book excerpt

Read an Annotated Excerpt From Adam Sternbergh’s Near Enemy

Last week, Shovel Ready, the crime novel about a garbage-man turned hit-man in a near-future dystopian New York, written by Vulture contributing editor Adam Sternbergh, was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Here, we asked Sternbergh to annotate a short excerpt from the sequel, Near Enemy, which was published earlier this month — including thoughts on history’s first murder, the dubious appeal of Pepé Le Pew, and just how crazy New York apartment locks used to be.

This used to be a city of locksOriginally, this line, which is now the first line of Chapter 2, was the very first line in the novel. I still like it as a potential opening line — and I have a real fetish for great opening lines — but I eventually decided to start the novel with an extremely short Chapter 1. (It’s eight lines and 54 words long.) I really enjoy when books throw you directly into the action with a punchy opening. The punchiest opening ever, in all likelihood, is the one for Don Winslow’s Savages, which notoriously starts with a first chapter that reads, in its entirety: “Fuck you.” Depending on your temperament, that’s either grating or exhilarating (I lean toward the latter), but it definitely gets your attention..

Every home, at least five, down the door, like a vault.

Chain lock.

Rim lock.

Fox lockThese are all real kinds of locks. The Fox Lock, also known as a Police Lock (or the Fox Police Lock), was designed by a German immigrant and Staten Island resident, Emiel Fox, at the turn of the 19th century. In the most popular iteration of the Fox Lock, when you turn a key, two horizontal bars bolted to the middle of the door extend out into the door’s frame. (There’s another variation of Fox’s Police Lock that involves a metal bar that’s propped on an angle against the door itself.) The Fox is a serious, badass lock, and a fixture of movies and TV shows about New York in the 1970s — the kinds of shows where New Yorkers would come home, then ritually twist and secure multiple locks as if they lived inside Fort Knox. (At this lock-selling site, the Fox Lock is introduced with the line, “This lock has to be the ultimate prop if you are making a movie about NY City,” which is true.) As a kid growing up far away from New York City, that ritual — the Locking of the Locks — seemed emblematic to me of what life in chaotic, lawless, crime-ridden New York must be like..


Funny name, that last one.

Dead. Bolt.

Neither word exactly conjures security.

But no one bothers with that many locks in New York anymore. City’s safer. Or at least emptier. No end of vacancies. And no one bothers to burgle anymore. Nothing left to burgleThis is an homage, which veers toward plagiarism, to one of my favorite sections from Martin Amis’s London Fields: “Indeed, burgling, when viewed in Darwinian terms, was clearly approaching a crisis. Burglars were finding that almost everywhere had been burgled. Burglars were forever bumping into one another, stepping on the toes of other burglars. There were burglar jams on rooftops and stairways, on groaning fire-escapes. Burglars were being burgled by fellow burglars, and were doing the same thing back.” The moral of the story: The word burgle is inherently funny, and it gets more funny the more times you say/read it.. Everything’s picked clean, and anyone who still lives in Manhattan and has something of real value to protect — family, dignity, vintage baseball-card collection — does it with a shotgun, not a deadbolt. So the real problem, for the burglar, isn’t getting in. It’s getting back out.

After all, if you apply enough force, deadbolts give.

Shotguns takeBasically, my ongoing authorial goal is to create a single sentence that has as much impact as a really good action-movie-poster tagline. The preceding sentence is not entirely true, but it’s not entirely not true. Either way, I like this sentence: It comes pretty close..

The richest folk still have lots of fancy stuff, of course. They just don’t keep most of that fancy stuff out here.

Out here, all they need is a bed and a connection.

Everything else they keep in the limn.

And if you’re that rich, rich enough to go off-body all day, to tap in and slip away into the limnosphere, then you probably live in a glass tower somewhere, sealed up tight, behind code locks and round-the-clock doormenIn the world of Shovel Ready and Near Enemy, doormen exist like paramilitaristic personal bodyguards who also wear epaulets. who watch the street with shotguns propped on their knees.

Where you don’t live, if you’re rich, is in a place like this: a squat, sprawling, crumbling tenement complex like Stuyvesant Town. A few dozen forlorn lowrise apartment buildings scattered over several city blocks on the east side of downtown Manhattan, just close enough to the waterfront to smell the river. Brick towers clustered around central courtyards, grass long ago scoured to brown. Communal playgrounds left to ruin, slides warped, swings hanging lopsided on one chain, iron rockinghorses splotched with raw-rust sores, stricken by some rockinghorse plague. The apartment buildings themselves are about as inviting as a low-security prison, except without the tennis courts or fences or guards to give a shit if anyone tries to escape.

Now everyone’s escaped.

Courtyard’s a ghost town.

Lobby left wide open.

Waltz right in.

