“I wanted it to be like a firework show,” Sam McPheeters says about the crescendo of energy and tension in his debut novel, The Loom of Ruin. “It just gets more and more insane.”
Co-founder of the legendary hardcore punk band Born Against, McPheeters' first novel will be released on Mugger Books — a Los Angeles-based press run by an English and philosophy teacher at Compton High School. Between a music career, touring the world and writing a novel, McPheeters has written for the OC Weekly, The Village Voice and Vice Magazine. He lives in Pomona, and he told me about his journey to bring The Loom of Ruin to the shelf.
McPheeters first shopped a different book to editors and literary agents. “I was trying to write something too serious,” he says. Plus, he found limitless amounts of red-tape publishing frustration. So he decided to switch gears and start anew. “I just wrote a book that I would want to read if I were a reader.”
The result: The Loom of Ruin, a book showcasing head-severing action, jump cuts as quick as Bruce Lee karate chops and a main character capable of only one emotion — rage. It's packed with so much action, violence and black comedy you'll swear you stumbled into a movie written by Kurt Vonnegut and directed by Robert Rodriguez.
McPheeters tells the story of Trang Yang — L.A.'s most profitable — and angriest — Chevron franchise owner. Here's the thing about wild old Trang: Due to irreversible neurological damage accidentally caused by the ineptitude of the Los Angeles Police, Trang is always pissed off and lacks any ounce of control over his impulses. Plus, he's paranoid that everyone who walks into his store is trying to steal his gas. And, well, Trang has a reason to be paranoid. He's being watched by private detectives, the FBI, LAPD, his ex-wife, corporate spies from Chevron — an endless amount of groups trying to find out what dangerous secret Yang has been concealing.
“I'm going to feel weird giving this book to people I really respect as writers, artists and also to my family members,” McPheeters says. “They're going to read it and be entertained by it, but they're also going to be scratching their heads and be, like, 'What was Sam trying to do here?'”
When talking to McPheeters, there are no pretensions. Though I asked him about the political and social impact of creating a Hmong main character (it's an Asian ethnic group from China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand) and a book centered on the Chevron corporation, he wanted to be real about his artistic motives: “What I'm trying to do here is write an interesting book. Below the surface there is just more surface.”
That's somewhat hard to believe. In the book, LAPD injure civilians with stray bullets, a man commandeers a blimp that reads “Death to America” and FBI agents are out-of-touch and bumbling. One thing is for sure: Los Angeles is as much a character in this book as Bo Boxer, the washed-up child star who works as an attendant at one of Trang's gas stations.
“When I was an East Coaster, I used to come out here [L.A.] all the time … It was this nice oasis,” McPheeters says. “Despite that, me and all my bandmates, we always used to make fun of Los Angeles. That was always one thing we would say about it — how apocalyptic it was. I would think about it later once I lived out here, and I would think, what did that even mean?”
McPheeters, who was inspired by Mike Davis' The Ecology of Fear, Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and a love for the classic film Dr. Strangelove, portrays L.A. as a powder keg. At any moment, something horrible is about to happen. And, in fact, horror ensues with a massive pileup on our legendary traffic-packed freeway, savage beatings in broad daylight and, well, an ending so devastating that I really want to reveal it … but won't.
This month, McPheeters is on a nationwide book tour but one that's typical for a contemporary debut novelist. There's no red-carpet book tour sponsored by a major publishing house. There's no first-class seat. There's no luxury hotel. There's just one man, taking to the road like the old days when he was in Born Against, trying to reach the audience who will love his work.
“I'm going to be doing two shows a day,” McPheeters says. “Going all across the country. In 2012, it is absolutely the author's job, not the publisher's, to really sell their work. So I walk into that with my eyes wide open.”