Four days before the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists, Jim Troxler caught a United flight from Los Angeles to New York. This was September 7, 2001. Bad things had not yet happened, so it was business as usual in the land of the free. Bush had proved tough on third world racism and the environment, Tiger Woods was on the cover of Time, and the Regis Philbin gameshow, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? had briefly captured the heart of America, spawning the catchphrase "is that your final answer?" which was deployed with much rueful humor in financial circles ever since the Nasdaq took a dive and showed no sign of bouncing back.
Troxler had been awake for fourteen hours. The previous morning, he had boarded an intercontinental flight from Melbourne, Australia, where he had lived for the past five years, and flown to Los Angeles via New Caledonia. A hellish stopover at LAX, then six more hours in the air to New York, most of which were spent listening to a cunning rock spider of a woman named Joyce, who trapped him at the start of the in-flight movie and didn't let up until the plane was on the tarmac. Joyce, it transpired, was an alcoholic who had not touched alcohol in fifteen years.
Troxler's visit to the States was motivated by a series of urgent email messages from his younger brother, Martin, the meat of which concerned their father, a practicing alcoholic from the old school of two-fisted, unapologetic alcoholism, who had finally succumbed to cancer and was understandably pissed-off about it, to the point of demanding a closing ceremony with fireworks at the old family home in Fern Grove, Fort Lauderdale. Exactly why this necessitated a flight to New York instead of Florida was something of a mystery. Despite their urgency, Martin's emails had been cryptic. The brothers needed to talk. Some heavy shit was going down. Interestingly, the heavy shit quotient of these messages was referred to in a kind of frantic subtext; the main subject of Martin's emails being the performance specs of the brand-new Audi Quattro he had recently acquired, and the course of action he was proposing (and which Troxler had provisionally agreed to) was that the brothers hook up in New York and drive down to Fort Lauderdale. The old man would be discussed. The heavy shit would be resolved. A road trip. In the Audi. Which was, apparently, Heaven on Wheels.
The United flight was half empty, the plane a Boeing 767. Standard three-four-three seating configuration. Plenty of seats to go around. Anticipating a clear view of Manhattan, Troxler had secured himself a window seat at the right-hand rear of the aircraft, his little porthole unobscured by wing. He had his blanket and pillow. He was savagely tired. And here was Joyce, peering around from the seat in front of him, talking through the headrests, then actually getting up and switching rows. A big woman. Midwestern. Her name was Joyce, she was sitting beside him, and --
"Why do you consider yourself an alcoholic if you haven't touched booze in fifteen years?" he had asked.
A twelve-step litany ensued. Alcohol had brought Joyce to the brink of ruin. Alcohol, in fact, had taken Joyce beyond the brink. Way, way beyond. She had been out there. On the slippery slope. Drinking drinking drinking. Joyce could have been anywhere between forty-five and sixty. She described the alcoholism of her past in practiced soundbites. She was a bad wife, a bad mother. She did things, bad things. The details were hazy, not that Troxler needed details - his dad, after all, had played for the majors - but the odd thing about Joyce was that she didn't let up. There was no end to her badness. No point in the narrative where she saw the light and quit. Fifteen years had passed, and yet here she was, on the verge of tears, reliving the halcyon days of her old life as a booze hound. How very strange. On the projection board in front of them, the War in the Pacific played itself out, and it looked for all the world like the U.S. Navy was winning. The carnage was high-gloss and cinematic, the scope of production affording director Michael Bay the opportunity to blow things up on a truly epic scale, and as the film progressed, many great, gouting fireballs of destruction blossomed like flowers on the video screen.
The Manhattan skyline was somewhere to their right. The plane had banked above Long Island and was curving down into Kennedy. Joyce was still talking, her voice husky with use, imploring Troxler to look at her, look at her, not the New York City skyline which would still be there tomorrow. She had stayed in his face for several hours, punishing herself for his benefit, and yet the true, harrowing sadness of her account came with the shuffling of tray tables and the fasten seatbelts sign, and the sudden realization that fifteen-year-old alcoholism was all Joyce had to offer. Nothing of interest had happened since. Alcoholics Anonymous had given her the courage and the script, Jerry Springer the belief in the importance of her story. It was self-help in the truest sense. She had debased herself in the eyes of a stranger. The effect was cleansing. It was time to move on.
