Daniel Friedman’s “Don’t Ever Look Back”
Daniel Friedman lays down the law (again) in his second noir mystery set in Memphis
Author Daniel Friedman
PHotograph by Barry Keziban
Don’t ever get old. Don’t ever look back. Tell that to Baruch (“Buck”) Schatz, retired Memphis police officer and homicide detective, and Buck wouldn’t argue. Getting old and looking back: They’re nothing but trouble. Take, for instance, the trouble Buck got into with Vivienne Wyatt, director of resident relations at the Valhalla Estates Assisted Life-style Community for Older Adults on Kirby Parkway.
It all started not so innocently enough. A friend of Buck’s named Crazy Mack had come to pay a visit. They’d been buds for five decades — ever since Mack climbed onto the roof of a Memphis apartment house and started screaming while waving around a big knife. That’s when Buck “defused the situation”: He shot Mack in the neck.
It was a win-win situation. Buck made the neighborhood safer, and the shooting got Mack the meds he needed to control his schizophrenia. Others haven’t been so lucky. Among the 31 men Buck Schatz has shot, 18 are dead, and, according to Buck, they’d all had it coming.
Dwayne Connor, who is white, had it coming. Dwayne is Buck’s racist, redneck neighbor at Valhalla, and he’d been rude to Mack, who is black. So Buck, who is white, had grabbed an axe — not to threaten Dwayne but to bust up Dwayne’s rocking chair, which Buck did and which is why Vivienne Wyatt, who is black, called Buck into her office to lay down the law: She’d be keeping an eye on him. And by the time Buck (who’s recovering from several gunshot wounds and broken bones) makes it (thanks to a walker) down to breakfast that morning, he’s got another thing coming: a visitor named Elijah.
Buck crossed paths with Elijah back in 1965, when Elijah robbed the vault of the Cotton Planters Union Bank in downtown Memphis. But that’s not on Elijah’s mind this morning in 2009. The last time the two met, Buck told Elijah he’d kill him if he ever saw him again. But Elijah tells Buck he’d better kill him quick, because Elijah’s got 48 hours to live.
What’s the deal here? Find out in Don’t Ever Look Back (Minotaur Books) by Daniel Friedman. But take it from Buck Schatz, age 88, who’s sitting there inside the dining room at Valhalla, staring at a plate of scrambled eggs, and thinking (in his own hard-boiled fashion): “Apparently, nobody I have ever met can die without bothering me about it.”
Turns out, there’s plenty more for Buck to be bothered about in Don’t Ever Look Back, Friedman’s follow-up to his bloody but entertaining debut mystery featuring Buck Schatz, Don’t Ever Get Old (2012).
In that first book, Buck had to contend with a back story featuring Nazi brutality and the contemporary whereabouts of a fortune in stolen gold. This time, he’s embroiled in that bank heist in Memphis back in ’65 and a fortune in stolen drug money decades later. So the narrative in Don’t Ever Look Back seesaws. Chapters that take place in 2009 are interwoven with and informed by chapters set in the ’60s.
Buck, though, stays true to form throughout: his same irascible self — more than willing to haul out his .357 or blackjack when it comes to a criminal showdown and downright obnoxious when it comes to the powers that be, whether it’s Vivienne Wyatt of Valhalla or, years before her, the president of the Cotton Planters Union Bank.
Buck is also an unapologetic chain-smoker with an aversion to ashtrays — the more inappropriate the setting and the angrier Buck is, the more likely he is to crush a cigarette on the rug beneath his feet. But he’s devoted to his wife, Rose. He’s still torn up (can, in fact, hardly discuss) the death of his son, Brian. And he’s a father figure to his grandson, William, a law student at New York University. Back in the day, Buck was also a rarity on the Memphis police force: one of four Jews. An observant Jew? Don’t go by Buck’s outrageous behavior before the rabbi overseeing his son’s bar mitzvah. But do think in terms of Buck’s ultimate allegiance: to God’s chosen people. And do consider the biblical story of Sodom. Brian Schatz does in his bar mitzvah speech. Buck Schatz files that speech under the heading “Something I don’t want to forget.” (Readers are welcome to see in Sodom something of Memphis, Tennessee.)
