It’s no surprise to hear that Tim McLoughlin found inspiration for his first novel, Heart of the Old Country, in his own life. Many novelists, first-timers and otherwise, mine their own experiences for fiction fodder. Luckily for McLoughlin and his readers, however, his life was more interesting than most.
The book recounts a few weeks in the life of Mike, a Brooklyn guy in his early 20s who still lives with his dad and is toying with college, but who really seems most at home with his buddies in the neighborhood. He drives for an illegal car service with his friend, Nicky Shades, to make some cash, which loosely connects him with some low-level mob types, his long-suffering girlfriend wants him to put a ring on her finger, and his father seems more like a wisecracking chum than an authority figure.
Mike sees something that he probably shouldn’t have and gets tangled up a bit more than is prudent with the neighborhood gangsters. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be the point at which the tension and action are laid on thick lest the reader lose interest. But McLoughlin has a deft hand, realizing that most people never experience terrific moments of violence and mayhem. He keeps things at a slow boil the rest of the way, using his story to explore the depths of character, not to shoot people and blow stuff up.
On the phone from his Brooklyn home, the 42-year-old writer is humble about the impact of his first book. “I haven’t done anything before,” McLoughlin says. “I hadn’t pursued writing since college. I dropped out of NYU, and worked as a court officer. It’s too early to say if that’s my writing style because I haven’t done anything else.”
While McLoughlin downplays his path to writing, it seems clear that it is that time spent not writing that, when it came time to put pen to paper, made his story so compellingly true-to-life. McLoughlin based much of his novel on his own twenties, which gives the book a gritty realism that belies his newness as a writer. Like Mike, McLoughlin dropped out of college and drove for a car service, serving for five years behind the wheel of an illegal car. “What happened in real life was that my father had a heart attack while I was attending college,” he says. “I dropped out that year and took the job at the car service across the street. It was priceless. It was a real interesting period of time.” Back in the ‘70s you could still get away with such work, he says: “It was so much more informal. You couldn’t do it today.”
That experience allows McLoughlin to accurately convey the boasting banter of the drivers and the long, languid days spent playing cards while waiting for the next call to come. His book reads like a mixture of documentary non-fiction and Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” a gangster story with none of its usual trappings. The most compelling incident in the book, where Mike sits by while someone is killed, was drawn from an incident in McLoughlin’s neighborhood when he was young. A man was beaten to death and left with his eyes popped out of his head and placed on the sunglasses he was wearing. McLoughlin adapts that to fit his story, and again, it gives his fiction a realistic pop, his crackling, stripped-down prose more powerful than the usual hyper-stylized writing most authors would use in a similar situation.
McLoughlin began thinking about writing when his job started to wear on him: “I felt I was losing my mind. I decided I was going to go back to school or write seriously.” A program at the YMCA for writers seemed like the solution. To get into a class with author Kaylie Jones (A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries), he had to submit a five-page story. “I decided if I got accepted, I’d do it.” He did, and the result is Heart of the Old Country. “I wrote at least the first draft in the program,” he says.
It took one more step before the book became reality. McLoughlin’s tale isn’t the type of thing large publishers clamor for, so he had to look elsewhere for publication. “The problem is any time you talk to someone in the mainstream press, they ask ‘well, is it a mystery? A coming of age story?’ Yeah, there’s something you have to figure out, and it’s about a young guy, but I wouldn’t drop it into a category.” Enter Akashic Books, run by Johnny Temple from the New York band Girls vs. Boys. McLoughlin met Temple through Henry Flesh, an author in his YMCA group. Flesh had published a novel through Akashic and introduced McLoughlin. “We hit it off immediately,” he says.
If the small publisher offered a leg up for McLoughlin, it looks like he will be able to return the favor. His book was recently selected for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover New Writers” program. That means Heart of the Old Country will be on display at bookstores around the country. “I’m pretty pleased,” McLoughlin said the day he learned of the selection. “It’s neat. It’s wholly unexpected.”
It’s also quite a career trajectory for an author who came to writing later in life, one who, when asked about his writing style, replies “it’s just the way it turned out,” and says he simply read a lot of Hubert Selby.
McLoughlin is working on a second book, again sticking close to home with a story about an Irish kid growing up in Brooklyn. This one does so in a predominantly Spanish neighborhood, returning after he becomes a successful graphic artist in Manhattan to take a tour of his hearly life. Because he sticks close to home with his writing, one might think McLoughlin should tackle non-fiction someday, as the material is obviously there, but McLoughlin disagrees. “I don’t think I really have the confidence to tackle non-fiction,” he says. “And all the short stories I’ve written this new book included always seem to reach into novel length.”
So McLoughlin will continue his job as a court officer, though it is likely with reluctance in Heart of the Old Country, Mike is tormented by court officers when he has to go to court to stand up for his Dad. McLoughlin said he patterned one of them on himself. “That’s why I have Mike walk away saying ‘what a miserable fucking way to make a living,’” he laughs and he will continue to write, something he long hoped he could do professionally, but often wondered if he would. “I think I would have always hoped it, but until I was 35 I didn’t have the discipline. I wouldn’t have logged the hours,” he says. “I can’t tell you what corner I’ve turned. Now it’s just an adventure. The doing is more fun.”