"And what about you?" she asked. "What brings you to New York?"
They were standing at the luggage carousel. Troxler's bags had appeared and he was tracking them.
"Good question," he replied.
The airport lighting was surreal. Uniformed black guys guarded the handcarts, the idea being that they would cart your luggage for you if your luggage required carting -- presumably for a tip. Joyce was smiling at him, her eyes wide open, blinking in the slow rhythm of someone chewing gum. It was a distancing gesture. The wide eyes and slow blinking meant "please go away now," and Troxler was happy to oblige.
"Here's my luggage," he pointed out.
"You're a very perceptive and intelligent young man," Joyce said warmly. "It's been a real pleasure speaking with you."
Jim Troxler was thirty-six years old. Unlike his younger brother, who had inherited the old man's swagger and charm, he had channeled the family genes into his work, and had developed a quiet intensity that kept him somehow in the background. You switched him on, he hummed like a refrigerator. A reassuring noise you noticed only when it stopped. In the five years he'd lived in Australia, this was the first time he had returned to the States, for the simple reason that the work demanded it. He too had been out there. On the slippery slope. He was one of those guys who took karate to relax.
This business with his father, then, was something of a wake-up call, because there was no way the old man would willingly concede to death. That would involve losing, and his dad never lost. His dad - who both sons considered to be one of the more interesting and colorful and frightening people on the planet; who continued to astonish and excel at a disparate range of careers (highlights including insurance salesman, race-car driver, security consultant, and, of course, bartender), the whole time taking down an inhuman amount of booze - was something of a legend when it came to not losing. He never gambled (gambling was for losers), borrowed money, or went to church (for losers), took shit from his bosses (a pack of losers, many of whom he had set straight over the years), or died, the idea of death being as inconceivable as some big midwestern woman on a plane wanting to talk for three hours about life off the wagon. Yet here it was. Tough old Alan Troxler from Red Hook, Brooklyn. Ass-kicked by cancer. So now it was time to take stock of the legacy: the clapped-out house on the best street in Fern Grove; the impressive but clapped-out collection of cars; the devastatingly beautiful but hard-boiled and defiantly clapped-out former Miss Miami, Dottie Troxler (née Harris); and the semi-famous younger brother, Martin, who, despite assurances that he would be here at the gate, was not at the gate. Which was no surprise, really.
A billboard-sized photograph of Steve McQueen in his Le Mans racing gear covered an entire wall of the arrivals area, and as Troxler carried his heavy bags past it, he couldn't help smiling at the thought of his dad. Two Corvettes in the driveway. Fabulous windblown hair. And yet like McQueen, especially in his Le Mans period - Le Mans being an out of control vanity project that cost many people in seventies Hollywood their jobs - what it came down to was the idea of fast-lane living. McQueen had no clue what his film was about. All he knew was that it revolved around a famous car race in France, which he would presumably win on account of being the hero, and that it gave him occasion to wear a cool-looking outfit. Plot, character development, story arc, believability: these things were not important in the case of Le Mans. It was McQueen. In an outfit. Squinting at the camera in a portentous but otherwise meaningless collection of iconic moments, one of which the Tag Heuer people would freeze-frame and blow up a quarter century later, displaying it prominently on an airport wall as a symbol of success.
Was the old man successful? If McQueen was the role model, the answer was yes. McQueen was bigger than Le Mans. He had walked from the wreckage, leaving a stunned and bankrupt pit crew to quell the flames behind him, and he had looked damn good walking. There was something heroic about the way he left the site. In much the same way, Alan Troxler was a legend in Fort Lauderdale. He was an expert at walking from wreckage. Years of disaster had not only untouched him, they had somehow enhanced his thrillseeker cachet. He felt zero remorse. You did business with him, you were basically employing him to take your risks, which meant you were too much of a pussy to take them yourself, which put you somehow in his debt. This was the logic, take it or leave it, and, oddly enough, the phones kept ringing. Despite evidence to the contrary, people didn't just believe; they wanted a participatory role in Alan Troxler's mythic life. And thus Le Mans. Old man Troxler and his cars, his beautiful wife, and a forty-year career trajectory that was one huge racing skid from Brooklyn to the Sun Belt. Twisted metal and glass. The inevitability of collision. The engine whine and freefall. Seconds, hours, days before the crash.
