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Athens, America
Athens, America
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Larry gives an overview of the book:

Athens, Iowa, is the best of small college towns: affluent, cultured, tolerant, safe, and insulated from a world that seems to lack all those advantages. But at the beginning of a long dry summer, Athens sheds its communal innocence as two teenagers are killed in a police chase gone bad. Death becomes a political issue, and Athens becomes a microcosm of everything wrong with American politics. In that summer of rage, two men must confront that public tragedy and their own private grief. Joe Holly's baby girl died fifteen years ago, but he talks to her every week when he visits her grave. Jack Hamilton’s fifteen year old gifted daughter is one of the teenagers killed, in the wrong place at the wrong time as a fleeing car smashes into her. Holly is a burned out city councilman with a depressed wife, an autistic son who...
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Athens, Iowa, is the best of small college towns: affluent, cultured, tolerant, safe, and insulated from a world that seems to lack all those advantages. But at the beginning of a long dry summer, Athens sheds its communal innocence as two teenagers are killed in a police chase gone bad. Death becomes a political issue, and Athens becomes a microcosm of everything wrong with American politics.
In that summer of rage, two men must confront that public tragedy and their own private grief. Joe Holly's baby girl died fifteen years ago, but he talks to her every week when he visits her grave. Jack Hamilton’s fifteen year old gifted daughter is one of the teenagers killed, in the wrong place at the wrong time as a fleeing car smashes into her.
Holly is a burned out city councilman with a depressed wife, an autistic son who speaks to no one, and his own downtown movie theatre which is losing money. Hamilton married his college tutor, wrecked his knees playing professional football, and loves his job at the post office.
Running for re-election to an office he doesn’t care about anymore, Holly is suddenly in the middle of a public crisis as the Athens police department is accused of negligence in the death of a drug-dealing thug, and…………Becky Hamilton.
A minor infraction of rules by one cop is seen as, and then inflated into, a pattern of police corruption and incompetence. Caution by some city council-members is seen as a cover-up and insensitivity. The issue is soon no longer what to do with the offending cop, who was discharged immediately, but “who speaks for the people.”
Fueling public anger toward the Council is Ken Rumble, himself a councilmember, but one whose charismatic image was forged by a long history of refusing to compromise, who sees the purity of his cause as justification for the impurity of his actions. Until one teenager’s out-of-control car kills another, Rumble was a political maverick whose greatest achievement was his own self-deification. With Becky Hamilton’s death, however, Rumble’s followers are able to invert the old paradigm of American culture-----the tyranny of the majority-----and become their own vocal minority which shapes public opinion by manipulating the local media. In the Rumble world, opinion is fact, and opinions are spread instantaneously over the internet, repeated and amended and assuming a life of their own that has no basis in reality.
But reality is irrelevant in Athens that summer. Perception is everything, and the group that controls perception---controls reality.
Joe Holly swims against the tide of that false reality, but as his campaign for re-election nears the first Tuesday in November he finally understands his own limitations and the choice he must make. As he says early, “This is a story about my family and my town, and how I lost one.”
Jack Hamilton and his wife Marcie refuse to participate in the public drama that their daughter’s death has inspired. Their private grief has its own spiral, and all they want is to be left alone. The shouting around them is unheard, and their despair threatens to consume them. But with the help of their daughter’s own words and the lyrics from a forgotten Harry Chapin song, they eventually find peace.
ATHENS, AMERICA is, finally, the story of two men dealing with public tragedy and private grief. And the lesson for a reader is from Joe Holly, who amends Tip O’Neill’s famous axiom “All politics is local.” For Holly, “All local politics is personal.”

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ATHENS, AMERICA

"There was a time that you curled up in my lap,
Like a child you'd cling to me smiling,
Your eyes wide and wild,
Now you slip through my arms, wave a passing hello,
Twist away and toss a kiss, laughing as you go.

I'm a tangled up puppet,
Spinning round in knots,
And the more I see what used to be,
The less of you I've got."

-Harry and Sandy Chapin-

Chapter One:

