Over the next several weeks, an ad hoc committee of dedicated elves will be hacking up a “first draft” of a follow-up to Falling Down: A Tale of Addiction, Betrayal & Murder. The historical novel, a sequel, weaves old and new characters into events that unfold primarily in San Diego, CA, and Spokane, WA, over eight decades from the early 1900s to 1990.
A new and primary character within the work, entitled Jerkwater Town, migrates from southern Italy—like over two-million Sicilians and southern Italians that fled hunger and a devastated economy between 1901 and 1910.1 They, like my Calabrian grandfathers, undertook perilous journeys in order to seek their fortunes in the United States.
As a native of Spokane and a long-time resident of southern California, I have observed civic leaders and local media artfully craft images of my birthplace—the Lilac City—and San Diego—America’s Finest—that belie troubling and sometimes treacherous parallels between the two—despite obvious differences in lifestyle, climate, geography, and population. Many residents of San Diego and Spokane consume—with little or no question—a travel brochure fantasy of Potemkin villages that obscures a shared history of Italian migration, labor unrest, prohibition era intrigue, governmental corruption, and organized crime.
During my early twenties, I became intrigued by a series of magazine articles describing La Costa Resort as safe-harbor for La Cosa Nostra. When Mafioso visited the resort—or San Diego generally—it was understood that grudges, guns, garrotes, and knives were to be checked at the door. In 1977 this protective shield failed in a singularly bombastic fashion when a successful hit took the life of Frank Bompensiero, the LA crime family’s boss in San Diego, mob executioner, and undercover FBI informant.
Growing political awareness and an admiration for then Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who resided in Washington State and attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, awakened my interest in the Wobbly movement. The Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) attracted numerous migratory workers, among them a teenage Douglas, who worked with IWW members during harvest season and referenced them deferentially in his 1974 autobiography.
Using these seemingly disparate events as a foundation, Jerkwater Town follows returning character Nick Lanouette as he seeks to prove that a third-generation Italian-American has been wrongly convicted for Bompensiero’s murder. Nick’s investigation touches upon Italian immigration, the Wobblies, the Mafia, the sex trade, and Prohibition while addressing a labyrinth of questions:
- What is the heroine’s obsession with proving that the wrong man was convicted?
- How does she use a working relationship with Nick to tempt the sexually-addicted protagonist and why?
- What set of circumstances arise to establish a credible relationship between Nick, a happily married man, and Maria, the heroine and a sex trade worker?
- What shared elements of the Wobbly movement, Prohibition, Mafia crime, and the sex trade connect the under bellies of America’s “Finest City” and the Lilac City?
Please, let me know whether Jerkwater Town, a title Joe Hill despairingly ascribed to San Diego, intrigues you.