Often does a naïve tyro approach me with the age-old problem.
“Bill,” they whine, “I’m at my wit’s end. I need a title for my WIP. Something colloquial, idiomatic, with some snap to it.”
My limpid brown eyes glistening with empathy, I speak not, but simply hand them a copy of Wendy Williams’ (and in smaller type co-writer Karen Hunter’s) second novel in the Ritz Harper trilogy, “Is the Bitch Dead or What?”
When I saw it in the new release section at the library, I couldn’t resist. When I began reading, the payoff was immediate.
The first chapter opens with a third-person account from the point of view of Jacob Reese, and one of the first things I learned was, hey, if you want to highlight something, put it in caps:
(From page 2) He sat for a minute and reflected on what he had just done. He already regretted it. But it was over. He was mad at himself, but he was FURIOUS at Ritz Harper for being such a dumb bitch—such a smarmy, money-grubbing bitch—that people would gladly pay to see her dead.
It’s interesting the way Ms. Williams handles Jacob’s characterization:
He decided to do the thing he did best. He buried the thoughts he was having. Jacob was cursed with an uncanny ability to be totally delusional. He could fool himself into thinking anything he wanted. As a result, he didn’t have many friends and he hadn’t achieved anything in life.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Dostoyevsky passed up just this nifty characterization opportunity with Raskolnikov. Saying the dude is totally delusional and letting it go at that works much better than a bunch of philosophical blather that everyone skims past anyway—and isn’t the point more or less the same?
Being TD didn’t work out well for R., and it’s not working for Jacob, either:
(From page 3) But the fronting was wearing thin on his psyche and his wallet. A woman can tell if a man is broke—it’s in her DNA, like the mothering instinct—even if you give her all the X she can handle. Jacob had a steady supply, but not an eternal supply. One day, the keg of ecstasy would run dry, and he knew it. That was why he was desperate.
Whew! Talk about life lessons from literature! All these years I’ve been ladling out tabs of X the way a Bishop deals wafers on Easter morning, and yet that long line of babes all sensed somehow I was just an ink-stained scrivener without two dimes to rub together.
But look how Ms. Williams inserts Jacob’s problem into the story and clearly highlights it for the reader. He has shattered his own self-image by murdering the bitch, and he knows that one day his keg of X will run dry. There you have it inside three brief pages: the inner, psychological weakness, and the outer need. (Budding novelists take note.)
But Mss. Williams and Hunter do not leave it at that. Jacob Reese has a Plan. A plan is, of course, one of John Truby’s 22 points explained in his book, “Anatomy of Story.” I forget which one, exactly, but one of them.
Ms. Williams explains Jacob’s plan
(page 3): Jacob was determined to get to “the top”—whatever that meant—but he wasn’t going to get there by being on the bottom of some powerful man. He was not going to be that new bitch; he was going to scratch and claw the hard way and make it on his own. Being a new bitch in the record industry wasn’t much different from being a new inmate in a small cell on Rikers Island.
[I thought this an interesting comparison, but don’t let me interrupt the narrative flow.]
If you come into Rikers without a rep or street credibility or much muscle or hustle, or without somebody watching yur back, you are open to being eaten for lunch—literally.
Unless cannibalism is now the norm at Rikers, I think the “literally” might be misplaced. But don’t let me interrupt the narrative flow.
In the music business, if you come in new without any rep, or anybody who will stand up for you and have your back, you are subject to being the next Bentley the Butler, with an emphasis on the bent part, as in bent over and drilled in the butt by any mega rapper/rap mogul. There are lots of Bentley the Butlers in the music business, and very few of them actually get to be anything but. . . In the record industry, just like in jail, you either bend over and take it, hoping for the best, or you find another way. Jacob was determined to find that way.
Well, at that point I was hooked.
How it all turns out for Jacob, Ritz Harper and the characters in this novel? Like those poor victims taking the path that Jacob is trying to avoid, I’m hoping for the best. In the meantime, excuse me, but I’ve got a book to read