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Chicago Sun-Times

BOOKS
Charlie Newton's Naming Names

By Kevin Nance, Chicago Sun-Times
January 5, 2012

Start Shooting
 
Reading the manuscript of Charlie Newton's crime novel The Four Corners about a year ago, I came upon something startling. That was not unusual; Newton's books, all set in Chicago, are full of startling things—shocking plot turns, indelible characters, brutal violence alternating with moments of strange beauty and desperate tenderness—but this was different. What made me gasp this time wasn't a particular character or his actions but, rather, his name.

Which also happened to be mine.

In the novel—now titled Start Shooting (Doubleday, $25.95), to be published on Tuesday—an actress named Arleen Brennan spends much of her time barely eluding various bad guys, including some Korean gangsters and a corrupt detective, on her way to audition for the role of Blanche DuBois in a revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire." Associated with this production is a theater writer named Kevin Nance. He's a minor player, a cameo in Newton's panorama of valiant cops, scheming pols and vicious street thugs. Unlike most other people in the story, he doesn't carry a gun, much less use one. He's the book's least memorable character, in fact, unless you happen to be me.

Newton hadn't warned me in advance, but I should have seen it coming. He has a habit, you see, of naming characters after the real people they're loosely based on. He did it in his sensational debut novel, 2008's Calumet City, whose heroine is a decorated street cop named Patti Black, modeled after a real-life decorated street cop named . . . Patti Black. The hero of Start Shooting is another cop, Bobby Vargas, who investigates Chicago gang activity and bears more than a passing resemblance to . . . Patrol Officer Bobby Vargas, part of an actual surveillance team monitoring gang activity. Newton's next novel, Canaryville, centers on a police lieutenant named Denny Banahan, who seems an awful lot like the real-life—you guessed it—Dennis "Denny" Banahan, a retired Chicago police lieutenant.

There's a grand tradition, of course, of novelists basing some of their characters on real people. Dickens did it frequently. So did Proust, Mann, Hemingway, Bellow, Tim O'Brien, Bret Easton Ellis and Elmore Leonard. But none of them, as far as we know, affixed the model's real name on his or her fictional counterpart.

There are differences, of course, between Newton's characters and the real people whose names they share. Yes, I edited and wrote theater coverage for the Chicago Sun-Times for a brief period, but I was never involved in the producing end of the business, as my fictional counterpart is. (Also at the Sun-Times, I wrote what was apparently the first major newspaper piece on Calumet City. As a thank-you, he sent me a cobra pickled in a bottle.) Yes, the real-life Bobby Vargas is Latino, but no, he's not estranged from his cultural heritage, as is his fictional alter ego, and no, he doesn't have a brother on the Chicago police force who's just short of the devil himself.

"He's like me in some ways, little traits and such, but in other ways I'm nothing like that person," the actual Bobby says of his namesake on the page. "I think it's kind of cool."

What's up with this naming business? On one level, it's about honoring and thanking people who've helped him with research on his books, and with whom he invariably becomes friends. (Newton's big on research. He likes to spend time with the kind of people he's writing about—particularly cops—and he likes to visit the places where significant portions of his books are set; this has taken him, in recent years, to South Africa, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, Laos and Germany, among other sites.) On another, deeper and related level, it's about anchoring his fiction in reality as he sees it. "I believe in the world I'm creating in my work because the crime and the politics and the religion in it is all real, and so are the people," Newton tells me. "The named people in my books are my family, my friends, my world, and my work feels so much more real to me because they're real."

But there are limits to the utility of all this realness. In the early drafts of Start Shooting, for example, a Catholic nun bore the name of the real-life person on whom she was based. But when it turned out that the nun gets gunned down in one of Newton's white-knuckled shootout sequences, he changed her name, he says, "because I didn't want her to die." In Canaryville, "Denny Banahan" has a brother who also gets offed, and the real-life Banahan prevailed on Newton to change the brother's name. "The readers won't be able to separate the wheat from the chaff," the real-life Banahan tells me. "If they thought my brother was murdered, they'd be sending flowers."

And for reasons of self-preservation, legal and otherwise, Newton doesn't base his villains on real people—at least people who are still alive. "Probably a good policy," says Newton's childhood pal Ed Cherney, a Grammy-winning record producer who shows up, fictionally, in Start Shooting. "A real villain would go gunning for him."

Even so, the legal folks at Newton's previous publisher, Simon & Schuster, broke out in hives when they realized what he was up to. They tried to get him to change the names, especially Patti Black's, but he refused. His current publisher, Doubleday—where his editor is Jason Kaufman, best known as the editor of Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame—is more relaxed. "It doesn't really give me pause," Kaufman told me. "Charlie looks for inspiration in real situations, real circumstances, real people, and that's a big reason why his novels come across as so vivid and authentic. The best writers write what they know, and to Charlie, life is a lot more real than what he can just arbitrarily pull out of thin air."

Now Newton's getting a taste of his own medicine. Banahan is currently writing a novel, tentatively titled The Author of Dead Men, featuring a writer who's researching a book and ends up the prime suspect in a triple homicide. His name? Charlie Newton.

"Payback, is what it is," Banahan says with satisfaction. "Payback."

Sweet.

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