"This is a book for our times."
Terresa Monroe-Hamilton, NoisyRoom.net
"A four-star eccentric minor classic."
Aaron C. Brown, National Book Critics Circle member
"Immediately grabbed my attention.
Now is the time to read this book."
Deborah Hamilton, Right Truth
"The story is drawn with great skill and clarity.
The characters are vivid and dynamic."
Rob Slaven, Amazon Top 500 Reviewer

"You will love the book."
William D. Curnutt, Amazon Top 1000 Reviewer, Vine Voice

Chapter 1: May
"If you’re wonderin’ why I’m upset," my editor says, "here it is: You’ve written an obituary for the Republican Party, kid." He emphasizes the word obituary as if regurgitating a meal that didn’t set well on his stomach.
The phone call was inevitable. He requested a sympathetic piece on the early race for the White House; I submitted a disenchanted rant against everything I once believed in. He’s disappointed, sure, but his melancholy tone also suggests recognition: You may be right, he’s probably thinking, but this is no time for the unvarnished truth. There’s an election at stake, by golly.

It’s almost noon; I’m still lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling fan, blades slicing the air with a lulling rhythm. If this is the end, then let it be; I’ll rest my head on this pillow at night with a clear conscience.
"I’ll post it," my editor says. "But promise me this, Ronnie, promise me it’s not your farewell speech to the troops."
Our best shot at landing a true conservative in the White House faded with Paul Chambers. Still 18 months before the general election and the senator from South Carolina is already sprinting for the middle, ditching the principles that made him a viable candidate in the first place. His numbers haven’t taken a hit; and, until his campaign team faces an outcry from hoodwinked voters, they have no reason to right the ship. (Actually, they have plenty of reasons–reasons that have everything to do with integrity and the preservation of our country, and nothing to do with political machinations.) It’s enough to make anyone want to give up on politics for good.
I’ve seen this all before: a good man with experience and ideas who gets watered down–and beaten down–by a nervous Party. Chambers is a decent guy, I have no doubt; he possesses an almost permanent smile–sincere, which is increasingly rare for a politician. I met him six months ago (he was visiting Houston for a sold-out fundraising dinner) and I was suitably impressed. Affable and accommodating, he stayed late into the night, shaking each hand and hearing each, often much-too-personal, story. We believed in him. In my interview with the senator, he was unafraid speaking off-the-cuff, unafraid ruffling feathers, unafraid shooting straight (was being the operative word, as he’s seemingly sold out to the prevailing attitude of the Party: namely, that a strong candidate is a cautious, mistake-free candidate).
It is clear, now, that Chambers lacks the crucial quality of a difference-making politician: backbone. And that’s the gist of the piece I submitted to my editor–the one that’s landed me in hot water: every year the system plays out as expected, so what’s the point? My job has taken on the feel of an album I’ve heard too many times, and now I can’t remember why I ever liked it in the first place.
I’m a blogger for The Republicana and, at 27 years old, the youngest writer on staff. But I don’t feel young. I look at the framed picture on my work desk–Mom smiling bright, her high-school graduate standing proudly at her side–and I hardly recognize myself. That was years before I joined the site, when saving the country still seemed possible. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way; I once believed in hopes and dreams, and Goldwaters and Reagans.
If I quit, I could snag extra hours at the record store. (Dad would probably kick me out of the house, though; he wouldn’t appreciate the nobility in walking away from a soul-crushing job. But why not? All those years punching in and out at that sugar mill should have taught him a little something about life’s disappointments.)
"What’s it gonna be?" my editor asks again. I suspect he and the other white hairs on The Republicana staff have embraced the futility of politics. Maybe a man only fully matures when he accepts that optimism is best served with the young and naive.
Country music twangs through the dying rental speakers. I’m sandwiched between a clown and a woman stuffing her face with funnel cake. Clowns scare me: the fake smile, the make-up, their desperate need to entertain and equally desperate need for acceptance. (Come to think of it, they aren’t far removed from politicians; maybe that’s why they scare me so much.)
