BY INK ALONE: Review and Interview of author Mark Lindquist
The King of Methlehem, by Mark Lindquist, is part crime thriller, part documentary, and almost something that seems to hark back to a pseudo-Sinclair Era of social reform. The book’s been out for almost a year now and many people have already offered their two cents on popular sites like Amazon.com and Facebook (not mention local blogs like Exit 133). Not to be outdone, I decided to add my two cents following an interview with the author himself.
To what extent is The King of Methlehem biographical or – for that matter – autobiographical? Was the king – “Howard Schultz” – inspired by a real Pierce County meth cook and if so did you cut him into the sales of your book?
Howard was largely shaped by the characters and stories I’ve collected while working as a prosecutor, but he also has some of the entrepreneurial traits I’ve observed in my college friends from USC who became movie producers. What makes Howard different than most meth cooks in real life is his intense ambition and intelligence. Most meth cooks are penny-ante, but Howard wants to be a giant among pygmies.
In many ways The King of Methlehem is as much a documentary of modern Tacoma, Puyallup, Fife and Roy as it is, to quote Jay McInerney, a “gritty thriller.” On page 11 you write: “If you want to make movies you go to Hollywood. If you want to play poker professionally you go to Las Vegas, and if you want to be the meth king, you go to Pierce County, Washington….” In another chapter labeled “The Crime Warp” you go into even greater detail to outline Tacoma’s legacy of stress, suicide, unemployment, gang-wars and celebrity murderers. Of course, your depiction of Pierce County’s underworld of crime is pretty accurate, but did you ever find yourself at any time during the writing process feeling like your decision to exam Tacoma through the prism of crime was something of a political/vocational risk? What sort of artistic struggles did you wrestle with when trying to synthesize this fictitious novel with the realities of Pierce County’s meth-culture, and how have local residents responded to your work?
In that famous scene in “A Few Good Mean” Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Well, I believe people can handle the truth. And the truth is that Pierce County had one of the top ten worst meth lab problems in the entire country at the beginning of the decade. Since 2001 we have reduced labs in Pierce County by about 80% through more effective law enforcement, community awareness, aggressive prosecution, and legislative support, specifically the bill that restricted sales of pseudoephedrine, which is a necessary precursor for manufacturing methamphetamine. One of the things I love about Tacoma and Pierce County is that people acknowledge the truth and deal with it – you can’t fix a problem until you admit there is a problem. I suppose that there is sometimes a risk to telling the truth, but one of the things that writers and politicians have in common, at least the ones I admire, is that they are trying to get at the truth of things. I’ve been gratified by how well received “The King of Methlehem” has been locally – it hit the Pacific Northwest Bestseller List and people around town often tell me how much they loved the local flavor. I’m active in the community so I get a lot of direct feedback, including from strangers, and I’ve appreciated that.
What led you to end the story the way that you did?
So I don’t give away the ending too much, I’ll just say that Hemingway believed all true stories end in death and some of his theories on writing and life have influenced me. He also believed, “A writer’s job is to tell the truth.” This is in the introduction to “Men at War,” which is replete with solid advice to writers.
What do you hope readers will take away from The King of Methlehem?
Though I don’t have as much time for reading as I did when I was younger, I’m still an avid reader. Good books inspire me, educate me, move me, entertain me, and make me a more compassionate and understanding person. If “The King of Mehlehem” can do any of those things for others, that’s good.
For me, The King of Methlehem was less about plot and characters than setting. I was drawn into Lindquist’s detailed descriptions of Tacoma, the city I call home, the city of perpetual destiny. Over the course of some 200 pages he reveals an almost great city filled with almost great individuals who live like prospectors sifting through oceans of mud for specks of civic gold dust. Ultimately Lindquist’s Tacoma is an ugly duckling on the verge of revealing its inner swan, assuming it ever pulls its “hand out of the coconut.”
Generally speaking the characters Lindquist portrays lack any real depth, but – if nothing else – it is made clear by their actions and internal monologue that they are all survivors: perhaps the most apt adjective a Tacomanite can expect. The most gripping character is the meth king himself – Howard Schultz – but his character, conduct and convictions are meant to shock the average reader. It is unlikely that most people who read this book will be able to relate to any of the main characters – including Wyatt, whose hardboiled yet trendy lifestyle failed to resonate with my own (though I suppose a one-bedroom apartment in a corporate complex in Puyallup that’s furnished with second-hand bookcases and a couch that was converted from the back-seat of a 1995 Plymouth Voyager hardly sets the tone for popular literature).
The average reader can expect to learn something about meth, but Lindquist is far better at outlining the experience of addiction. As others have noted, his narrative serves less to promote prevention so much as detection of symptoms. I was surprised how little faith his protagonist – Wyatt, a Pierce County police officer – has in the local courts’ ability to combat meth as evident by Howard Schultz repeated encounters with law enforcement that effectively result in a “catch and release” scenario. Perhaps it is this self-evident inability of the courts to combat meth that spurs the narrative’s final outcome, as overly dramatic and forced as it may seem to the reader.
Did I enjoy The King of Methlehem? Yes, very much so. Did I learn anything about the war on meth? I feel that I did. Would I recommend Lindquist’s book? I already have, and even bought a copy for my mom on her birthday. But I think my interest in The King of Methlehem is largely connected to my connection with the setting, and I’m not sure how someone outside of Washington would respond to it. My sense is that it would probably have trouble getting much attention, which is probably why it has thus far only generated significant interest in local circles.
That being said, there are some 750,000 people living in Pierce County who almost certainly would be able to find a rapport with Lindquist’s perspective on the issue. And as we move toward local primary elections this August 19th it will be interesting to see whether Lindquist’s book has any influence on the rhetoric of Pierce County’s many “tough-on-crime” candidates.