For fans of American Rust by Philipp Meyer and Ohio by Stephen Markley . . . comes Jason Kapcala’s Hungry Town (2022), a Rust Belt-set crime drama with serious literary chops. From the back cover summary:
"One October night in the depressed steel town of Lodi, Ohio, two police officers respond to a call about trespassers in the derelict Lodi Steel Machine shop. A chase through the crumbling cathedral of steel columns launches a chain of events that will test the officers' partnership and leave a boy to fend for himself in a decaying Rust Belt neighborhood choked by joblessness, boredom, and addition. On the opposite end of town, a young woman steps out of a rust-bucket Grand Marquis into an all-night diner...She doesn't realize her ex-boyfriend has hired two brothers to track her down and bring her back, by any means necessary."
I was delighted to meet the author in person at AWP22 and even more delighted that he agreed to answer my questions about his novel—its literary (and culinary) influences, its Rust Belt influences, and more . . .
Jason, of course definitions of noir vary, but the crime genre’s traditional elements consist often of an outsider perspective, systemic failure, economic insecurity, and existential despair. To my mind, the Rust Belt feels like a perfect tableau on which to set a noir. I mean, take for example this description of setting, your novel’s fictionalized Ohio town of Lodi—just stunning:
“Outside, night curdled into matte blackness, still and quiet, except for the breathy whine of motors on the hill, low rumblings as the delivery trucks downshifted on the steep grade and made their early morning runs into town.”
How did you come up with the setting for this novel? Which came first, the setting or the story? Can you talk about influences—in literature, film, TV, or other artistic mediums—for this literary crime novel?
It’s funny but I don’t know that I ever set out to write a noir. Of course, I realized, at a point, that I was working in that tradition, but I don’t recall sitting back and thinking about what makes a noir a noir, or from a definitional perspective, what I could do to adapt the noir genre to the Rust Belt setting. I just had this town—I knew it was a hard place where rusty steel meets barren farmland—and I had these characters who spent their days bearing the crucible of that place, and I followed that thread.
To that point, most of the authors who influenced me aren’t overtly noir writers. My biggest influence was Kent Haurf, particularly his book Plainsong. I love the way he uses language and image, how he ends a scene by cinematically pulling back from the characters.
For sure, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust is another novel I admire which opens with similar circumstances—an accident in an abandoned mill—but Hungry Town winds up being more related in spirit than in plot or style.
Laurie Lynn Drummond’s Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You is a story collection about women police officers in New Orleans, and I admired how much time Drummond spent establishing the little evocative details of being a police officer, some of them quite mundane, some of them anything but.
Though it feels weird to say, I also remember thinking about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when I was working with the character of Stanley Peach. Faulkner opens with the little boy Vardaman who has just caught a fish and who is processing the fact that his mother has recently died. Both the fish and his mother are dead, and Vardaman simply says, “My mother is a fish,” conflating the two. In Hungry Town, Stanley knows that his brother has died. He also knows that the last place he saw him alive was in the mill, and so he begins to believe, on some level, that his brother now resides in the mill.
Did you know when you began writing that the inciting action of the novel would happen in an old abandoned steel mill? And can you talk about how you how you went about researching what a mill is like in order to describe it? Did your hometown influence your selection of the mill as setting?
You have an abandoned mill, a broken window at the end of the line . . . there’s really only a few places it can go from there.
I would say the setting and the opening action came as a package deal.
I set all my writing in fictional locales—that freedom to manipulate setting provides a lot of freedom, but it still requires an internal coherence. Early on, in order to keep things straight, I drew a map of Lodi, the setting of Hungry Town, with the mill and all of the smaller boroughs located on it, street names, and so on. That helped ensure that I was remaining geographically consistent.
Even though the setting is imagined, I took inspiration from a few places I know well. I grew up not far from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and have family who live in that area. I’d go there with my dad and brother to get my hair cut as a kid at the old-fashioned barber shop and then we’d stop and get hot dogs at one of the local stands in the Lehigh Valley. So I’ve probably passed the Bethlehem Steel Works hundreds of times in my life, and that wound up being an important analog for the mill in my novel.
The Bethlehem Steel plant is not attractive in the way that a beautiful natural space is attractive—a forest or a mountain—but it has its own power of attraction, and I always found that frozen industry mysterious and intriguing, especially the Number 2 Machine Shop. It’s an immense building, a quarter-mile long and eight stories high, held up inside by a seemingly endless row of steel columns on each side. It’s practically a tunnel. I had a folder on my computer full of artistic photographs of the Bethlehem Steel Works that I looked at regularly while I was writing. You mention the big event that sets off the novel, and it sort of had to occur in that space. The mill was always going to be the key setting of the book just because of my fascination with it.
