My interview about Rule of Capture with the nationally syndicated PBS public affairs show Story in the Public Square is now up on the show’s page, after playing on stations around the country last weekend—a fun and wide-ranging conversation about lawyer stories, true dystopia, and lots more. This is my second time on the show, and I am deeply appreciative to the hosts, Jim Ludes and G. Wayne Miller, for having me back.
My novel RULE OF CAPTURE is out today, in print, ebook and audiobook editions. I am proud of the book, and some of the generous early praise it has earned. If you read it, and like it, please consider yourself encouraged to let others know, whether by word of mouth or contributing a review to the algorithmic “ecosystem.” If you haven’t read the book, and are curious, the first two chapters are available as a free excerpt thanks to my publisher. I’ve already put a lot of energy into promoting this book, so I wanted to take today to express thanks to all of those who helped me get to this point. And to start with that, I am excerpting a different part of the book—the acknowledgements section that most folks probably don’t read. Thanks to everyone mentioned below, and everyone I forgot to mention.
Over on my Twitter feed, I have supplemented the below with some more background on the sources I drew on to research and write the book.
Texas is a place where lawyer ads flourish like prickly pear, and it was a lawyer on a billboard that provided the initial inspiration for this story. I was pumping gas one afternoon on the side of Highway 71 at the outskirts of Austin, looking in the direction of Houston. Staring down at me from above the overpass was a criminal defense lawyer sporting a leather jacket, wild hair, and a trickster’s smile—one of those rare lawyers who works to show potential clients they are ready to fight the system, not be part of it. I was working on Tropic of Kansas at the time, and while I didn’t need a lawyer, my fugitive characters did—a lawyer who would combine some of the frontage road tenacity of a Texas plaintiff’s attorney with the political courage of advocates like William Kunstler and Jacques Vergès to help clients navigate the legal minefields of dystopia. Donny Kimoe didn’t make the final cut of that book, but his billboard did, and it was enough to make one character pick up the phone for that free initial consultation. My imaginary dystopian defense lawyer would not be possible without the example and inspiration of all the real ones who roll up their sleeves to fight for a dream of justice we all know is rarely achieved outside of fiction, and I humbly hope that this book inspires some others in the same way.
Donny Kimoe practices in a legal system I invented for this book. If you try to look up any of the statutes or cases cited here, you won’t find them (with a few exceptions, notably Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823)). But they are all extrapolations from existing legal precedents, from the military tribunals of Guantánamo and the Civil War to the loyalty laws of the Red Scare and the Cold War and the martial law invocations that occurred with remarkable frequency in the twentieth century, especially before World War II. To develop my jurisprudential variation on speculative fictional world- building, I spent a tremendous amount of time in the Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas School of Law, taking advantage of its prodigious collection of material, which even includes a section of dusty how-to guides for the domestic administration of military government in times of insurrection or emergency—as well as an amazing collection of law and popular culture ready-made for a writer wishing to decode the deep roots of the American lawyer story. I owe thanks to the librar- ians of that amazing institution, and to the authors of the many remarkable works I drew from in my research.
The other experience I had while working on Tropic of Kansas that had a big influence on this book was my service for several months on a Texas grand jury. Having only ever worked at the margins of criminal procedure over the course of my career as a lawyer, I found it a unique opportunity, and an eye-opener. Unlike a trial jury, which sits as the finder of fact in a specific case, the grand jury hears the government’s presentation of each felony indictment it wants to prosecute. The standard it applies is low. And the volume of cases it hears is huge—dozens or more a day, two or three days a week. Our panel was a diverse group of Texans with good bullshit detectors and a strong sense of justice, and we did our job to turn away cases where the standard was not met. But in most of the cases, indictments were issued based on the evidence, and you learned what it feels like to be part of the machine that takes people (many of them young people) off the street, marks them for life, and locks them up. People who may be guilty of the crimes for which they’ve been arrested, but caught through a process that’s rigged—from the decisions about what activity should be criminalized to the decisions about what neighborhoods to patrol to the way the system allocates access to lawyers. Serving on a grand jury, you quickly gain a deeper understanding of how justice is distributed the same way ev- erything else is in this society. That from at least some vantage points, the system is already pretty dystopian, even without distortion through the prism of imaginative fiction. The experience recharged my sense of pervasive injustice in a way that impacted my own practice, especially my pro bono and community work, and led to me pursue the idea of this book. So thanks to my fellow grand jurors for helping me see the law from the perspective of their very different experiences, and to the court for the opportunity.
This story bears the imprint of my own experiences as a working lawyer, sometimes helping people who had no money and sometimes helping people who had too much, and the things I have learned from the clients and lawyers and paralegals I have had the good fortune to work with, from government and non-profit clinics to big law firms and bigger companies. Those people are too numerous to list, but I owe particular thanks to Charlie Szalkowski, who sets the model of professional ethics and can tell you the story of just about every Houston lawyer who ever lived; Melissa Russell, who helped me see the things lawyers hide from each other; Len Sandler, who taught me how to truly listen to a client; and Steve Bercu, whose example has been more influential than he knows.
