Hard Boiled

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By: 
Matt Geiger
Longtime Middleton resident Nick Chiarkas' debut novel, “Weepers,” is a gritty tale of crime, revenge and redemption on the streets of New York City where the author spent his formative years.

The air was thick with pesticides and the shouts of children. Adult voices hurdled down from apartment windows. Gang members, merchants, cops, priests and mothers lived side by side, playing out their individual dramas on concrete stages of streets and stoops.

“If I close my eyes and imagine it, there is always a hint of DDT in the air,” recalls Nick Chiarkas, smiling tenderly as he envisions the housing project where he grew up on New York City’s lower east side. “As kids, we would chase the trucks that drove through the city spraying it. Elsewhere people were shouting from windows. Men would urinate in the street, between parked cars, and that was considered okay.”

The children spawned by that bygone era were “alert and resilient,” whether they became cops, criminals or soldiers. (Chiarkas eventually became two of the three.)

They learned to make enough eye contact to seem tough, but not enough to invite a beating.

They learned to laugh at themselves without being seen as clowns.

They walked down the streets with their arms held out a bit wider than most kids, making themselves look larger and more imposing than they really were.

They learned to cross the street when they saw a rival gang, but only if they could do so before being spotted and branded as a coward.

“I was scared all the time,” Chiarkas continues, speaking in a surprisingly resilient New York accent that has somehow survived nearly three decades in the Midwest. “Mostly of people finding out I was scared. That’s why I was so quick to jump into a fight.”

“The kids that were fragile were just destroyed,” Chiarkas adds. “That’s the reason I became a cop, and then a public defender. Because I always hated bullies, whether those bullies were people or the state.”

Those streets and alleyways were dangerous places, but they were also part of a community that, while certainly not affluent, was held together by deep-rooted social bonds. They are also the setting for “Weepers,” Chiarkas’ debut novel. Published by Three Towers Press, an imprint of HenschelHAUS, the gripping novel hit digital and brick and mortar shelves this month.

The story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1951. Angelo, age 7, is walking the dark streets with his father, pulling a wheeled cart full of gifts. They stop at various apartments, handing out packages and lingering as Angelo’s father enjoys convivial slugs of whiskey and coffee, and the occasional cigarette.

Then, on this silent night, Angelo suddenly finds himself alone. His father gone, he is dwarfed by the dark, sinister metropolis around him.

“Even at seven, he knows the rule of the jungle: If it moves away from you, it’s food. If it moves toward you, you are the food,” explains Chiarkas.

The novel zooms forward, plunging readers into the brutal murder of a police officer six years later. Angelo, grown into a teenaged troublemaker, ends up working with a priest, a detective and mob boss as they try to solve a new mystery that holds the key to his father’s disappearance.

“It’s a book about revenge, and about solving a mystery,” says the author.

In many ways, it is also a story that flowered from the seeds of countless true tales.

“When I was a cop, you’d pick people up and throw them in the back of the car,” says Chiarkas. “You’d drive around and hear these fascinating stories. One guy lived in a subway tunnel, and I remember him talking about going down and down, like it was Hell. So I started taking notes.”

The nefarious, pulpy story in “Weepers” is told with details that can only come from someone who, despite the problems of the time and place, loved, and still loves, the setting. Chiarkas clearly knows his subject matter. Looking back on it like a child reflecting on a flawed but dear parent.

The year 1957 was the apex of this nation’s fascination with juvenile crime. It’s the year “West Side Story” came out, push-button knives were outlawed (today they remain harder to carry legally than semi-automatic guns), and popular magazines plastered their front pages with lurid stories about youth gone awry.

Then, there was a proposal in New York to put police officers in public schools. The plan received an enormous backlash, with critics questioning the wisdom of raising youth in what felt like a police state.

 “Housing projects back then were different,” he says. “They were still dangerous, yes, but there was also a sense of community.”

“Then, in the ‘70s, we seemed to outsource that sense of community to the criminal justice system, and everything became a crime,” Chiarkas says. As that happened, communities ebbed while the criminal justice system gushed outward and expanded into new realms.

As a cop, Chiarkas, who studied for college in his squad car and later went on to become a public defender in the Tommy Thompson administration, was tested on the streets early and often.

Early in his career he teamed up with a veteran cop. On one of their first days together, the elder officer told Chiarkas to enter a local store and wish the shopkeeper “Merry Christmas.” In return, the merchant handed Chiarkas an envelope heavy with cash.

“My partner explained that we could do the same thing in stores up and down the street, then he asked how I felt about it,” Chiarkas recalls. “I said I didn’t really like it. So my partner looked at me and said, ‘Good. You can be my partner. Now go give it back.’”

 “That partner taught me more than any school,” he adds.

Chiarkas wasn’t in it for the money, anyway.

“I loved it. Most of what I loved was helping people. Someone from out of town gets a flat tire, they are going out of their minds,” he says. “You help them. That’s what I liked.”

Chiarkas, who has lived in Middleton since 1988, eventually retired  from his job as a public defender - “my wife says I don’t understand retirement,” he quips - then turned his attention to fiction.

When he decided to write his first novel, he simply “put [his] head down” and wrote it. Along the way, he read voraciously about the craft of writing, attending classes and tweaking his approach.

“At first I didn’t understand a thing,” he chuckles, “about ‘show, don’t tell.’”

Chiarkas eschewed self-publishing contracts, opting instead to seek a traditional book deal. And he landed one.

“I was,” he says, “bouncing off the walls when I found out.”

And indeed, it is this former police officer, public defender, teacher and soldier’s literary abilities that are perhaps the most surprising thing about “Weepers.” The story unfolds with the natural ease of a good yarn told by a close friend. 

The publisher was so pleased with his debut novel that Chiarkas is already in talks to write a sequel.

 

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