack was abandoned now, the bridge automated.
On the Minnesota side of the river, Harp Maitland stood watching an eastbound freight approach in the night. The train was a ways off and going too fast to hop, but it would slow as it rolled onto the bridge. He would jump it and ride across the river. Two days later, if things went right, he’d be back in Michigan.
Getting ready, he moved back from the rails into the higher weeds. His right arm swung wide as he moved—a gunslinger walk formed from days of wearing a tool belt, a hammer at his hip.
Harp wore an army coat stained with creosote. His hair was held back by a rubber band. He had spent the previous night in the bridgetender’s shack with a slender young woman named Melinda. If he had met her in a dream, she would have been some kind of winged creature carrying him off to the forest. Instead he met her in a bar. She was small and dark and not much over twenty-one, and she was getting revenge on someone who needed to be taught a lesson—boyfriend, fiancé, asshole. She found Harp in the Crosscut Bar, looking at maps and drinking Molson’s. What kind of maps are those, she asked.
“Railroad lines,” Harp said. He pointed out the different cross-hatching. “These are the ones I’ve ridden. And these I still need to ride.”
He moved his backpack and she sat down. Don’t use your luck and it goes away. That was one of his freight rules. It applied to women as well.
They had three more beers while she told him about the jerk who had left her. She had long dark hair and a trilobite fossil on a necklace that she didn’t take off when they made love.
It was tragic, Harp thought. The fossil against her flesh. The smallness of her hand. The way the night disappeared and was gone forever. You needed a really long freight ride to get a tragedy like that off your mind.
The train that was coming at him—the one that would carry him across the river—was a Green Bay & Western. The Snake, it was called. It curved across Wisconsin to the town of Kewaunee on the edge of Lake Michigan. From there, the cars would be loaded onto a ferry, the Chief Tecumseh—a mammoth ship that carried whole freight trains in its belly.
He’d had to help Melinda climb the ironwork to get to the bridgetender’s shack. Cold rungs led up the trusses to a narrow catwalk along the front. The cabin had been closed for years but the door was unlocked, just as Harp had guessed. “You first,” he said to Melinda. Her eyes were alive with the danger of it all.
She had wanted her clothes off right away and after she undressed they stood and looked out at the darkening world. The farms and roads looked like something from a model railroad. They could see a bottling plant on the Wisconsin side of the river, a miniature factory. The tiny lights of Winona. Even without a naked woman, the view would have stunned him.
As the oncoming freight grew closer, Harp pushed the image of Melinda away. On freights, stray thoughts and distraction could kill. What mattered was each new breath. It was why he loved riding trains.
When the headlight hit him, he spread his arms, not hiding. The engineer raised a gloved hand and so did Harp. Here I am, he said.
Very quickly, he spotted a Milwaukee Road boxcar, open on both sides. He jogged even with the train, putting a gloved hand on its side to feel its speed. He let the freight cars slip past until the open boxcar caught up to him. As it drew alongside, he threw his backpack into the car, grabbed the door frame with his right hand, and leaped. His eyes saw nothing—it was all by feel, legs swinging up as far as he could hoist them. He rolled in easily and got to his feet.
My Crosscut Hop, he thought. Something to make you feel alive.
As the freight crossed the Mississippi, the ironwork of the spans flashed past, cutting the river into frames. Out one side, the moonlit water rippled up, reflecting broken planes of light. The other way, south, the river was smooth black, a sheet of mica.
The idea was to ride the Snake all the way across Wisconsin. In Kewaunee, he’d hide in a freight car and let the Chief Tecumseh carry him across Lake Michigan to Wolverine, and Lane.
He supposed he should feel guilty about Melinda, but he didn’t. Sometimes you had to betray others to be true to yourself. That was just the way it was. If you didn’t know that, or if you were afraid to face it, you didn’t get much of a life. Sometimes you paid the price. Shit in all its forms would rain down, but shit would rain no matter what. You couldn’t stop it by trying to please others.
On the Wisconsin side of the river, the train surprised him by taking a switch. Instead of rolling east, it swung onto the southbound tracks of the Burlington Northern, carrying him away from Michigan and into Iowa.