Daniel Friedman, who graduated from White Station High School in 1999, knows firsthand about gun violence in Memphis. His father, lawyer Robert Friedman, was shot and killed in the garage of the 100 N. Main Building by a man angry about the results of his divorce case. That was in 2002, while Friedman was still an undergraduate studying journalism at the University of Maryland. He went on to earn a law degree from New York University and today lives in New York City. But for the time being, he’s no longer practicing law. He’s writing full-time. No way, he said in a recent phone interview, he could keep up with the demands of a law career and meet the writing deadlines of the next couple of years.
Friedman’s got another work of fiction (a historical mystery featuring the British writer Lord Byron) coming out next year. Sometime after that, he has a third Buck Schatz book scheduled, with perhaps a fourth at some point. But he still finds time to return to his hometown, and that includes at least one book signing late this month at the Booksellers at Laurelwood. Last year, he joined native Memphian Anna Olswanger at the Memphis Jewish Community Center to discuss the use of the Holocaust in fiction.
Friedman’s mother, Elaine, still teaches at White Station, and he has numerous other family members in Memphis. But his grandfather, Buddy Friedman, died this past October at the age of 97.
“My grandfather was a major influence on my character Buck,” Friedman admits. “And though he wasn’t a cop, my grandfather, like Buck, served during World War II. His voice and I guess this image of the twentieth-century action-hero as he’s aging out of his physical prime inspired me too.”
Combine Friedman’s action-movie dialogue — and the elements of noir fiction — with another factor.
“The sound of my grandfather’s voice … the way Buck speaks … it’s fairly Jewish,” Friedman says. “But there’s definitely a Southern accent in there too. That combo in fiction is kind of a novelty.”
And the combo is gaining ground with audiences. Foreign sales, especially, have been very good, Friedman says. (Don’t Ever Get Old just made the best-seller list in Germany.) In the U.S., word-of-mouth among librarians and independent booksellers has generated growing interest as well. And if Friedman’s first book was “a little bit of a sleeper,” he’s hoping the sequel “double-downs” on the attention of readers.
With Don’t Ever Look Back, Friedman has double-downed on his creation, Buck Schatz — his roles as law keeper and sometime lawbreaker but more importantly his unwillingness to come to terms with not only the death of his son but the death of his father when Buck was only 6 years old.
“I’ve been more interested in the character-driven aspects of Buck’s story in this second book,” Friedman says. “I thought it would be interesting for Buck not to reach a resolution with his grandson, not to properly grieve the death of his son — to resist all of those urges you’d ordinarily expect from a character like Buck. That’s all a mystery, in addition to the problems presented by the plot.
“The question is: Who is Buck Schatz? Is his worldview right or wrong? Is he ultimately a good guy or bad guy? Are the rationalizations for his behavior a defense mechanism? The greater business in this series is getting to the core of those questions. As in serialized TV shows such as The Sopranos and Mad Men, the real business is getting to the root of the lead characters, beneath all the artifice and the stereotypes.”
Those root questions could be asked of Elijah’s violent methods as well — Elijah, who survived Auschwitz and whose perspective has been upended by the experience, a view of society that boils down to, in Friedman’s words: “Why shouldn’t I just take whatever I want until somebody can stop me? Why shouldn’t I be an aggressor instead of a victim?”
And why shouldn’t Buck be in some way a version of Elijah? Elijah says as much to him in the closing pages of Don’t Ever Look Back: “You spent your life trying to impose order on a disordered world, and I spent my life trying to take vengeance on a cruel world.”
We’ll have to wait for Daniel Friedman’s next Buck Schatz book to discover if his aged action-hero can honestly look back on his personal past and face with more grace his frail future. Until that time, Buck would be wise to fill that prescription once written for him. (Doctor’s order: “a positive outlook.”) It’d also do him good to every now and then recall the Hebrew word for “blessed.” It’s baruch.