By Eric Beetner
(280 Steps; May 12, 2015)
The McGraw Family’s members are blue collar criminals – “outlaws,” as Grandpa Calvin puts it. They are drivers who ferry contraband for a more ambitious family of Iowan crooks, the Stanleys, who started out as bootleggers and incidental murderers and long ago graduated to dealing hard drugs.
The McGraws deliver merchandise that UPS won’t touch.
They are Rumrunners.
Eric Beetner, filmmaker and author of numerous books, including TheYear I Died Seven Times, has put together a sharp-edged tale in Rumrunners, pulling together a cast of believable multi-dimensional characters, gritty dialogue, credible action sequences and a complex plot that makes sense.
The book focuses on the McGraws, lower echelon criminals who follow a strict professional code – don’t steal from your employers, don’t look at the cargo you are carrying and don’t kill unless you have to. Calvin McGraw, a forcible retiree from the life, is the patriarch. His son, Webb, still drives for the Stanleys, ferrying everything from drug precursors to freshly laundered cash, and is the only remaining active member of the clan.
Webb’s son and Calvin’s grandson, Tucker, is the “white sheep” of the family: an insurance broker whose firm is on the cusp of bankruptcy and has a greedy, cheating ex-wife who is robbing him blind with exorbitant alimony demands. Tuck is trying to build a normal middle class life so his son, Milo, can avoid the family “business.”
He isn’t meeting with much success.
So Tuck is flabbergasted when a representative of the Stanley clan turns up one night to tell him his old man has disappeared with a load he was hauling for the family. McGraw is informed that he is on the hook for the missing merchandise and must either find his father or forfeit $10 million, the value of the load.
Tucker calls in grandpa and the race is on – with grandpa and grandson each secretly convinced Webb is dead and his disappearance is a Stanley family scam.
There is solid writing in this novel and Beetner clearly knows what he is doing. His literary flourishes aren’t just showing off, either: they always work to kick the story along.
While sitting in a donut shop and watching passing vehicles through the steam clouded window, for example, 86-year-old Calvin happens to notice the streak his pastry has left on his empty platter.
“His paper plate held only a sugary ring where his glazed had been, but his coffee was still tongue-scalding hot as he sat on the swivel stool and wasted another day. He didn’t want to be watching cars, he wanted to be in them. Driving fast. Cops on his heels, sirens and gunshots in the air. Tires screaming, rubber burning, oil thrumming through a well-tuned engine like the blood pumping fast through his heart. Like the old days.”
In the paragraphs that follow this introduction, the sticky film becomes a metaphor for the ennui and uncertainty of Calvin’s aimless widower’s existence:
“Even today he thought he got out of the game too early. He could still have been driving, like his son— in his sixties and still taking jobs. It wasn’t about the money anymore. The goddamn Stanleys never paid that great anyway. It was about the smell of gasoline and the feel of a pedal when it hit the floor and couldn’t go down any more. Now here he was. Living in Omaha. How the hell did that happen? Outside, past the streaks of sugar glaze blurring the window, one of those electric hybrid cars passed by on a whisper. ‘Disgrace,’ Calvin said out loud.”
It isn’t immediately clear to the reader whether this epithet refers to the old man’s empty life or the bloodless vehicle passing by, but as the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that Calvin will do anything to get back in the game. His retirement from a life of high-speed chases and gunfire is a living death. He no longer has the one thing that a life of petty crime gave him: a degree of control over who he is and where he is headed.
Tucker, on the other hand, is trying to escape his heritage as a McGraw. He despises his family’s long association with criminality and hates the Stanleys for the petty rural crime lords they are.
During a colloquy with his granddad, Calvin sneers at Tucker’s life choice:
“You’re pissing away your gift, boy. Selling insurance. What the hell is that?” the old man says.
“It’s a decent, honest living,” Tuck responds.
“It’s a cemetery plot with a business card. It’s an iron lung with a company car,” Calvin responds. “It’s a slow suicide by bus bench advertisements. And it’s a waste of valuable resources. McGraw blood is meant to be coursing through a V-8, not an actuary table.”
Dragged back into the underworld orbit by his father’s disappearance it takes Tucker nearly the entire book to realize that Calvin is right: Tucker’s father and grandfather are actually good at what they do while he is the failure, and the safe, straight life he is trying to build for himself is a fraud. By abandoning his family’s heritage, he has lost his ability to control his own destiny. He has indentured himself to a world of middle-class slavery and walked away from his legitimacy as an individual.
His realization is slow in building and the first clue comes when he is forced to steal a car to search for Webb:
“The acoustics in the barn turned out to be perfect for the throaty roar of the Superbird’s engine.
“Deep down in Tucker, in a place that didn’t have a name, something stirred. An echo through the ages, a flash of lightning down the helix of his DNA.
“Tucker barely noticed, but above, the clouds parted a little, carving a path of light.”
So there is more going on here than a simple caper tale. Rumrunners is full of seriously thought-provoking material. Nonetheless, Beetner keeps it light, with plenty of deadpan humor to boot the action along the road and keep the reader from realizing he has been challenged.