I’m already regretting my decision. Maybe my editor is punishing me for submitting the column late. Honestly, who gets excited about funnel cake and country music at a political fundraising rally (other than my fellow Texans)?
The smell of manure permeates the wet air. I look over again at the dilapidated barn, beaten to hell by weather and Father Time. Rumor has it, Senator Mintz thinks the music and the barn and the funnel cake add character to the proceedings and help him appear in touch with the country-folk. The idea of a rally at the Bastrop State Park may be to drum up enthusiasm but, from where I’m standing, it’s for Mintz to polish his presentation skills before the first of the Democratic primary debates next month.
Local affiliates fix their TV cameras on the senator performing like a seasoned stand-up to a crowd pretending they’ve never heard his stale jokes before. Anyone willing to brave the heat and mosquitoes should get what they paid for, and Mintz, the trained showman, is running through his greatest hits.
"I got a 4-year-old," a woman says (with another child at least six months on the way). She can’t be any older than 20, herself. Flip flops. Tank top. Farmer’s tan. "I work two jobs supportin’ her. Hard puttin’ food on the table. Hard payin’ that mortgage. Ya hear? Now the bank, they tellin’ me I’m at risk for foreclosure. So, Senator, you tell me, what y’all gonna do, make things easier for people like me?"
I’m feeling every bit of the sun’s blazing 100 degrees. I can’t imagine the suffering of that baby inside her belly. The woman should be lounging in an air-conditioned room, legs propped up, downing plenty of fluids instead of waiting on a politician to supplement her mortgage.
"Thank you for that question," Mintz says, feigning graciousness–so robotic, it sounds as though he’s running off an invisible teleprompter. "We ought to reduce the tax burden on underprivileged families. Unfortunately, time and again we’ve faced great resistance by fringe members of the GOP."
A lone voice bellows out of the sea of sycophants. "Why don’t you come clean," the man shouts. I scan the crowd but I’d have better luck finding Waldo. "They oppose your plan ’cause it shifts the tax burden elsewhere."
Shock washes over Mintz’s once jolly face. He raises his hand to block the sun from his eyes. "I hardly think the rich need the help of a tax break, sir." He purses his lips and wrinkles his brow, his gaze now laser-focused on his team at the foot of the portable stage–four men coolly decked out in business suits, struggling to remain calm and maintain order. Someone is getting fired when this is over, no doubt about it.
While Mintz hunts for his adversary, the phantom foe lands another jab. "You’re stealin’ money away from small business owners and companies who employ the working class of America, Senator."
A member of Mintz’s team is the first to find Waldo, identifying the source of their frustration with an aggressive finger-point. I follow Mintz’s glare to the culprit-in-the-crowd. All I can make out is the suspect’s green cap. Is he a Republican Party spy? A Neocon prankster? A…
"It’s the patriotic duty for the most fortunate to help the less fortunate," Mintz says.
The man pivots–facing the hundreds behind him–and cups his hands tight around his mouth. "It’s called wealth redistribution," he shouts. "Is that the country you want to live in, folks? With this man legislating how much money you can earn before he takes it away?"
Sweat collects at the top of Mintz’s wide forehead. (Despite his rotund shape, the amount of perspiration still surprises.) He hesitates, as if waiting for the crowd to jump in and take his side in the brawl. But the crowd isn’t reacting. (They’re probably just as stunned as I am.)
Mintz’s eyes stay square on his target. "We’re living in a different time, sir. The country is bankrupt."
"Because of Washington’s reckless spending," the man fires back. "You’re like a shopper with too many credit cards and not enough common sense."
"I take great care in allocating the public’s money," Mintz interrupts.
"But it’s our money," the man says. "Senator, you work for us."
Perhaps this is how it felt to witness David’s slingshot connect with the giant (if the fight had been covered by network TV and distributed on a 24-hour news cycle). Whoever Waldo is, he just became the most exciting part of my day.