Clear of the bridge, the freight was already picking up speed. There was little time to sort things out. Harp grabbed his pack and crouched by the door, searching for a spot to jump, looking for switches that might snap an ankle or bust his head. But the darkness hid everything in shadow.
Even as he tensed to jump, part of him thought how he had never ridden the southbound rails. Iowa was full of railroad towns he hadn’t seen. He hesitated a second or two longer before stepping back from the door. Letting the moment pass, letting the train decide where he would go. It was the right thing to do, he was certain. In another minute, the southbound was rolling fast, heading into the night and the dark mystery of Iowa.
Melinda had REPENT AND BELIEVE in ballpoint on the pale side of her forearm. She went to the Methodist college and she had written it there in class when she was bored. On the floor of the bridgetender’s shack, with her arms up over her head, the church words made her seem even more naked.
The freight swayed through gullies, cutting through trees and overgrown brush. Pockets of cold blew over Harp when the track dipped close to the river. He got out a joint and lit it, remembering nights when he woke beside Lane and found himself wishing for the boxcar floor. He worried sometimes that the memory of her body, which he carried with him when he traveled, pleased him more than the real thing. It would be better, he knew, if he stayed in Michigan more. But there was no stopping the going.
The track seemed to get louder as he got high and soon he forgot about Lane. The night was empty—there was just the breeze and the glowing joint and the fleeting glimpses of the Mississippi. All the good people had gone to sleep. Except for me, he thought. Except for the Methodist-humping, to-thyself-be-true freight riders. We never sleep. The night is just too rare.
You’ve been working on Wire to Wire for about two decades. Do you remember where it started? And how has it evolved over the years?
I’ve written about trains – freights – as long as I’ve been writing fiction. The first finished draft was 700 pages of train stuff without much plot. I was following the advice of my first teacher, Jack Cady, who told me to take a couple reams of paper and fill them up, ruin them. Make mistakes – because if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking risks, and no one will want to read what you write.
Also, in the earliest drafts, nothing was in chronological order. I thought it would be cool if the novel worked the way real memory worked. You don’t have to remember what happened when you were 20 before you can remember what happened the following year. We all have random access memory. So the narrative was like that too. I thought the reader would enjoy putting everything back in order and making sense of things. In fact it drove readers crazy, or drove them away. No one understood what the hell was happening. So every draft got more chronological.
About halfway through the process, I realized it needed a stronger storyline, a real plot. But I had no idea how plot worked, or how to incorporate one. Those rewrites were hard. It was like trying to put plumbing and wiring into a house you’ve already built, when you have no plumbing or wiring skills. It took forever.
Eventually, the train scenes became secondary to other things, like Slater’s attempt at connection, and the power of sex and money.
I’ve seen pictures of you from the '70s—longhaired, draped in denim, and riding freight cars. How much of the novel is autobiographical?
I don’t view it as autobiographical. But it’s true that most of the freight scenes spring from real experiences. After high school and college, I rode freights all over the west with a friend. Riding freights was our way of being loose in the world, of testing ourselves. It wasn’t about the hobo culture, it was much more about being young and on the road.
I had some of the skills I ascribe to Slater in the book – I was fast and had great balance. I could jump from one moving train to another, like Slater does in the book. So those parts of the writing are at based on real life.
Most of the houses and bars are based on somewhere I’ve been. The Addition outside Tucson is real. I decided it should have a name, so I called it The Addition, inspired by the Gin Den in Richard Ford’s A Piece of My Heart. Hidden Mist is real, though again, it’s not called Hidden Mist. It just felt more real to ground the invented characters in real places.
Though pieces of the book are set in Arizona and New York, the heart of the book is, without a doubt, Northern Michigan. What is it about that particular area that interests you?
My father grew up in a very small town in southern Michigan. When he was in high school, a family friend arranged for him to spend the summers as a handyman at a girl’s camp in Northern Michigan. I imagine that it seemed like another world to him. It did to me, when I was growing up. We went there every year. Its spell is on me. If I didn’t love Oregon so much, that’s where I’d live.