This book takes place in that moment of freefall, in a similar environment of zero remorse. The crash we were expecting occurred in April 2000, and it was routinely huge and horrible. The dot-com economy imploded. Many people lost their shirts. In New York, the wreckage was largely metaphoric, resulting in a lot of would-be millionaires not becoming millionaires, and a lot of on-paper wealth disappearing overnight. It was different in the heartland, where houses and farms had been mortgaged on technology, but this wasn't the heartland. This was big city USA. All the great players had walked from wreckage; the hallmark of true greatness being the ability to predict a collision and keep driving toward it, increasing acceleration and reaping profit all the way, and then selling like mad at the point of impact. Like U.S. foreign policy, the economic big picture was driven by so many short-term agendas and high-risk plays that the resulting crash was not only inevitable but necessary (and, if you listen to the rationalists, desirable) in terms of creating the kind of supercharged environment in which a global rethink might be possible. In which we stopped, by virtue of the accident, and went, "People are getting hurt here. Perhaps it's time we slowed down."
The old man's closing ceremony was symptomatic of this - the onset of death being a particularly good conduit for change - although Jim Troxler could no more imagine the old man sitting up in bed and saying, "Jim, Marty, I've been wrong all these years," than he could the Tag Heuer people going, "That McQueen movie sucked." And yet these emails from his brother...impossible to decipher, but very much in the language of mortality. His brother sounded spooked. Five years of scant communication, and suddenly these long, rambling, confrontational emails that really did suggest some kind of crisis of belief. His wheels had left the tarmac. He was in freefall. And, in sharp contrast to his dad, who had crashed and walked so many times that the act of crashing and walking was nothing new, Martin Troxler had yet to hit the wall himself. Dot com hadn't touched him. He was there for the crash, but it wasn't his crash, so he got to hang loose and party guiltlessly in the wreckage. Party being the operative word because the truly creepy thing about the economic flatline was that there was still a lot of money around. Share prices had fallen, but there were millions of dollars of as yet unassigned venture capital and company assets to play with, and if you were remorseless - that is to say, if you figured all those people in the heartland were a bunch of fucking pussies without the wherewithal and guts to make their farms work themselves - it was an easy job to make this money disappear. From the top to the bottom of the food chain, enterprising New Yorkers squirreled wealth from the wreckage, the mentality being that if they didn't, someone else would, and why should that someone else get all the breaks? Dog eat dog world, pal. Can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Is that your final answer? Yes it is.
September 7 was a Friday, the big party night in NYC. Young men and women would soon be suiting up and preparing to hit the clubs. Booze would be consumed. Drugs taken. This was a typical night out in the final days of dot com, and yet for Jim and Martin Troxler, the evening would prove significant in ways that had less to do with money and more to do with their given outlooks on life.
Jim the idealist. Martin the pragmatist. Both in freefall as a result of their dad, and both on the verge of a serious flameout. The old man's DNA was combustible. Both sons were pushing their respective envelopes, and the next fifteen hours would turn the evening white hot. In the next fifteen hours, the environment would turn critical and a directional change would somehow be achieved, but not before the younger Troxler had set himself on fire. Martin Troxler would hit the wall, there'd be wreckage galore, and the old man's demons would stand grinning in the flames.
The question, then, was whether to face them.
Whether to stay at the site and hose those demons down.
Copyright © 2003 by Howard Hunt
Young Men on Fire
On the trawl from one bar to another, Jim watches Martin and his pals boozing, ingesting drugs, dancing badly, and jostling for hipness. Soon the men have picked up no fewer than five women -- two marketing chicks who speedload their cigarettes, two husband hunters, and the young, naive, and fabulous Zebra Hat Girl. Then, palming cash and talking trash, the group ends up on an enormous party boat circling Manhattan. The boat is filled with hundreds of young, sexed-up New Yorkers -- all ecstatically unaware that in four days the World Trade Center will be destroyed and their never-ending party will be over. But before then -- by the next morning -- Jim Troxler will be changed forever.
Howard Hunt's Young Men on Fire is a brilliant portrait of the desires and deceptions that fueled the great American boom. At once laugh-out-loud funny and shrewdly perceptive, it introduces an exciting new voice in contemporary writing.