He’s a block of a man–a brawler-type: broad shoulders, square face (the bridge of his nose near as wide as his nostrils, as if permanently inflamed after repeated breaks). His Boston Celtics ball cap fights to hide the mess of hair underneath. A gold cross necklace–generic, not the Catholic crucifix adorned with Jesus–lies at his chest. I can’t decide if he just rolled out of bed or if the casual style is by design.
The blonde at his side stands a foot shorter–5’3" in flats. No doubt she enjoyed more prep time this morning. A butterfly clip manages the curly hair framing her milk-white face. If her over-applied makeup suggests latent insecurities, it’s only because the cosmetics are unnecessary. (She fancies the color pink; her lipstick and nail polish match her Halter Dress to the shade.)
The schoolboy, a Junior League Alex P. Keaton (complete with polo shirt and khaki pants), tugs at the woman’s dress, no doubt eager to head home–to a house surrounded by a white picket fence, judging by the family’s All-American appearance.
I raise my notebook as I approach, signaling that I’m a conservative ally. "Ronnie West. The Republicana."
"Pleasure to meet you, Ronnie West," the man says, gripping my hand. The pleasantries are delivered with a southern drawl and the carefree charm of a fraternity brother. His teeth, crowded and crooked as they may be, provide his visage with marked sophistication. "Name’s Jack Turner. This is my wife, Anna."
"And our son, Colt," Anna says, her voice timid, her eyes avoiding mine. She harbors a distinct northern accent (of Boston origin, perhaps). She pulls Colt in tight, like a bird wrapping her young under a protective wing.
"Nice to meet y’all," I say. "I want to thank you, Mr. Turner."
Jack arches his thick eyebrows. "Thank me? What for?"
"I’ve covered a hundred different rallies. I can count on one hand the number of times I didn’t prefer gouging out my own eyes." Anna stares me down. Now I’m the one trying to avoid her glare. The boy’s probably 12; I’m sure he’s heard worse in his favorite pop song. "If you wouldn’t mind giving me a few minutes of your time…"
Jack glances at his wife for the final verdict.
"Go for it, hun," she says with an approving nod. "But first thing’s first, let’s get some real food in our stomachs. Colt and I have had our fill of funnel cake."
Colt shakes his head in defiance. "No way, Jose. I could eat funnel cake all day." He peeks over at his mom. If I can read her non-verbal cues, I’m sure he can, too: You know better. "But we don’t normally eat that kind of stuff," he says, his voice trailing off with disappointment.
Anna runs her fingers through the boy’s shaggy brown hair. He frowns and contemptuously pats his bangs back across his forehead. (The loving gesture obviously wasn’t received as one.)
"Where would you like to conduct the interview, Mr. Turner?" I ask.
"How ’bout we let Colt decide," he says. "And, please, call me Jack."
The kid orders pancakes topped with a whipped cream smile and two blueberry eyes. Above us, the busted florescent light flickers intermittently (though the nuisance hasn’t halted the boy’s excitement).
This will be my first interview in a Pancake Palace.
Colt looks at his father with awe. "Thanks for letting me choose this place, Pop," he says.
Anna sits beside Jack in the booth–the cracked yellow vinyl in desperate need of an urgent upholstery repair–while her attention remains on Colt across the table. "Make sure you place the napkin in your lap, honey," she instructs.
The couple snapped at each other as we left the park–the way only a married couple can: with quiet indignation, as if attempting to hide their dissatisfaction from the rest of the world (maybe Colt?) by packaging every criticism with a smile or following every jab with a short, huffed chuckle. And they were still snapping when I met them at the front doors of this questionable establishment. Anna argued that Colt didn’t need any more junk food. Jack argued that an occasional split from the "same-old, same-old" wasn’t such a bad idea. But it was the manner in which he said "same-old, same-old" that really struck a nerve with her. She craned back her neck at the remark, and made no attempt to hide the affectation.