Begin with three: a driver, a runner, and a cop. The cop is chasing the driver, and the runner is waiting for them at the corner of First and Court.
The driver is young, a teenager, and you would not want him living near you. He sells drugs and steals without hesitation. He is often high, and he is more often angry than calm. He has dark black skin and dresses in code. A few seconds before he dies, he is reaching for the gun on the seat next to him.
The white cop is also young, a few years under thirty, but he has been old all his life. Old in the sense of having always known what he wanted to be, even as a child. He was always the cop, never the robber. There had been no other cops in his family, and his parents were mystified as to why he had chosen this career. But they loved their son, and they were proud of him when he graduated from the police academy. They were immensely relieved when he got his first job in their town, where he had grown up. He did not tell them, but that was part of his plan too. When he was thirty, he had told himself, he would think about marriage. Everything in order, under control. But his parents died in a plane crash, and his sense of control died with them.
The runner is the youngest of the three. She is black and white, and she is running toward her home when she sees the flashing red lights and hears the sirens. She stops to see what happens. A few seconds later, as the driver's car rolls toward her, she steps to her right. It is the wrong direction.
The cop and the driver have a history. On this warm evening, that history comes to an end. For months, the cop has been cruising the driver's neighborhood. For months, the driver has taunted the cop. But the cop is not innocent. He has gone out of his way to look for the driver. He would drive slowly behind him, and he has given the driver two tickets for minor traffic violations. A rolling stop, failing to give a signal. If you had asked the cop---why this driver?---he would not have had a satisfactory answer.
The driver is an outsider, from a bigger city to the east, and he brought the big city's problems into the cop's small hometown. It is not that simple, not that clear, but the cop is not able to get beyond his feeling that his role in his hometown is to protect it from the driver.
The cop has worked eight straight days, filling in for other cops. He began his shift this morning going to a domestic disturbance in the driver's neighborhood. The husband had been warned. He was pounding on the door when the cop arrived. He resisted arrest, and the cop had to call for back-up. The husband took a swing at the cop and tried to get his gun, but the cop had him on the ground before things got out of control. As the cop put the husband in his patrol car, the driver cruised by and almost raised his middle finger toward him. A small gesture.
In the seven hours before the chase, the cop has answered a dozen calls, backed-up other cops, checked car tags, arrested a drunk downtown who had too much to drink at Happy Hour, and, a half hour before seeing the driver again, broken up a knife fight between two other drunks in an alley downtown. His uniform shirtsleeve had been ripped. The dispatcher tells him to call it a day, but the cop wants to swing through the driver's neighborhood one more time. He has begun the day already exhausted, but when he sees the driver run the stop sign he has a profoundly satisfying surge of energy.
It is supposed to be the same routine. The cop will stop the driver, and the driver will either smirk or sit sullenly while he is being lectured. But this warm evening, the driver does not stop. He keeps a steady speed, ignores the flashing lights, and then they reach First Avenue. The cop is talking to the dispatcher just as the driver begins accelerating. The driver has a minute to live. The cop will be gone from his hometown in twenty-four hours. The runner is waiting at the corner.
The cop thinks that he knows why the driver is racing away. This time, there is something in the car that the driver cannot be caught with. The driver will finally be sent away for a long time.
Fifty miles an hour in a twenty-five zone, then sixty. Through red lights and stop signs in a straight line. Other cars swerving for self-preservation. The cop's window is open, and he feels the air swirl and roar inside his patrol car. He starts to scream at the driver ahead of him, and his screams drown out the other voice in the car with him, a static-laced voice calmly telling him to break off the chase. But the cop knows where the driver is headed---through the next stop sign and out to the highway, where he has no jurisdiction. Beyond his control.
The driver looks back, then looks forward to the next stop sign, but his brain is crossing wires, and two contradictory impulses collide. Get rid of the gun and turn the car, but he cannot do both. He does not see the runner.
The cop sees it all in slow motion. The driver's car lurches to the left at First and Court, the rear starting to spin faster than the front, and then the driver's side of the car begins rising so that the cop sees the black underside. Like a movie stunt, the car rolls once and then slides on its roof to rest on the green slope beyond the curb. The cop sees it all, but he does not see the runner.
He has two minutes alone. Other patrol cars are already coming. He is out of his car and over to the driver's car, but the driver is pulpy and red and no longer human. Then he sees another form further up the slope, almost like it was sleeping. It is at this moment that the cop sees his own life go away. He kneels beside the sleeping runner and touches her crooked neck. Where did she come from?
The cop looks around for help, but he is still alone. He starts CPR, but he knows it is useless. The runner is dead. Who is she? The cop hears sirens, and he sits beside the sleeping runner, holding her hand. He knows that he has done something terribly wrong, and he will pay. He will go away from his hometown and never come back. And until the end of his life, he will keep two things to himself about this moment.
As a small child he had always dreamed about angels, and in those dreams the angels had this girl's face. That was one thing, a feeling that might even be understandable if he ever chose to share it.
But the other memory will never be shared. As he sits there on that slope with the sleeping girl, he looks up to see an enormous blood-red deer standing over him, looking down at him and the girl.

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Note from the author coming soon...

About Larry

Larry Baker’s wife would insist that the use of “career” in conjunction with his life is a bit misleading. Admitting that, however, Larry would still insist that he has done a few things in his life that might constitute real work.
He is currently an adjunct Assistant...

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Published Reviews

Mar.05.2010

The reviews for Larry Baker’s A Good Man are starting to come in and they are good, from Iowa to Florida people are impressed:

“Baker is a smart writer. That’s obvious, especially in the last half of...