A few of those lawyers are also writers, and they proved especially helpful sounding boards as I fleshed out this book. In particular, I owe thanks to Paul Miles for reading various drafts and providing essential election law advice; to Dan Wood for helping me think through my ideas for how to write a legal thriller that was about the law as much as the facts; and to Justin Castillo for helping me vet both my law and procedure, and other insights as well. I also owe thanks to some writers who are not lawyers, including Pepe Rojo, for once again help- ing me see this country from the other side of the border wall that keeps us in; Kelly Link, for titular affirmation; Jessica Re- isman, for being the truest of colleagues and the most trusted of advisors; Henry Wessells, for being the sounding board who always gets it; and Timmi Duchamp, for the engagement and example.
I want to thank my neighbors here in East Austin, with whom I have had the opportunity to work in recent years, especially Daniel Llanes and Susana Almanza, who have helped me see how the injustices of the twenty-first-century city are rooted in the history of the land on which it is built, and Bill O’Rourke, who provided important encouragement and helped me see the city from the streets. Thanks also to Sam Douglas for his documentary filmmaker’s tips on where to find Hous- ton’s very best lawyer commercials.
Big thanks to my editor, David Pomerico, who saw the potential of this idea early on, and played a critical role in helping me flesh out the concept and make it something much bigger than I initially conceived. Thanks to the rest of the team at HarperCollins, notably cover designer Owen Corrigan for helping to convey the book visually. And thanks to literary agent Mark Gottlieb for helping to guide the project forward and providing insightful advice and counsel along the way.
Finally, thanks to my family, for the love, support, and inspiration. Especially Virginia and Eliseo, for sharing with me some sense of what it is like to live in a country where the government is truly at war with the people. Thanks to Hugo and Ajin, Bill and Sibyl, and Alex and Katiti. And thanks most importantly to Agustina, for the partnership that makes works like this possible, and teaching me what it means to love some- one from Houston (and learn to love Houston in the process).
After this book went to production, my brother Alex, to whom this book is dedicated, died unexpectedly of a stroke. A painter and hardcore punk pioneer, Alex set a powerful ex- ample of how to live a life that stays true to the idealistic manifestos of youth, even in the face of adulthood’s frequent calls to pragmatic compromise. He loved secret histories, weird fic- tions, and hidden truths, and I thought of him often while I was writing this book—not just because we were planning a trip together as soon as I finished it. He lived a rich life, and left a meaningful body of work behind as an artist and musician. Preparing for his memorial service, we rediscovered some of the earliest work he had done—DIY punk zines that grounded their passionate political and social protest in profound empa- thy and a deep sense of community, and by their very making helped create a new community, one that went on to positively impact the world around it. I’ll never know what Alex would have thought of this book, but in his absence I see more clearly how much he taught me about what real justice should feel like, and his deep influence on this book’s effort to bridge the gap between the world our youthful selves want to live in, and the one we find.
Book trailer as cinéma vérité—a window into the world of my forthcoming novel RULE OF CAPTURE, coming your way in a month and now available for preorder. Better with sound, so you can appreciate the awesome ambient score by Zed Hamblin Di Menno, the up-and-coming Austin filmmaker who directed and produced this, shot here on location in dystopia TX.
Stoked to see this Starred Review of RULE OF CAPTURE in the new Publishers Weekly—”a glimmer of hope that the usurpers of the Constitution may be beaten at their own game, ‘one case at a time.'”
(And the part of me that worked hard to tune this generic polyphony especially loves reading that “Brown keeps tight control of his narrative even as this alternate America slips its gears.”)
There was a really annoying feature in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, headlined “Backyard to the Future,” about the author’s joy in bathing his backyard with wifi and layering it with networked gadgets—riding mowers with streaming television, surround speakers, yard work robots, and of course the “smart grill.” The image that illustrated the story showed an entire neighborhood of 8-bit sims experiencing the outdoors through a digital frame. It reminded me of the ad campaign the National Park Service did a few years back that used cartoon computer animals to try to encourage kids to check out the parks.
The American lawn is the enemy of nature, and reprogramming our obsession with it is maybe the easiest possible way we could begin bringing back the American wild—in part by reframing the way we each experience our daily relationship with nature, from holding it at bay to letting it thrive.
I spent my youth, and a decent chunk of my adulthood, as a servant of the American lawn—that emerald expanse of invasive ornamental turf cut to the length of Dobie Gillis’s hair, an idea we acquired from our earlier Americans who wanted to emulate the pretentious gardens of European nobility (without remembering that what the nobles really loved were their private primeval forests). I paid for my first illegally procured six-packs with money from mowing lawns, as a young slacker drafted into the war against grass ever being allowed to grow tall enough to actually propagate seeds. This job also involved pulling weeds, which in the case of my Midwestern boyhood were probably the remaining native plants trying to survive the ecopocalypse of the tilling of the plains. And in my first houses in Texas as a young dad myself, I kept mowing, and raking leaves—even complying with the ridiculous mandate to put the leaves in big brown bags for municipal haul-off.