In Hungry Town, there is also a recurring image of an enormous shattered window at the very end of the machine shop. I borrowed that from the film The Crow, which opens with the main character being shot and falling through a large, round window. Not that I set out to lift it, but I know that’s where the image came from—to my knowledge, there’s no window like that in the actual machine shop. It’s just one of those images that stuck with me for whatever reason and wound up finding its way into the writing.
You have an abandoned mill, a broken window at the end of the line . . . there’s really only a few places it can go from there. I believe Ron Carlson calls that “building an inventory”—the idea that you gather up enough details, and images, and expressions, and you observe how they begin sticking together on their own to form Story. I always picture the story like it’s a hermit crab, scuttling along, adorning itself with whatever interesting detritus it comes across. That’s pretty close to how this novel started.
I was also inspired by Athens, Ohio, where I lived for two years during grad school. It’s a much smaller town, but it shared some attributes with Bethlehem—river running through it, train tracks, an industrial past (in Athens it was the brick company), and a hot dog stand where all the dogs are named after burlesque dancers. That inspired the dog shop that Harry Mulqueen opens in the book (though Harry’s hot dogs are more pedestrian).
Noir is often characterized by cynicism and fatalism—so much so in this novel that I think your setting rises to the level of full-blown villain. The reader gets a heavy dose of that here in one of the first few chapters:
“…for all his grim toughness, Harry had trouble resigning himself to a world where kids were out screwing in mills when they should have been at home sleeping. A world where kids died of senselessness, impaled on hundred-year-old pieces of scrap in the middle of the night.”
One of your main characters, Harry, an ex-cop, fights against the fatalistic sense of doom that pervades this town. Did you need him to leave the force to do this? Without spoiling the plot, do you think he succeeds?
A lot of people have commented on how dark Hungry Town is, and they’re right, of course, but for whatever reason I don’t think of the story as being that dark or cynical. The characters do treat the mill like antagonist—at one point, Mulqueen thinks of it as a place that consumes people—but there’s beauty in Lodi, just as there is beauty in the abandoned Bethlehem Steel buildings. It may be a town of limited opportunity, but the characters are resilient and they have moments of grace, I think. They may or may not escape their circumstances—I like to think the jury is still out.
Did Mulqueen need to quit the police force in order to retain his idealism or his sense of hope? Probably. That’s the sort of guy he is. That’s how he takes a stand. And his partner, Rieux—well, she had plenty of opportunities over the years to leave the force and plenty of reason, but she stayed and made her stand that way, because that’s how she’s built.
Your cast of characters is varied, but each is an outsider in his or her own way. Even the good cop, Rieux, is an outsider; for all her excellence over many years on the police force, she is often seen as a woman playing at a man’s game. Other characters are old and dying, are on the run, are criminals, are neglected children left to their own devices. One way I think you turn traditional noir on its head is by featuring two females in main character roles. Why was that important for you to do?
I knew, from the moment I started, that I wanted to take the tropes of cop dramas and turn them on their heads.
When I’m writing, I honestly don’t have many axes to grind. In fact, I try very hard not to make the story be “about” anything in a larger, moralistic sense. I have nothing to sell you. No lessons to impart. No greater Truths about life to reveal. Just curiosity about the characters and their circumstances, and a willingness to follow them wherever they go.
Now, I say all that, but there is one exception that comes to mind. I knew, from the moment I started, that I wanted to take the tropes of cop dramas and turn them on their heads. I grew up watching cop movies—Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon and so on—and they are great fun, but there are also a lot of problems with that mythos. The idea that a tough, anti-hero cop can take the law into his own hands, play by his own rules, sidestep bureaucracy, clean up a dirty town, and righteously mete out justice, all because his innate sense of right or wrong somehow remains intact on some higher moral plane—well, that’s starting to become less and less attractive as it ages. So I spent a lot of time thinking about tropes and how I could flip them or subvert them in interesting ways.
For instance, there’s usually a jaded veteran cop who gets paired with a rookie. That veteran will likely check off a number of boxes demographically. He’ll be an old-fashioned tough guy who lets his actions do the talking. His sidekick may be more emotionally intelligent but will probably also be portrayed as overeager and naïve. Often, that neophyte cop will be minoritized in some way—a woman, a person of color, an outsider of some sort.