People think of Michigan as industrial, part of the rust belt, but Northern Michigan is full of lakes and forests. In some ways, it functions like the forest does in a lot of Shakespeare’s plays—a place away from court where you can come to terms with things.
In the book, I’ve made Northern Michigan into a refuge for people who can’t deal with the real world. And there are people like that up there. But of course there are plenty of perfectly normal people, too. I just thought it would be interesting to create a landscape where, as Dylan would say, losers, cheaters, and six-time users all congregate. That’s why I created a fictional town, instead of using a real town. I’ve essentially taken the towns of Frankfort and Elberta, Michigan, and turned them into Wolverine, despite the fact that there’s a real town called Wolverine also in Northern Michigan. But I didn’t know that at the time, and then I got hooked on the name and couldn’t change it.
There’s a great framing device in Wire to Wire—Slater [the main character] sits in a video suite with screens that seem to be haunted by his past. Can you talk to me a little bit about the structure, and how you came to it?
The idea of seeing visions play out on a screen came from buying a Kaypro IV when personal computers were new. It had a green nine-inch screen, and it showed nothing but chunky, digital letters. It didn’t even display fonts. The cursor would blink at me, waiting for me write something. I kept imagining how great it would be if it would show me pictures.
I’ve always been attracted to frame stories. The movie version of Dr. Zhivago is probably the first one that got to me, and then of course, Heart of Darkness. I like how it lets you zoom in and out of things. In Wire to Wire, I was particularly taken with the idea of time as something you could rewind or freeze or fast forward. We think one day follows another, but what if they don’t? That’s partly why the early drafts presented so much of the action out of chronological order.
But the frame story also created challenges. How real are the visions supposed to be, and how should the narrative flow back and forth from Michigan to New York? Those were issues at every stage of writing the book. It was something you and I talked about a lot during editing, which was immensely helpful. Thanks to you and other smart people at Tin House, I feel like we got it right, at least in my reading of it.
What authors have influenced you over the years?
In high school, I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I lived in Michigan, had never been to Oregon, and I wasn’t much of a reader at that point. So Kesey turned me on, not to LSD, but to fiction.
If Kesey made me want to read, it was Robert Stone who made want to write. I read Dog Soldiers and that changed everything for me. Early on, I had a weeklong workshop with Stone in Pt. Townsend, which was amazing and gave me confidence. And there’s a section in Hall of Mirrors, where Rheinhardt remembers his lost musical ability and thinks about how perishable that kind of talent is if you don’t wrangle it into something real. That passage alone prevented me from quitting about a million times.
Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright also influenced me, along with all of his subsequent books. I’ve always been drawn to slightly louder, incantatory styles. I also read a lot of Jim Harrison, of course, though he’s more of an inspiration than an influence. Same with Richard Ford.
There’s an undercurrent of '70s rock & roll in the book—and I know how important music is to you. Did the music throughout the book accompany the writing of it? Are there particular songs or artists that you associate with your characters?
Music was very important to me as I tried to understand the story. Certain lyrics helped define things for me. For example, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” and the description of the night playing tricks when you’re trying to forget someone. That’s clearly Slater’s song. The way Steve Earle’s “Here I Am” owns up to a stubborn, uncompromising way of living that isn’t always fun to be around—that took me to Harp.
The Doors line about learning to forget from “Soul Kitchen” also got to me. Slater hasn’t learned how to forget and Lane needs glue to get there. There are two Joni Mitchell songs that were huge influences: the first verse of “Come In From the Cold,” where she writes about her circuitry exploding from just a single touch, and the verse in “Coyote” about how close we can get to each other and still feel alone. Of course, that’s one Robert Stone’s themes too—connection and disconnection all mixed together.
And then there’s Seger. I had written so much about Bob Seger in other forums that I purposely left him out of the initial drafts. Only when I felt comfortable that the manuscript had its own weight could I go back and incorporate a few Seger references. I’m glad I did. Writing about Michigan and not mentioning Seger would be like leaving out the Great Lakes. It wouldn’t be true.