Behind the Book: Dana King

I’m from Penns River. Not Penns River by name, but the three small cities that make up the city in my books. Born in one (the hospital has since closed and become an urgent care/testing facility), taken home to another (the apartment has since burned down), and grew up in the third (my parents still live in the house). All three combined cover 16.6 square miles (the rural township that makes up “unincorporated Neshannock County” is another 15.2 with 2,240 people crammed into it.) For comparison purposes, the land area of Manhattan Island is 22.8 square miles. These are not metropolii.

The average household income is about three-quarters the national average. Median house prices are little better than half, so at least people can afford to live there, though it’s hell to sell and afford to move away. The percentage of residents with high school diplomas is a tad higher than the national average; college grads, about half. Unemployment hovers near the national average, but with incomes what they are, one can guess at the salary levels. In 1973 my high school graduated 328 students. Today’s total enrollment—freshman through seniors—is 712.

Why write about this place? I saw a Dennis Lehane talk where someone asked why he writes the kinds of stories he does. His answer—paraphrased—is that he doesn’t understand the rich man for whom enough is never adequate. Lehane gets the guy who sees wealth behind a window and the only thing that keeps him from breaking the glass and taking what he fancies is he doesn’t want to go to jail. For some even that’s not a good enough reason.

I get that. I don’t think I knew any criminals when I lived in Penns River—certainly not of the caliber I write about—but I know that attitude. I’ve seen the mills close and the good jobs dry up. I was the person who told my father—and everyone at his A&P—that they’d lost their jobs. No shit. I heard on the radio A&P was closing the Pittsburgh Division and called the store to ask if it was true. No one had bothered to tell the employees. So, yeah. I have a bit of an attitude when people start talking about how those who are poor or unemployed or need some help to tide them over brought it on themselves or are lazy. How the problem is minorities or immigrants or gays or [fill in your definition of “other” here] taking jobs and privileges that rightfully belong to you. I see where the real problem is and it’s not with those who are fighting over the table scraps.

There’s also a sense of realness in a town like Penns River. The cops aren’t models. The crime scenepeople don’t wear designer clothes and drive Hummers and carry guns. Hell, Penns River doesn’t have a crime lab; they send out. These cops solve cases the way real cops do, by talking to people. They also aren’t dealing with Professor Moriarty. These cops are looking for the guys who are willing to break the glass, who, were they smarter, would have found a way around it.

The first Penns River book, WORST ENEMIES, is the story of someone for whom more than enough is so insufficient it’s worth people’s lives to get more. GRIND JOINT shows what can happen when those with wealth and juice are willing to spread it around to suck money from a fading town like oil from a well. The new book, RESURRECTION MALL, shows how an underfunded operation that doesn’t promise a financial return has little chance.

I travel to “Penns River” at least half a dozen times a year and look at it with the eyes of someone who recognizes the problems, sees the changes from the outside, and still loves it. That’s why I made Ben “Doc” Dougherty a returning veteran, gone nine years. Doc sees the town through eyes not unlike mine. This allows me to express my feelings about the place without having to wear it too much on my sleeve. The best way to express the point of any story is between the lines.