I never knew Charlie Huston.
When we were growing up in adjacent East Bay suburbs, I didn’t know him. And when we were both at Chico State, where Charlie used to work with one of my best friends and hang out with one of my newspaper buddies, I still had no idea the guy existed. Even during my destructive run as a local theatre critic for the daily newspaper, I still didn’t know the aspiring actor when I crapped on one of his plays — our mutual friend, who told me 16 years later that Charlie had been in that play, reminds me of how I compared the production to those old Calvin Klein commercials where gorgeous men chanted Greek philosophy into the air. Subsequently referred to amongst artists and actors as “the infamous ‘Obsession’ ad review,” according to our mutual friend (now a successful editor and author), the review apparently popped some vessels in the Theater Department. (Sorry, Charlie. I was scared, confused and on deadline … and they never should’ve made me a critic)
Regardless, I didn’t know anything about the man. Then, in 2005, I read a blurb in the Chico alumni magazine about a guy who’d attended when I had, and who had (unlike me) published his first novel, “Caught Stealing” with Random House. I bought the book immediately; that wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was how quick I tore through the thing — staying up through the night to finish it even though I was the fatigued, sleep-deprived father of two “spirited” boys (1 and 4 at the time) and owner of a pretty consuming job. I loved “Caught Stealing,” and so did a lot of other people, including one dude you may have heard of — Stephen King, who recently called Charlie “one of the most remarkable prose stylists to emerge from the noir tradition in this century.”
Long story short, the unpublished novelist approaches the published novelist, who graciously grants the unpublished novelist invaluable manuscript feedback, publishing advice and email friendship. And the unpublished novelist is thinking, Why couldn’t have I met this guy in Chico? More than a year later, unpublished novelist learns from the mutual friend that the published novelist had been an actor in that “Calvin Klein” play, “The Trial of Socrates,” and the unpublished novelist feels his lunch surging at the base of his throat.
And so now, all these years later, I have an opportunity for redemption. I have a chance to review another one of Charlie’s creative efforts — his new novel, “The Shotgun Rule,” which tells the story of four teens growing up in an East Bay suburb in ’83. And it is my extreme pleasure to report that Charlie, in my view, has penned his most compelling, heartfelt, authentic and engrossing novel yet. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when the book you’re reading captures the average teen-age boy’s life in the Tri-Valley area in ’83, and you were just such a person in ’83. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when the author refers to friends with Mohawks, music hierarchies involving the Dead Kennedy’s, AC Transit/BART trips to the city, eerily quiet neighborhoods in a commuter town and even guards from Amador Valley High (hey, I was a third-string guard on Amador’s frosh team, but I swear I didn’t deal drugs at a Livermore dive bar).
In the end, you realize “The Shotgun Rule” is far more than a page-turner (though, it could stand alone as that). This time around, with this Huston book, there’s so much more. You’re reminded that most fucked-up assholes in school were fucked-up assholes for a reason — and that reason usually had to do with their parents. That most kids with attitude problems were covering pain — and that pain usually came from their homes. That most people who encounter truly horrific violence must deal with its side effects for years. That what kids need most of all is help and support.
“The Shotgun Rule” has spent two weeks on The Los Angeles Times Bestseller List. How it can’t also soon make it to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bestsellers list is beyond me — after all, the story is set in Livermore, and is so relevant to growing up in the East Bay. Regardless, I’d bet some serious cash that this won’t be the last Charlie Huston book you’ll see on a bestseller list.
Congrats, Charlie. You’re a good guy and one badass writer.