Either Jack’s blind to her cold shoulder, or he’s unfazed. "If you wanna know the truth," he says to me, "I find it thrilling. Some folks climb mountains. Some folks skydive. I crash rallies."
Does he know I overheard their scuffle? Am I the only one sitting at this cheap plastic table who feels uncomfortable?
"Hard to distinguish between the red and the blue these days," he says. "That’s why I’m a conservative before a Republican." Then he adds, "Just like I’m a Christian before a Baptist."
The disappointment must be tattooed across my face. I’ve come to accept I’m a different kind of conservative. My mom (my real mom, I mean) raised me Christian, but I haven’t opened a Bible in so long, I can’t remember whether I ever really believed.
Jack must sense the sudden awkwardness in the air; he’s quick to keep the interview chugging along. "Our country is ill. You saw part of the symptom today at the rally. Politicians are afraid to do what’s right." He leans in like a Cold War spy with a secret to tell. Anna takes notice. She slides her hand along his back, declaring a truce on their quarrel. "We elected a Republican president because we wanted change. Instead, the dog kept chasing its tail."
He’s uncommonly thoughtful, like an actor who engages the other performer on stage instead of waiting impatiently for his next line.
In my peripheral, the waiters and waitresses huddle up. High-school kids. The gig probably pays just enough to fill up their gas tanks. At least they’re working. I had friends in high school possessed with just two desires: to play video games and eat Cheetos.
The golden-haired waitress glances at Jack then makes a beeline for him. She reminds me of Winnie, a girl I dated in high school. Winnie, though, preferred her hair in a casual bun (unless we were on a date, in which case her locks–the envy of all her friends–were flat-ironed). They may share the same hazel eyes, sharp nose and thin lips, but Winnie never wore a uniform covered in flair.
The waitress plucks a cell phone from her bleach-white apron and angles the screen, offering all of us at the table front-row seats. It’s today’s rally. Mintz looks a wreck–much worse in close-up than from where I was standing. "Is this you?" she asks Jack.
I tell him he’s a rock star.
He laughs off the compliment. When he grins, his cheek muscles force his eyes into a genial squint. "Yes, ma’am, that’s me."
She twirls her hair and giggles with nervous delight. "You’re the first celebrity I’ve ever met."
Anna perks up at the perceived threat and wraps her arm in Jack’s, claiming her man.
"Teddy showed this to us," the waitress says, signaling over one of her friends like a third-base coach granting her runner the go-ahead. "This is his phone."
Teddy, lanky and with an awkward gait, saves his eyeglasses before they slide off his gaunt face.
"How’d you find this video?" Jack asks him.
"You’re kidding, right? It’s been The Docket‘s headline for the past two hours. I already emailed the video to all my friends."
I consider asking Teddy (as one of his buttons instructs) about the Super-Duper-Mega-Meal-Deal, but he darts off before I get a chance.
"You’re a rock star," I tell Jack again. This time he doesn’t laugh; he just smiles at Anna–the smile of a man with wheels spinning furiously inside his head.
Colt’s focus finally breaks from his plate. He’s taken down three quarters of his lunch with ease.
"We always knew daddy was a rock star, didn’t we?" Anna says to him.
I load The Docket‘s homepage on my cell. I’ll be damned; in giant font, beneath a picture of Mintz looking shocked and awed, the headline reads: "Senator, you work for us!"
In college, I wasted countless nights memorizing the inverted pyramid and the rules of objective journalism. Yet, here I am, sitting in the lunchroom of Needle in a Haystack Records, knocking out the finishing touches of "The Senator, Jack and the Pancake Palace," paying no mind to any of those well-worn tenets. Who knew all that academic effort would be for naught, replaced instead with stream-of-consciousness and subjectivity? It occurs to me how little I remember now from those required journalism classes.
The dishes in the lunchroom sink form a precarious tower. The Tupperware is courtesy of Rav. He’s my friend, but just because his mom cleans up after him doesn’t mean he should expect the same pampering here. The cherry on top: He left the microwave door open after nuking his heat-n-go frozen meal, so now I
have the pleasure of staring at red pasta sauce crusted to the microwave’s insides.