Stuyvesant Town was built decades ago for the middle class, back when there was such a thing as a middle class. Eventually sold by the city to private interests. Left to rot after Times SquareOne of the most fun things about these novels is taking iconic New York landmarks and imagining their decline into ruin. To me, Stuyvesant Town is iconic in a different way, and imagining its decline felt more melancholic. It was built as a sprawling community for the middle class by private interests with heavy public support; then it was sold for billions to developers in 2006, which seemed like yet another indication of the changing nature of a Manhattan recently beset by soaring residential prices. In spirit, anyway, Stuyvesant Town, or the ethos that built it, is already gone.. Now basically a free-for-all, home to squatters, deadbeats, homesteaders, claim-jumpers, freeloaders and bed-hoppers.

It’s that last kind I’m after, by the way.


One hopper in particular.

I have to admit. I miss this.

I’ve been distracted lately. On a kind of hiatus. Family business. Since I seem to have a family now. Of sorts.

It’s complicated.

But this?

This is simple.

You ask. I act.

Cause and consequence. Old as Cain and AbelHistory’s first murder, and history’s first murder victim. History’s first crime, really. Basically, Cain invented murder.. Old as the universe.

And not many things feel that simple anymore. Not in my life. Not in New York. Not in the universe.

Save this.

You may think it’s cold and cruel, and you’re right. On both counts.

Cold and cruel.

But then again, so is the universe.

Just ask it.

Apartment number scrawled on the scrap next to Lesser’s name.

2BIf you have to include an apartment number and a character is potentially about to lose his life, and you’re prone to corny allusions to Hamlet, this is obviously your one and only option..

End of the hall, under a failing fluorescent.

Turns out our friend Lesser’s less trusting than most. Has double deadbolts and a rim lock besides. So I pull out the lock-picking tools I keep hidden in my hair—


Heft a twelve-pound sledge from my duffel bag.

Let the duffel drop.

Before I swing, I spot a business card wedged in the doorjambI was really glad to include this detail, because even though I’m sure it happens in lots of cities, I feel like the phenomenon of various business cards — for gypsy cabs, locksmiths, Mexican takeout joints — being jammed into your doorframe, only to flutter down and cover your welcome mat, is a distinctly New York phenomenon..

Pluck the card out.

Read it.


No number.

No nothing.

Just Pushbroom.

I pocket it.

Get back to work.

Heft the sledge.

Open Sesame.

Knock three times.

Jamb gives first.

Thank God for cheap doorframes and negligent landlords. And neighbors who know which noises to ignore.

I kick the door in, then wonder if Lesser’s got company.

Don’t have to worry about waking LesserFun fact: This character takes his surname from Harry Lesser, the main character in Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants. The two characters don’t share many characteristics beyond that, but I like the idea that all things that happen in Fictional New York take place in the same city, and all the people are somehow interconnected. Like maybe these guys are distant relatives. And maybe Spider-Man will show up, hanging upside-down outside the window.. He’s a notoriously heavy sleeper. Not the picture of health, either. He’s fat, and generally smells like there’s places he can’t reach to wash.

I’ve never met him, but Lesser has something of a reputation, at least with the hard-core tap-in crowd. Some kind of whiz kid, used to be a hotshot at something. But he pissed it all away to become a bed-hopper, waste his days peeping on other people’s dreams.

Inside the apartment, I hear snoring. I follow it down the hallway, like Pepé Le Pew trailing perfume.

I used to love Bugs Bunny cartoons as a kid. Wascally wabbit.

Hated the Coyote though. Really hated the Road Runner.

That was some pointless desert bullshit.

Le Pew I could take or leaveThis passage mirrors exactly my actual feelings about Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, the Coyote, and Pepé Le Pew. Don’t get me started on Foghorn Leghorn..

I find the bedroom. Nudge the door.

No furniture. One visitor. Skinny kid, junkie thin. Camped out bedside, watching Lesser, like a worried relative on vigil.

Lesser’s bed is no more than a cot. Coils of wires, homemade solder-job, like a grade-school science project gone awry.

Bought myself a word-a-day calendar, by the way.

Awry. Yesterday’s wordAn ongoing theme in both Shovel Ready and Near Enemy is Spademan’s self-directed attempts to expand his vocabulary, which is mostly an excuse for me to plausibly incorporate fun words like awry..

Lesser’s under, snoozing in the dream. Occasional snorts let us know he’s still alive.

Light in the room is the color of rusty water. Newsprint for curtains. All the windows papered overHonest to God, this apartment is inspired by an actual basement apartment I looked at renting many years ago in Toronto, which had newspaper over the windows, a carpet of mold in the shower, and generally felt like a safehouse for desperate mob informants on the lam. I passed.. Old headlines scream at the world unheeded, like crazy sidewalk prophets.

The End Is NighTo be continued!.

Read an Annotated Excerpt From Near Enemy