Unusually, today’s Big Idea starts with an author’s note before the main body of the Big Idea piece. As you read, however, I think you’ll see why author Max Booth III thought it important to put it in, and why some aspects of his new novel Touch the Night are almost eerily in sync with the moment.
MAX BOOTH III:
Author’s Note: I turned in this essay to my editor on May 24th, one day before the death of George Floyd. Since then, well…I don’t need to tell you what’s been going on. I just wanted to include this brief note, since I realize how weird it might read given the current moment. As for Touch the Night itself, I started writing it in July 2016 and sent it to Cemetery Dance in June 2019. I do think it’s a strange coincidence that my novel about police brutality would come out now. I feel a little uncomfortable even trying to promote this book right now. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m trying to capitalize on the situation. I’m very proud of this book and I hope people read it. I also hope people are staying safe and healthy and enraged. I would like to end this disclaimer by encouraging everybody to please donate to Black Lives Matter charities and bail funds. Wherever you are right now, find your local mutual aid group. Volunteer. The bigger we are, the weaker they become.
I think every book begins with one moment. A single image too vivid to ignore. It builds up and up and up until you’re on the verge of exploding, and either you finally write that novel, or literally burst like that guy’s head in Scanners. In the case of my new Cemetery Dance novel, Touch the Night, that “single image” was less of an image and more of a feeling.
The feeling of my head being slammed against the scorching hood of a cop car.
Okay, maybe we should rewind a little bit: back to when I’m twelve years old, and I’m sleeping over at my best friend’s house. There are three of us: myself, Josh, and Ian. It’s Ian’s house we’re staying at. It’s always Ian’s house. Nobody is ever home and we have the freedom to watch videos of people getting hurt on YouTube. We have the freedom to prank call people using celebrity soundboards. We have the freedom to do whippits and grimace at rotten dot com and film ourselves skateboarding into trash cans. There is simply no better place to be than Ian’s house.
On this particular night, it’s well past midnight and the three of us are wide awake. Ian’s mom is out at some bar getting wasted. Fuck it, we decide, let’s go out for a walk, maybe get some pops and chips at the gas station down the street. Who cares what time it is? If anything, the fact that it’s so late makes everything even more exciting. So we sneak out, and we get up to the kind of things stupid twelve-year-old boys tend to do when they’re out past curfew unsupervised. At this time of night, the small town of Lake Station, Indiana, feels hauntingly empty. We throw realtor signs like Frisbees. We hit houses with rocks. We drink Jones Soda in a gas station parking lot and dare each other to do increasingly dumber things.
On the way home, we take a shortcut through the woods. Behind us, a stray dog starts following. Growling at a low volume.
Every small town has at least one knife kid, which is exactly what it sounds like: a kid who always seems to have some kinda knife in his pocket.
I’m a knife kid.
With the dog getting closer behind us, I pull out tonight’s pocketknife and flick the blade open. I have no desire to hurt this animal, but if he charges us, maybe it won’t be a bad idea to have some protection. Luckily, the dog grows disinterested and runs away before anything can get out of control.
That’s when something else starts following us.
Just as we make it in front of Ian’s house, red and blue lights illuminate the street. We freeze. I realize I’m still holding the knife. I let go of it and it lands, blade down, into the grass at my feet. Sticking up from the earth.
Two cops get out of the car. They demand to know what I dropped. “Uh, nothing,” I tell them, which is a lie they quickly bust me on.
They drag me and my two friends to their car and slam our heads against the hood so hard all I can hear is a loud ringing. The car is hot against my face as they search the rest of my pockets (and find nothing). Behind us, the cops call us names like cocksuckers and faggots. They want to know what we’re doing out here at this time of night and going for a walk does not satisfy them. They want to know where we all live, and for some reason Ian tells them he’s my brother, and he lives at my house clear on the other side of town. One of the cops ask if this is true. There is zero hesitation on my part when I nod and confirm him and I are kin.
Seconds later, Ian’s mom comes walking out of their house and asks what’s going on.
The rest of the night isn’t worth getting into too much detail. Everybody’s parents were called. We were giving strong lectures. We were yelled at for hours. Meanwhile, all I could think about was the kind of language the cops had used with us before any adults appeared. The kind of language they had used on children. How violent they had gotten with us so quickly.
This night planted a seed that would grow over time into a deep hatred for authority. It seemed inevitable I would eventually write about it, especially with the number of stories about cops executing unarmed civilians popping up more and more in the news every day. I know the three of us got off incredibly lucky that night. Things could have so easily turned to disaster. I also am positive my experience would have been drastically different had we not been white. I do understand my privilege here, especially here. It’s no secret that the police in the United States have a real disturbing fetish for murdering black kids. And it’s also no secret that this country refuses to make them face the consequences for their actions. Their crimes.
My new novel, Touch the Night, is my reaction to both my own real-life experience and also my frustrations with other, severely more serious cases of police brutality. It begins with two twelve-year-old boys sneaking out in the middle of the night and getting stopped by the police. Only…these kids are not as lucky as my friends and I were. The cops take these boys away…but not to a police station, no, someplace far more sinister than that, and it’s up to their mothers to take the law in their own hands to save them. Things get…uh, pretty dark.
Every book begins with one image. One seed. Over time, it grows and grows and grows.
Getting slammed against a cop car and called every homophobic slur in the book did something to me at such a young age. It forever altered my perspective. I foolishly thought maybe writing Touch the Night would rid this internal rage from my system once and for all.
But of course, I was wrong.
It only made me more pissed off.