Nothing Lost

A Novel

by John Gregory Dunne

Hardcover, 335 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Title
Nothing Lost
Subtitle
A Novel
Author
John Gregory Dunne

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Book Summary

The brutal killing of black drifter Edgar Parlance ignites a destructive circus of the media, power politics, legal infighting, passion, and more for a rural midwestern town and the diverse characters involved.

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Excerpt: Nothing Lost

Chapter One


That is the end of the story.

Or almost the end.

I’m not sure I’m the one who should be telling it, but if I don’t, nobody will, so what the hell.

We live in a litigious time, and as I do not wish to be the focus of any litigation, I’ve located the major events of what follows in a state I call South Midland. By its name you can intuit a couple of things. Midland suggests the middle of the country, that part grandiosely identified as the Great Plains. South Midland suggests that there is a North Midland, as indeed there is. North Midlanders proudly claim to have the largest Paul Bunyan statue in the world, and perhaps they do, since to the best of my knowledge there are no other claimants. With that highly developed sense of humor we all recognize as indigenous to the Great Plains, South Midlanders say that the best thing in North Midland is Interstate 90 leading to South Midland. People in North Midland often group the two states together as Midlandia, but people in South Midland never do.

The biggest city in South Midland is Kiowa, which of course is Indian or, as we now say, Native American. When traveling out of state, Kiowans often refer to Kiowa as the Chicago of the north-central states. I have never heard a Chicagoan refer to his home as the Kiowa of the Midwest. Our state capital is called, with the imagination we also know as indigenous to the Great Plains, Capital City, usually shortened to Cap City. The University of South Midland, whose main campus is located in Cap City, has never had a Nobel laureate, but its football team has been the national champion three times in the last eight years, and its coach, Dr. John Strong, has been on the cover of Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, and Sports Illustrated (three times, twice as he was doused with Gatorade by his team and assistant coaches after a victory); the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal has even floated his name as a future Republican vice-presidential candidate because of his devotion both to winning and to American ideals. All the university sports teams are named the Rhinos, although there is no palaeontological evidence that herds of rhinoceroses ever roamed the empty vistas of the Great Plains.

I teach a night school course in criminal law at Osceola County Community College in Cap City, and at the first class meeting each semester I tell my students that when I open the Kiowa Times-Ledger and the Capital City Herald every morning, I turn first to the obituary page. In an obit, I say, the spaces between the lines tell all. What is omitted is often more interesting than what is said. Example, from yesterday’s Herald, the deceased, a forty-nine-year-old professor of agronomy at the university, unknown to me, killed by a hit-and-run driver in a Kmart parking lot; said driver, just turned fifteen and without a license, apprehended two blocks from the accident site after blindsiding a brand-new Volvo SUV on a pre-purchase trial spin: “He is survived by his second wife, from whom he was recently divorced, and by a stepson from his first marriage.” Think of the moral and sexual misdemeanors woven into that simple sentence, the mosaic of small, mean betrayals. The mind has difficulty entertaining all the agronomist’s sins and discontents, mortal and venial, the permutations and possibilities of discarded and discarding spouses. And that is before we consider the teenage jerkoff who thought the Kmart parking lot was the Talledega Superspeedway.

Then, to reinforce my point, I drop in Henry James. Although in the academic slum where Osceola Community is resident, The Golden Bowl is not exactly required reading. (Due diligence requires me to admit that I never actually finished it—I was bored by the Ververs—but I did see the movie and thought the actor who played Prince Amerigo not unattractive.) Anyway, James once wrote in an essay I saw quoted on the Net that the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern—that constitutes experience.

Henry James, I tell them, would have made a great criminal attorney. That would no doubt send him spinning in his grave, and it makes those of my students who know who he was (four, perhaps five, no more) laugh nervously.

I know most of the principals in the story I am about to tell, and a number of the walk-ons as well. I am even, as you will find out soon enough, a minor character. Some of the carnage that ensued I witnessed. Some of it was told to me. On the record, off the record, who cares now? Some of the principals did not realize they were telling me. Sealed audiotapes. Film, as in “Film at 11.” I went to the printed record, voluminous if you know where to look. Court transcripts. Discussions in chambers with a court reporter present. Proceedings of the South Midland Bar Association. Testimony before the Judiciary Committee of the State Legislature. Interviews in the legal journals.