It’s now been ten years since I mowed a lawn. When we moved here to the house we built at the edge of the urban woods, behind some factories, we let the yard go wild. Not quite as laissez-faire as that sounds. The lot was a brownfield and a dump site. It was bisected by a petroleum transmission pipeline that had been abandoned in place fifteen years earlier, and littered with massive quantities of construction debris—piles of concrete and rebar dumped at what used to be the edge of town. It was already wild and unmowed, but mostly conquered by invasive grasses. So after we got the oil company to take its pipeline out, and a built a little house in the trench from that excavation, we put a green roof on the house and reseeded the yard with the plants of the Blackland prairie—the native grassland that once ran in a wide band from north of Dallas to north of San Antonio, 99% of which has been destroyed by agriculture and development. And words cannot really express how immediately this undertaking filled our world up with new life.
Fuck backyard wifi.
Maybe it’s not for everyone. There are a lot of snakes. As in, coral snakes at the door when you come home from the movies. A big green snake wrapped around the mesquite tree by the path from the car. Occasional biblical infestations of millipedes. Enough mammalian wildlife for the dogs to regularly show up for breakfast with blood on their snouts (sorry, nature). Once in a while a hawk will chase its prey right into the living room window, because it doesn’t even recognize the house—the roof of which looks like a wild field—as a human habitat. Our yard is full of life. Real life, life that is indigenous to this place, mostly, as we actively cultivate an ever-increasing biodiversity in our own backyard. A spring filled with butterflies, baby birds, a menagerie of weird bugs. A human dwelling where wild nature is invited to grow right up to the door, and does.
This approach to the outdoor garden involves a lot less work than a conventional lawn. There is no mowing. Once in a while I might break out the personal flamethrower and burn a patch. But mostly, come spring, we have to do a brief but intense season of weeding. Because the invasive species are all around us, destructive imports just like us, their seeds on the wind and the bottoms of our shoes and the tires of our cars, and maintaining a healthy balance a mere decade into our effort at developing a self-sustaining successional prairie restoration takes some active intervention. The weeds come in early, before winter is over—the cheat grasses that grow in big clumps, crowding out the native flowers; the beggars lice and mutant dandelions and imitation winecup that, if allowed to propagate, will fill the yard with burrs and thistles and extinguish most of the habitat.
Weeding is an outdoor activity that gets little respect. As a kid, it is pretty much the most sucky thing you can be ordered to spend your Saturday doing. As an adult, it is generally framed as the most demeaning of labors. Real landscapers wield chainsaws, axes, or sharp clippers. They move dirt, and train trees. They don’t get down on their knees and pull baby plants from the earth for long hours under the hot sun.
I do, and I love it. Maybe I love it because of the rewards it brings. Because of the way it gets me out there, free from active thought under the blue spring sky. It’s close-up work that lets you get a much deeper understanding of the ecology of your yard, of what’s really going on, how the species interact, compete, cooperate, kind of like the way detailing your car or taking it apart and putting it back together is the only way you will understand what it really is. It is a Sisyphean task, one that will never really be finished. But when you do it, and see the results of letting the species that belong here come back, you understand that it’s the path to a healthy future, more so than any quant-driven efforts to reengineer the house’s patterns of consumption. Wild landscaping generates energy, rather than consuming it. You only need to apply a little labor.
At least around here, more and more people are trying to do similar projects. I hope it spreads. It’s one way to begin to remedy the problem that we are the principal invasive species.
I am delighted to share this cover reveal for my new novel Rule of Capture, forthcoming from Harper this summer. Please click through to the Harper Voyager blog for a guest post in which I get to share my more detailed thoughts about the cover, explain why it suits the story so well, and tell a bit more about the story and what we mean when we call it a “dystopian legal thriller.” And if it sounds interesting to you, please consider pre-ordering the book, which will be available in print, e-book and audio formats.
Loving this cover (and back cover) for the Russian translation of Tropic of Kansas, forthcoming in April from Fanzon / Eksmo. It really nails the atmosphere of the book. Details (and excerpt) at the link (quality translations welcome—though I love the way the bot translates one passage in the creative copy as “fake smiles are broken in teeth,” and translates the character name Sig to “Whitefish”—then makes an allusive play on catching fish).
I’ve been keeping a low profile online lately as I finish revisions on my forthcoming novel RULE OF CAPTURE, but I was able to share some of my 2018 reading over at the Aqueduct Press blog, including some of the weird research I have been doing for the new book—like the curious little handbook pictured above. Thanks to Timmi Duchamp and the folks at Aqueduct for having me back again.
This week brought the news that Tropic of Kansas is a Kindle Monthly Deal from now through November 5—$2.99 for the e-book. Thanks to all of the folks who have already checked it out.
This week’s memory feed also served a reminder of one of my favorite squibs on the book, from one year ago in Booklist:
A nice boost as I crank on what’s next.