In Hungry Town, I very intentionally chose to make the veteran cop a woman. Rieux is the gritty one, the one who’s just a bit jaded. She’s tough and instinctive. Mulqueen may be more physically imposing, but he’s the cerebral cop and the more sensitive of the two. They both take the work home with them, but Rieux drowns her bad feelings in alcohol whereas Mulqueen sits up all night feeling guilty and pondering whether or not Freud was right about there being no such thing as an accident. That inversion of stereotypes was a conscious choice and a part of the project itself.
I find titles terribly difficult. At what point in your writing of this novel did you light on Hungry Town. And what does that title mean for you?
I’m a huge fan of music, and I always put together playlist for every project I’m working on. I try to capture the feeling or atmosphere of the project in the music I select. One of the songs I chose for this project was “Hungry Town” by Chuck Prophet. It’s a great song with a killer line: “the devil eats for free in a hungry town.” I kept coming back to that. In the book, one of the characters, Bel, says something about there being a lot of hungry people in Lodi, most of them willing to do anything in exchange for a bite to eat. Her expression takes on a metaphorical double meaning that I like, and so I landed on Hungry Town as a title.
What are you writing, right now? What are you reading? What can you recommend?
Currently, I am reading The Other Ones by Dave Housley, about a group of office workers who win the lottery. It’s a terrific book, funny but not without considerable depth. Next on my list is Neema Avashia’s Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, Mike Ingram’s Notes from the Road, and Mark Powell’s Lioness.
I’m currently working on a novel that I’m calling “The Mourning Afters.” It’s set in the fictional ghost town of Stillwater, Pennsylvania, which I’m basing on Centralia, PA. There’s a mine fire that has been burning beneath the town for almost a decade, and the town is basically abandoned, most people having relocated to the neighboring town.
The protagonist is a rock singer named Kev Cassady. About nine years earlier, he was the front man of a band called The Mourning Afters. They were on the verge of a breakthrough, had finally gotten the attention of a record producer in California, when there was a falling out. Kev skipped town with their demo tapes, took the opportunity for himself, and wound up squandering it all.
Fast forward to the present, and Kev gets a late-night call from one of his former bandmates, Muzzie, who he hasn’t spoken to in years. He tells Kev that another member of the band has unexpectedly died. Kev decides to return to Pennsylvania for the funeral and winds up having to face all of the bandmates he left behind, including his drummer ex-girlfriend, Ramie Valentine. In the time since he left, she has raised an eight-year-old daughter, and Kev is trying to do the math on that to figure out if he’s the father.
It all sounds very dire in exposition, but it’s actually supposed to be a comedy and the characters find themselves in one ridiculous situation after another. It’s a departure from Hungry Town, in any case.
I understand you did a lot of research into the culinary masterpiece that is the hot dog in writing this book. What do you take on your dog, and where can we find a good one if we’re in your neck of the woods in northern West Virginia?
I appreciate you ending with the most important question, and I’ve really enjoyed having a chance to chat about Hungry Town.
As I mentioned, I grew up not far from the Lehigh Valley where there’s a unique food culture and many excellent hot dog stands, so I’d been eating hot dogs a long time before writing this book. There, the hot dogs typically come with mustard and chopped onion on the bottom and chili on top. (The order of that is important.) It’s usually a thinner chili than you find other places. That’s how I’ve always taken my dogs.
When it came to writing the novel, I didn’t necessarily need to do any research, but a good writing friend, Renée K. Nicholson, found out about the project early on and offered to take me to different hot dog stands all over West Virginia in the name of research, and I figured, well . . . who am I to argue?
We ate at a lot of hot dog joints.
I’m going to use the fact that I am a state employee and therefore forbidden to offer endorsements as a way to weasel out of having to declare a favorite, but I will say this: if you like hot dogs and you’ve never had a West Virginia slaw dog before, you need to remedy that as soon as possible. Until my “research” trips, I had never had one before, and I quickly became a fan. Mulqueen probably doesn’t sell them at his hot dog stand in northern Ohio—at least, I never recall seeing them when I lived in Ohio—but they would be a welcome addition, for sure.
Jason Kapcala is the author of the short story collection North to Lakeville. His writing has been nominated for numerous prizes, including the Pushcart Prize. He grew up on northeastern Pennsylvania, near the ruins of the Bethlehem Steel Works, and now lives in northern West Virginia.
by Jason Kapcala
$19.99 West Virginia University Press
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