I broke an Internet password. Read the spaces between the lines. Traced the implication of things. Guessed the unseen from the seen. Judged the whole piece by the pattern. Surmised. Triangulated. Extrapolated.

Anything that passed through my filter carries my shadows, my impri- matur. As fact, it might be suspect, but as truth it is as close as I can get. If you were the filter, your facts, or your memory of them, might be equally suspect, but the truth, presupposing your honesty, or as close as you could get to it.

But you weren’t there, and I was, so fuck off.

I think I got it right.

Mostly.

And if I didn’t, it’s the available version.

Of course it began with Edgar Parlance.

His death, and the obscene brutality of it, immediately captured the headlines and the newsbreaks of the gluttonous 24/7 news cycle, searching as always for the correct and visually gratifying metaphor to validate the American experience, or, better yet, to provide a dark parable about that same experience. It is my own feeling that life began going downhill with “You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world.” I think I would have preferred to live in the age of the pony express, allowing as it did, I would like to think, a time for contemplation before action was deemed necessary. 24/7, plus the transitory involvement of a president looking for a way to act presidential as the second term of his forgettable administration was winding down to its unlamented conclusion, gave Edgar Parlance’s murder the push it needed to become a major media event, bringing with it the usual suspects, talking heads prattling about race hatred and the phenomenon of what they insisted on calling “Terror in the Heartland.” It was a heartland that existed only in their fevered imaginations, neighborly values and small-town ways, stoked not by reality but by Oscar Hammerstein, we know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand. Crap, of course. This land was fertilized with blood. Jesse and Frank James, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, killers all, sanitized into public darlings by Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

Dixon McCall didn’t mention Jesse or Frank, Bonnie or Clyde.

PRESIDENT TO ATTEND PARLANCE FUNERAL

Washington, D.C. (cnn 12:42 p.m. edt)—President Dixon McCall will interrupt his Midwestern fundraising trip to attend the funeral of Edgar Parlance, White House deputy press secretary Anita Bowne announced today. Parlance, a 39-year-old African American, was the victim of a brutal race-related torture slaying earlier this week outside the small town of Regent, South Midland.

The President, who has often feuded with civil rights leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus in the past, has asked the Reverend Jesse Jackson to accompany him from Capital City to Regent in the presidential helicopter.

In a statement Bowne released to reporters, the President said, “Let the healing begin.”

Dixon McCall’s special rhetorical skills always seemed to begin with the construction “Let.” As in, “Let us look forward, not back,” “Let us walk together,” “Let the sun shine through,” “Let the forces of light persevere,” “Let us put our differences behind us.” (All from Dix: Finding the Words That Defined the McCall Presidency, from a speechwriter unhappily influenced by the “thousand points of light” template.)

The autopsy and forensic photos indicated that Parlance had been skinned alive, the meat on his upper thighs sliced with a razor, box cutter, or sharp knife and then pulled away slice by slice with a pair of pliers. The same pliers that had pulled the tongue from his mouth so that he was not able to scream. Edgar Parlance was thirty-nine, a big man, six feet tall, 180 pounds, leading the investigators from the Loomis County Sheriff’s Office and the South Midland Bureau of Investigation to speculate that because of his size it must have taken two or more people to kill him. Then the autopsy report concluded that it wasn’t even the skinning that finished him off. It was a hollow-point from a .38-caliber DS-II Detective Special that blew the back of his head off. One of his knees had been shattered, probably with a tire iron, and what remained of the left side of his face was crushed, apparently by the boots of his assailants. Indicating that Edgar had put up an uncommon struggle before he succumbed. And what turned out to be the most interesting fact of the crime was that his shirt had been torn open and the letter P carved into his chest with what was later identified as a thirteen-inch double-edged knife its manufacturer picturesquely called, in the gun- show catalogues, a Tennessee Toothpick. The assumption of the SMBI detectives and the Loomis County Sheriff’s Department was that the P stood for Parlance, meaning that the killers, whoever they were, were probably familiar with their victim.

