THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOKS, “RHYTHM AND GREENS,” BY EVAN SACHS AND “METALLIC DREAMS,” BY MARK RICE, CAN BE FOUND BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST, OR BY CLICKING THE AUTHORS’ NAMES ON OUR AUTHOR PAGE.
THE BOOK: Candyland.
PUBLISHED IN: January 2016
THE AUTHOR: Vicki Salloum.
THE PUBLISHER: Dr. Gene D. Robinson, publisher of Moonshine Cove Publishing, LLC, of Abbeville, South Carolina.
SUMMARY: Lázara Maria Soto, 17, lives in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. Her parents cook crystal meth in their bootleg lab, Candyland. Her brothers sell it to kids in the high school parking lot. She would love for her parents to live an honest life. She would love for her brothers to stop making fiends out of her friends. But out of fear and complacency, she does nothing to stop them—’til one day she overhears her brothers plotting to kill a fifteen-year-old if he fails to repay his drug debt before midnight at Candyland. Unable to bear the burden of the boy’s murder on her conscience, she embarks on a crusade to save the boy, first alerting the boy’s father then confronting her brothers, and, finally, seeking help from a New Orleans cop. When all efforts fail, she steals a handgun and surprises her brothers during their rendezvous with the boy at Candyland—unleashing consequences she never expected or could ever have imagined.
THE BACK STORY: When I conceived of this novel, all I could see in my imagination was the image of a young girl and older man in a small law office in a run-down section of Downtown New Orleans called Tulane Avenue. I had no idea what the plot would eventually be or where these two characters would take us. But I wanted to create a relationship so intense and so fully realized that it would overwhelmed anything else in the book and that, whatever the plot would be, it could never be as important as the humanity between these two individuals. And what I personally got out of it, after Candyland was completed, was that these two characters, despite how wounded and broken and flawed their lives were, created a separate entity through their connection with each other that became finer and more noble than either of their lives could have been without each other.
This novel required a huge amount of research. I had no personal experience with hard drugs or knowledge of the criminal underworld in New Orleans. I did not know much about the personal lives of the Puerto Rican people living in New Orleans or about the personalities of Hispanic teenage girls, all of which I had to know if this novel were to be believable. But I enjoy doing research, and I believed I could make the story convincing if I worked hard enough. What drove me on was the need to create a believable environment to spotlight the complicated relationship between the 17-year-old Lazara Maria Soto and her overweight, alcoholic, 45-year-old boss, Eric Hutchins.
WHY THIS TITLE? Candyland is the street name for the makeshift lab where Lazara’s parents cook crystal meth. It is located in the neighborhood of New Orleans known as Treme. I originally wanted to name the novel, Rendezvous in Candyland, because the lab is where the critical action of the story takes place, but my mentor thought that such a title sounded too much like the title of a romance novel. Candyland is crime fiction.
REVIEW COMMENTS: Review in Antigravity, Vol. 14, No 4, on April 2016: “As thrillers go, Candyland is a standout mainly for its main character, one Lazara Maria Soto, a teenager who aspires to pull herself out of the orbit of her drug making and dealing family any way she can, as long as it’s legal . . . Salloum keeps Lazara burning bright with purpose and chutzpah throughout her tale of the seamier side of New Orleans . . .” –Leigh Checkman
AUTHOR PROFILE: I was a staff writer for three newspapers before I began writing fiction in my late 30s. I had no idea what I was doing when I first started writing short stories and was filled with anxiety when faced with a blank piece of paper. Through some miracle, I pushed through my fear, finished some short stories, sent them out with the fervor of a maniac, and received a million rejections. But I didn’t permit myself to stop what I was doing. Like a fool, I forged on. I think God was telling me that fiction writing was my true mission in life and not to get discouraged. Today, three of my novels have been published—all by reputable publications that I respect. In September 2015, my husband of 23 years died. My husband is the inspiration for the main character in the new novel I am currently writing, titled Waiting for You at Midnight.
SAMPLE CHAPTER IN CANDYLAND:
Seated at the farthest end of the bar, a fat black lady lip-synced lyrics to R&B blasting from the jukebox. She looked down at a Styrofoam carton. She reached in, pulled out a po’boy, and hungrily began to eat.
“My ex-wife just got engaged to a mortician,” a man declared. He sat at the opposite end of the bar from the fat black lady, talking to a bartender. Lázara sat down beside him. “And my ex-girlfriend just got engaged to a gay guy.”