Pete opened Needle in a Haystack nearly 20 years ago. Perusing the thousands of vinyls and CDs on display, you’re more likely to run across an obscure band like The Black Angels or The War on Drugs, than the latest Billboard sensation. "Life’s about surprises," Pete told me once. "The best music is the kind that sneaks up on ya when you’re least expecting it. The same can be said about life."
I started working at the record store when I was 19. Heard about the place through Rav. He said the owner was laid back and the employee discounts were sick. The part-time gig was only meant to help pay for college. Eight years later, I still haven’t left. The stopgap became a big gap.
Even in the midst of this recession and the decline of the CD, this unassuming record shop–occupying the corner of an abandoned strip mall–still survives. Pete’s uncanny ability for plucking emerging acts out of obscurity (and introducing them to the public through in-store performances) maintains the store’s relevance. Sober for 10 years and counting, Pete’s high now comes strictly from his obsessive, unending search for great music. The over-sized black Sennheiser cans rarely leave his bald dome.
Pete’s Top 5 favorite artists (in no particular order), as listed on the chalkboard behind the register: U2, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, R.E.M., The White Stripes, and Bruce Springsteen.
Rav’s Top 5 favorite artists (in no particular order): Aerosmith, Foo Fighters, Oasis, Pearl Jam, and…Hall & Oates (which, when customers question, is always followed by a quick, defensive, "You can’t appreciate good music.").
My Top 5 favorite artists (in no particular order): Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, U2, and The Black Keys.
Depending on the week, the chalkboard may list our "Favorite Songs," "Favorite Albums," "Favorite Underrated Bands," or "Favorite Singer/Songwriters." The Top-5s are an exercise in team-building (and Pete’s effort at influencing "our radio-friendly, pop-obsessed society").
Despite the unclean kitchen, the annoying customers, and the less than stellar pay, I love this place. This is where I discovered a world of music I never knew existed.
The anchor’s report on the lunchroom TV pulls me away from the hypnotic hum of my laptop and my own meandering thoughts. As she segues from an A-list celeb’s party video to the clip of Turner vs. Mintz, I realize this is no longer just a political story. Jack is through the looking glass. And my interview will be his first.
This could be the start of something.
Chapter 2: June
-Monday, June 1-
Who Is Jack Turner? And What Does He Want?
By Van Wilcott
A curiously cryptic website: a single webpage of three horizontal stripes–one red, one white, one blue–with four words overlaid: "Do You Know Jack?"
Purportedly, the site bears a seal-of-approval from the man-of-the-hour himself: Jack Turner. By now, you’ve seen the video. (At the time of this article’s publication, the number of YouTube views exceeded 15 million.) Conservatives are calling the video "revolutionary." But let’s not get carried away.
Frustration has swept the country–frustration with the status quo, frustration with the double-dip recession, frustration with the federal government’s inadequacies. (Congress’ approval rating sits at historic lows.)
Jack Turner embodies this anger.
But let us remember: Jack Turner is just an average-Joe American (albeit, one very frustrated average-Joe American). He objects to the current government. (And yet, the president who’s resided in the White House for almost 8 years belongs to the same GOP Party.) Jack Turner believes the country is heading for the metaphorical cliff; he’s clearly not alone. And yet, he doesn’t support any of the Republican candidates currently running for the nomination.
So, the question must be asked: What does Jack Turner want? Is he satisfied with criticizing the establishment? Or does he have a more ambitious plan? The fact that so many are already pinning their hopes on this self-proclaimed "everyday, hard workin’ American," must be giving the GOP establishment sleepless nights. But a leader must propose ideas. If he has none, then any underground movement is liable to collapse under its own misguided weight.
Only time will tell if Jack Turner desires a life inside the political arena. Only time will tell if he’s more than a one-hit wonder. In the meantime, we’ll wait for another video to drop.