It’s been a busy month for Tortoise Books, but amidst all the hoopla, we wanted to officially (and somewhat belatedly) announce the publication of Bob Hartley’s North and Central!
This book’s a beautifully bleak literary crime novel set in a bar on Chicago’s West Side during the winter of ’78-’79, one of the most notoriously bitter seasons in Chicago history. The characters are caught up in the cold cynicism of corruption and cronyism—and yet there’s a warmth to this work, the beautiful amber glow of alcohol and nostalgia. False feelings, perhaps, but ones that feel real enough in the moment.
I grew up watching Cheers and wanting the life they sang about in that all-too-perfect theme song; I craved that place where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. In my 20s, I found a neighborhood bar that seemed to fit the bill. I made some true friendships, had a few fun flings, and even fell into one of the great loves of my life, but even on those nights when I did know everybody’s name and they were all glad I came, I was starting to feel antsy and agitated and profoundly lonely, an ache so deep no quantity of $2.75 High Lifes could soothe it. (At least, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a workable number; I usually lost count around 14 or so.) So for me, at least, bar life proved to be a beautiful lie.
And that’s why I fell in love with this manuscript. As I never tire of telling people, it’s an anti-Cheers, a story about a place where everybody knows your nickname, and they’re tired of you coming around because you’re a degenerate. The character dynamics line up well with what I saw of dive bars—the false fronts and phony posturing. And yet behind every façade, there was, and is, something true and real, something ugly, perhaps, but all the more interesting for being authentic.
I’m trying to write the story behind the story for every new author, and this one is (I think) as cool as any. Another local publisher sent Bob my way, all the way back in July of 2015. I’d gotten into publishing in no small part because of my own frustrations with people not reading what I’d sent, and here came an object lesson in how we eventually become what we hate: I thanked Bob for submitting and promptly forgot to read his work. But he graciously wrote me a full six months after our initial email exchange to see where I was at with it. I was horrified that I’d forgotten about it, and even more so when I cracked it open to see what I’d been missing. It was instantly engrossing; it sounded like the kind of thing Bukowski and Springsteen would have written if they’d collaborated. For me, writing’s less about style and more about authentic emotion, and the opening action (a bar owner hammering dents into quarters) had me hooked; it pulled me in to a delightfully cynical world of crime and kickbacks and crooked cops, and it made me want to spend time in that world.
There were issues with the initial manuscript—I wasn’t nuts about the original title (The Ceiling Falls), and the ending of Bob’s first draft didn’t quite work for me. But oddly enough, that actually helped make for a more satisfying publishing experience. For Bob was more than willing to keep honing the manuscript, to work together and turn it into the best possible version of itself. I suggested a few ideas for a new ending, and Bob considered them, and then came up with an amazing ending of his own, one that lingered in my head long after I’d finished reading. He came up with a new and better title, naming it after the intersection where the bar in question sat in a way that evoked the Midwest in general. During the editing process, Bob let me rework some things and add a line of dialogue here and there; he was both gracious enough to allow me to make some changes when I had a good idea, and resolute enough to stick to his guns when I had a bad one.
Of course, finishing the manuscript is only the first finish line in a long series of races. Bob and I both worked to find cover images and source them. (Finding cool pictures is relatively easy—tracking down the rights owners and getting an economical price for a picture can be much harder.) I came up with a cover concept that worked, but I couldn’t quite execute it as well as necessary—our intern, Jaime Harris, did some great work to bridge the gap between a good idea and a great finished product. And Bob and I have both been busy with pre- and post-publication work; it’s not enough to have a perfect product if nobody knows it exists.
A month in, we’re tremendously happy with both the story and with how it’s being received. Our blurbists saw in the finished product what I’d seen as potential in the manuscript—a new Chicago classic, worthy to sit on the shelf with the other great books we’ve published, and with past classics like The Man with the Golden Arm and Studs Lonigan. Kudos to Bob on a job well done!