As it happened, the first part of the assumption was wrong.

I wonder how long the story would have played had it not been a slow news period. It was a nonelection fall, the economy was stumbling along as it had throughout the McCall administration, the rising indicators balancing out the falling, Wall Street was bullish one week, bearish the next, the war clouds of August were blown away by the Berne propos- als of September. No scandals had captured the public imagination (a House counsel in a men’s room, an undersecretary’s wife with her minister—sorry stuff), Halloween loomed, Thanksgiving, that most tedious and unnecessary of national holidays, threatened, promising only Christmas, and with it the obligation to think about, and pretend we believe in, the concept of family and giving, the holly and the ivy. The murder of Edgar Parlance was unspeakably barbaric, but blacks have been strung up, roasted, crucified, mutilated, castrated, and decapi- tated as a form of public entertainment throughout our history. What is a Tennessee Toothpick, after all, but a lethal artifact of the entertainment culture? Dead, Edgar Parlance had a legitimacy that he never had alive. Dead, he had become an icon. Because dead, people did not have to associate with him. He was a victim, a convenient symbol of man’s inhumanity to man, the kind of black man white people can most easily grasp unto themselves. To prove to themselves that the aberrant behavior of the lowest of their kind against the racially less fortunate will not be tolerated. Like limpets, sentiment and innocence attach themselves to a victim. The New York Times, the newspaper of record, is exhibit number one:

EASYGOING MAN, EASYGOING TOWN

By FELIPE DELL and CAMERON KEOGH

Regent, SM, November 1—Everyone who knew him called him “Gar,” the diminutive of his given name, Edgar. And no one had a bad word for Gar Parlance in this sleepy cattle and farming community in the southeastern corner of South Midland tangent to Kansas and Missouri. He mowed their lawns, he hauled their trash, and when the weather was warm and jobs were available, and if he felt like it, he did manual labor for the Department of Highways or the Burlington Northern Railroad.

And if he did not feel like it, which was more often than not, he would spend the afternoons napping and fishing out by Loomis Falls, a nineteenth-century man-made waterfall that diverted the path of the Albion River so that it irrigated the rich farm flatlands of northern Loomis County.

“I’m like tumbleweed,” Parlance once told local barber Joe Salmon, whose lawn he mowed every Saturday afternoon until the snows came. “Wherever I go, I always tumble right on back to Regent.”

His affection for his hometown is the main reason residents cannot fathom how Parlance became the victim in one of the most grotesque racial murders in recent American history, his flesh torn from his body with pliers, the letter P carved into his chest like an engraving, and his tongue severed from his mouth. For two days, his body went undiscovered until a dog belonging to farmer Eugene Hicks found his remains in a field outside town, and barked until his master came to see what was the matter.

“I guess we just thought Gar was tumbling again,” Mr. Salmon said.

“Regent—A Place Fit for Kings” read the road signs leading into town. “Pop. 3,679.” Claude Applewhite, pastor of the Bethany Methodist Church, looked sadly at the sign this week and remarked, “I guess we’re down to 3,678 now that Gar’s gone.”

Regent takes its name from the English-owned Regent Cattle Company, which settled the town immediately after the Civil War, when younger sons of landed British nobility came to the New World to make their fortune. It was a rough-and-tumble time. The English aristocrats built the Loomis Waterfall, and the diversion of the Albion River nearly precipitated a range war with the ranchers of neighboring Albion County.

The Regent Cattle Company went bankrupt around the turn of the century, when beef prices tumbled. A check of county tax and property records reveals that none of its En- glish supervisors—people with names like Lovat and Angell and Simsbury and Stuart—chose to remain when times were no longer flush and the longhorns disappeared from the rolling plains. What they gave to Regent were the names of the four cobblestone streets bordering the Loomis County Courthouse, on the lawn outside of which stands a scaled-down man-sized Statue of Liberty.

Yellow ribbons adorn the clothes of most people in Regent this week. Those who did not personally know Parlance remember his daily wanderings through town. “He was always smiling,” town librarian and resident local historian Marjorie Hudnut said.

Continues...