The bartender wiped the counter clean. “What the hell was going on in the complex last night?” he asked.
“Sounded like a domestic squabble,” the man surmised. “Shit, I don’t get mixed up in those things anymore.”
The bartender walked away, leaving the man alone. The name of the bar was Ninth Circle. The man next to Lázara was stocky. About thirty-five years old, wearing jeans and a green shirt, he raised his eyes to the ceiling beams and then, hesitating, at loose ends, searched around for his former companion, who, from behind the bar, stood nearest the entrance door, stretching out his arms. The bartender was welcoming a woman who’d greeted him from outside the building. He wore a grey silky shirt hanging over his pants and there was a stain near the buttons midway down his chest. The woman rushed into the establishment, kissed him, and headed back out.
“See you, Smiley.” The bartender waved.
“See you, baby,” she waved back.
High above the door on the Decatur Street side hung a large red STOP sign, with other signs surrounding it: “Exit,” “Rodeo Drive,” “Cynthia Street.” Beneath them, the door opened. A man walked in. Behind him, a taxi moved in the street followed by a truck and a dark gray Nissan Titan. The man seemed cool to Lázara, a kick-ass kind of guy, with thick neck, tight abs, brown eyes and wavy hair. He looked tough, secretive, complete within himself, and as he proceeded along the aisle, his gaze fixed on Lázara. He stood there for a moment staring at her before moving on toward the video poker machine.
He sat on a stool near the wall and played. Lázara stared at the back of his head before remembering herself and turning back. She thought him the sexiest man alive, the sexiest she’d come across since she began noticing sexy guys, the only comparison coming immediately to mind Mark Walhberg in a boxing movie, only this man was taller. Not only did he have the actor’s rugged face, there was something else about him, she didn’t know how to describe it, that could make him a homicidal
maniac or the greatest lover who ever lived, she didn’t have a clue which. He seemed aloof, almost dangerous, but oozing with macho sensuality.
Lázara was never opposed to sex. Most guys who tried to mess with her she was ready to kick their asses. They were disrespectful little punks, twisted, slick jerk-off types, nobodies and losers, like her demented brother, Delmar. But not all of them were that way. Every once in a while a good guy would come along, smart, sexy, like this one, someone she could get tight with, someone to ease her loneliness. Someone to remind her she was someone in the world. Someone special, to be wanted—wanted and cherished and loved. And as her eyes roamed over this one, she hoped he was also someone she could respect, but he wasn’t looking her way.
The bartender stood over her. She ordered a Virgin Mary. In the farthest corner of the bar, the fat, black lady held a cell phone to her ear. She put it away, finished off her sandwich, and heftily got off her stool. She turned, opened the door to the john behind her, exposing blazing orange walls and a melon-sized lighted bulb above a black soap dispenser. She was only inside a few minutes before flinging the door open and making her way out, cruising down the long, narrow aisle heading for the Decatur Street entrance, moving past the gorgeous hunk. And as she moved to get past him, the gorgeous hunk got up and followed her. But when the fat, black lady exited the bar and headed out into the street, the hunk stopped before Lázara. He sat down on a stool beside her. He ordered a scotch and soda.
“Hello,” he said.
He looked at her, appraisingly, but still there was that coldness—distance—that wasn’t easy to figure out. He was so pumped up, so muscular, so completely super fit, she believed he might have been in the military once, a Navy SEAL or Marine, or still in the military, out on furlough, if he wasn’t too old. He looked to be in his late thirties, someone for whom the fear of danger didn’t exist. He was some super elevated commando type with some part of himself missing or some extra part added in, giving him extra
measures of courage, a man not unlikely to fight terrorists or pirates—a warrior—as she herself fought criminals, or tried to, anyway, and sitting next to him gave her a thrill.
“Hello,” she said to him.
He drained his glass.
“Wanna go somewhere quiet? Get out of here and talk?”
