On the pyre

In this week’s Field Notes, I mention the funeral scene from my 2019 novel Rule of Capture, which I was reminded of by this fascinating article in this week’s New York Times about the new trend in certain American quarters to have oneself cremated on a pyre surrounded by loved ones watching your body burn for hours. A surprising yet affirming thing to read about, since when I wrote a scene that imagined such neo-primitive practices being adopted by the home-grown fascists who are trying to take control of the country in that novel, it seemed like a slipstream detour from the grounding in the real I had otherwise been working to maintain. And of all the things in that book that later seemed prescient, this one at least causes no harm to others.

For readers of the newsletter who are interested in the full scene, I am excerpting it here—the opening paragraphs of Chapter 35, which comes late in the second act:

They’d had a regular memorial for Judge Elwood earlier that week, in the church his widow chose, but the real funeral was that night at midnight, on a closed-off overpass west of downtown, part of one of the private freeways reserved for the wealthy elite. More than a hundred friends gathered, more men than women, with their best classic cars from the golden years before the war, all tuned to the same private FM feed, blasting border metal at the city below while the judge’s body lay there atop the hood of his 1989 Cadillac Conquistador, which in turn had been raised on a pyre of rebar and mesquite doused with high-octane fuel drained from the tank of the car. The boys had gotten good at building those pyres in a way that you could drive the preferred chariot of the deceased right up there at the beginning of the fest and not need a crane or a bunch of floor jacks.

The judge was dressed in a chalk-striped charcoal flannel suit with a green foulard tie, white handkerchief, and the snake boots he wore for the hunt. His party lapel pin glistened like black gold, reflecting the moonlight. His favorite Glock was holstered right there in the waistband of his suit pants behind the sterling belt buckle monogrammed with an etching of an eagle clutching a rat in its talons. The nine-inch knife with its hand-carved handle hung from the belt in its handsome Brooks Brothers scabbard, and folded into his arms was the Beretta double-barreled .12-gauge with the inlaid silver image of Robert McAlpin Williamson, the Republic of Texas-era judge known as Three-Legged Willie for his primitive prosthesis, and for the Bowie knife he always wore under his judicial robes.

The judge’s friends lined up to pay their respects, leaving gifts with him to take off to the beyond. Cactus flowers, black and gold-jacketed bullets and shells, flasks of fine tequila and whisky, cigars, antlers and condoms. People talked and told stories about him, and then they turned off the music and his wife walked up with her bold blonde hair done up in a vintage coif with a fresh streak of silver through the bangs that matched the platinum sequins of her dress. She gave a talk about what her husband stood for and what he believed the future would be if they continued the fight to which he had committed his life, a patriotism made from blood and dirt and the melding of the Anglo and Spanish traditions of law, property and the enjoyment of the life of born leaders. Then the mistress got her turn, talking about some of the things he liked to do for fun, including an anecdote about the trip they had taken after the last diagnosis had come in, which involved three extramarital couples on a private jet loaded with spirits and firearms and a big-ass tent you could put up in the desert after you landed. His daughter talked about his most important decisions, listing some of the most dangerous enemies of the state he had incarcerated. And then they each kissed him in turn, intense goodbye kisses to warm dead flesh. They stood together after that, arms locked, and sang the Song, a cappella, so crisp and clear that it carried far from that vaulted freeway even though you could hear the tremors of loss in their chorale. When they were done, the men took the torches they had been holding, and put them to the pyre, as the feed came back on with “Judgment Day,” the last instrumental duel between Page and Gibbons before they went their separate ways. Somehow the flames engulfed the Caddy just at the part where the drums and guitar find their shared harmony and then the bass joins in and then the screaming wails, the unofficial anthem of twenty years of flag-draped victory celebrations, and you could almost believe in the mythic past these people accepted as true heritage.

For more about Rule of Capture, including links to longer excerpts and places where you can find the book, check out the book’s main page here.


RULE OF CAPTURE a Kindle promotion for January

Rule of Capture

My novel Rule of Capture has been out for six months now, which means it’s bargain ebook time—my publisher Harper Voyager has the Kindle version available beginning today for less than the price of a cappuccino, far enough in advance for those who want to check out the follow-on Failed State when it comes out in August 2020.

Thanks to all of you who have already checked the book out and shared your thoughts on Amazon, Goodreads, social media, and by word of mouth.

RULE OF CAPTURE—on Kindle in January for $2.99

Failed State

Also available for pre-order: FAILED STATE


SF Author as Talking Head

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.

RULE OF CAPTURE—publication day and acknowledgements

Rule print copy


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.

RULE OF CAPTURE—the book trailer

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.

More about the book and preorder options (including print, e-book, and audiobook editions) here.


Publishers Weekly—Starred Review for RULE OF CAPTURE

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.”)

PW on ROC 6-14-19

TROPIC OF KANSAS a Kindle monthly deal

Preorder Tropic of Kansas from Amazon

Just found out that my novel TROPIC OF KANSAS is a Kindle monthly deal, on sale through the end of June for $1.99—a great chance for those who haven’t read it, in advance of my new related book RULE OF CAPTURE coming out later this summer (and now available for preorder).


2018 Reading

wiener martial law

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.