For example, in introducing Tucker’s obnoxious ex-wife, Beetner writes, “Tucker opened the door to Jenny, his ex. Tall, blond with boobs barely two years old and still smelling of that boyfriend who wasn’t much older.”
And when Tucker blanches after Calvin takes a revolver out of his car’s glove box, the old man says, “ ‘Relax. This is a just-in-case gun. This ain’t enough to get in any real trouble.’”
“ ‘I’m not all that interested in any trouble, real or imagined,’ Tucker says.
“Calvin stared down his grandson. ‘You sure your mom didn’t fuck the milkman?’”
Finally, after Calvin and Tuck are forced to watch some Stanley gunmen execute a low-level dope dealer by chaining him up and dumping him in a lake, Beetner writes:
“Tucker read with interest one time about the world record for holding your breath. Over seven minutes. The article said most people couldn’t go more than two.
“As they retraced the drive through the woods, Tucker counted.”
Even Calvin’s passing observations inject a mild note of humor. When Tucker hands the old man a beer,
“Calvin’s calloused finger lifted, pushed and folded back the tab. The old man missed the days when you’d lift that tab right off. Then some dumbass in Connecticut went and choked on one of those little metal deals and we got safety cans.”
While Tucker is getting away from a group of pursuing bikers, Beetner describes the sensation of escaping in a high-powered car:
“The huge wing on the back of the car pushed down on the rear tires and they gripped the road hard like it was a stripper’s ass. The pickup faded away in the rearview.”
And when grandfather and grandson visit a pair of speed freaks looking for clues to Webb’s whereabouts, he describes the rancid reek of the crank smokers’ den thusly:
“An acrid, chemical smell drooled out of the apartment.”
What I found most intriguing about Rumrunners was how it fits into the category of what I call “Red noir” – crime literature that raises issues of exploitation, corruption and class struggle, and points out the similarities between the political economy of the straight world and the underworld.
As anybody who has read Hammett’s Red Harvest or The Glass Key should be aware, crime is like corporate capitalism, only without the civilized niceties. The same felonious behavior takes place in robbing a 7-Eleven or a 401K holder, but the technique for the latter doesn’t generally involve gunfights in the street or the murder of the victims.
In the straight world, an oligarch looking for domination of a particular market niche will engineer a rival’s bankruptcy, or cut production corners by using toxic materials or an unsafe design. Sure, people may die because health codes are ignored and shoddy construction techniques are used, and they may be left destitute by stockbrokers or crooked banks (a redundancy), but the thieves are allowed to get away with it because “it’s just business.”
Besides, it’s their country. The rest of us just live here.
In Rumrunners, Beetner draws a parallel between the more brutal criminals in the Stanley clan and those who run Shearson Lehman or Citibank. Calvin repeatedly refers to the Stanleys as “businessmen” and credits them with dealing squarely.
But it is obvious that lower level criminals like the McGraws are exploited as badly by their bosses as the minimum wage employees of a Walmart or McDonalds.
One face-to-face with Hugh Stanley, the gangster family’s patriarch, makes this clear: as Beetner puts it, when the gang boss makes a minor joke, “Hugh laughed again, the patronizing laugh of a supervisor inviting his subordinate into the parlor to talk like equals, knowing the equality ended on the other side of the door.”
The relationship is sheer exploitation. The Stanleys think nothing of wasting business associates who they feel have cheated them. In one segment of the book, a group of mercenary killers hired by Hugh Stanley shotguns a bunch of unarmed Hispanics while ripping off a rival dealer’s meth lab. In another, the clan uses C-4 to murder one of its own members during an effort to kill Calvin and Tuck.
As Calvin puts it in one passage, “Sons a bitches. [Stanleys have] been using us McGraw men like slaves for eighty years. Never once looked on us as any more than chauffeurs and errand boys. Fuck ‘em.”
Despite his hatred for the criminal lifestyle, even Tucker, thick as he is about some things, recognizes that his own middle-class existence was predicated on theft. In telling Grandpa Calvin about the onerous alimony his ex makes him pay, he admits his divorce came when he was cleaning up in the wake of the bigger banking industry crooks who tanked the economy in 2008.
“ ‘It happened at a high point in the insurance game, People buying homeowners policies for houses they shouldn’t have ever been in. People with extra money to spend on some peace of mind.’ ”
“Calvin sipped his coffee, shook his head. ‘A goddamn shame.’ ”
“I know. The whole system is,” Tucker says.
Despite his implicit recognition that the insurance he sold was a scam, Tucker simply can’t admit that his straight lifestyle is just as twisted as his upfront outlaw kin. After all, what Tucker was doing was “just business;” what his grandfather and father did was a crime!
Although Tucker is really the focal character in the story, I became extraordinarily fond of Grandpa Calvin, who, despite his venerable age, is as bad a badass as you are likely to find residing in a pulp novel’s pages. Beetner establishes him as a legitimate force of nature right in the book’s beginning when the old man break’s a donut shop customer’s finger because the asshole won’t leave him alone. He’s my kind of guy!
For this reason, I am delighted to hear that Beetner may produce a prequel to the events in Rumrunners if his publishers think there is a market for it. I hope they do. I look forward to seeing more of Granddad Calvin.