Ordinarily, that would not be the thing she’d do. She’d never done that in her life before. She’d rather have stayed with him at the bar. But if she’d said no and he’d left alone without her, where would she be then? She needed him more than he needed her. And so, quietly, by his side, she walked through Pirate’s Alley, got in his truck on Bourbon Street. Someone to look up to, keep her company before her final hour, and so they drove off in the night. During the entire ride, he never spoke. She searched her mind for things to say but couldn’t think of anything. And so she never spoke to him. He left Bourbon heading for Esplanade Avenue, stopping his red Silverado in front of an old apartment house. It was at the corner of North Robertson Street. Together, they climbed the rickety stairs up to his place, and it was on the second floor with a balcony. He gave her a scotch and soda, didn’t ask what she wanted, and handed her another after she’d finished off her first, and after he’d drunk a couple more himself, after their glasses were completely empty, he led her to the bedroom.
They kissed on the bed, lying down. She could smell his whiskey breath but it didn’t matter and they did other things together and, eventually, when it went too far, taking on an urgency that alarmed her with its roughness and lack of regard for her, she tried pushing him off. The more she struggled the rougher he became, long ago forgetting her, some animal instinct kicking in, till she was begging him to get off of her. Before he ignored her, before everything turned strange, before everything turned violent,
she’d wanted in the worst way to keep him there, for that moment of love to last, to imagine the man he was, good and strong and kind, to have him to cherish forever, or for as long as she had left, something in her life to treasure, the source of her belief and trust. And when her eyes fully opened and she saw what he became, saw what he’d always been, she was disturbed, trapped and angry and violated, but she never was really scared.
He lay back in bed. She put on her clothes. She picked up her purse, got out her brother’s Glock. She aimed it at him. She wanted to see what fear looked like in him. But he wasn’t scared. He was curious and energized, as if a snake roamed through his insides, electrifying his soul, but he never once looked scared. She wondered if she would have to shoot him, go to that great length to see what fear looked like in him. But she’d throw off that little mischief in somebody else’s face. Let them push that little red wagon. That’s what Patti Miller’s mamá said to Patti once when she complained about a classmate. “That’s her little red wagon.” The man looked like he wanted to grab her, push her head down under a pillow till she breathed her dying breath and was silenced and lay still, like Delmar tried to do, like Mr. Hutchins looked like he wanted to, only she knew this man really would. But she was too far away for him to leap at her.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Dominic, little girl.”
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t shoot you.”
“You’re pretty.” He locked his hands behind his head and grinned. “But you shouldn’t get in bed with strangers.”
She noticed the rise and fall of his chest. She should have killed him then. Instead, she stepped backwards toward the door, cautiously, moving stealthily down the stairs, looking back every now and
then till she reached the deserted street. She staggered into the cold raw night and it hurt, her jaw, ribs, and so badly below she could barely stand, much less move. She was utterly sapped of energy. She felt the familiar wave of dizziness and pressed through the exhaustion, remembering what she had to do, had somehow forgotten, but totally remembered now.
And why was she doing it, for a boy she didn’t know? A boy she’d never even held a conversation with? Wouldn’t listen even if she begged? She remembered a World War II hero, in the First Infantry Division in Italy in the thick of the fighting, who was explaining to her class all he’d been through in war: the bitter freezing cold, the bullets raining down, the sleeping in the icy trenches. And someone raised his hand and asked what had it been like? He said he’d wanted to die, just get it over with and die.
And that’s what she wanted: get it over with and die. And why was she doing it? She thought of all the reasons it made sense to give it up: an ex-boss who didn’t believe her, cops who didn’t give a shit, parents who were in it for the money, a stoned-out, freak of a brother, a pathetically weak other brother. And then she thought of why it would be unthinkable to retreat from this dark night. And why was she doing it? For what? Patti? And now it came to her. All those days she should have warned her to stay away from her psycho brother. But she took the easy way out. Didn’t want Delmar to beat her up. And so she did nothing. Stayed away. Avoided Patti more times than not. And soon enough, the girl died. And what more was there to think about? Except she thought about it every day.
As she made her way down Esplanade to Henriette Delille Street, the epiphany wrapped itself around her: how evanescent life was, how short her time on earth. She’d read Hemingway’s novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and when his character Robert Jordan thought to himself, instead of having threescore years to live, maybe he had threescore hours to live, she knew what he meant by that. She knew. She knew. And she also could relate to another part of the book, remembering the fascist
lieutenant saying to himself after killing off the communists, Qué cosa más mala es la guerra, which meant, “What a bad thing war is.”
She trekked the three blocks to Candyland in the pitchdark pool of night.
LOCAL OUTLETS: Maple Street Book Store; Crescent City Books, both in New Orleans.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.