By A.J. May | Photograph by Danielle Debley
The cliché is that if you want to be a successful novelist, you have to start young. Stephen King was 20 when his first novel was published. Victor Hugo was 21. Dostoevsky bloomed slowly, first appearing in print at age 25.
But lots of novelists were slow starters. James Michener was in his 40s before he started publishing. Anthony Burgess was 51 when A Clockwork Orange hit the bookshelves. Raymond Chandler was in his 40s before penning The Big Sleep. And Frank McCourt carried around the unfinished manuscript for Angela’s Ashes until he finally published it at age 66.
So Harrisburg’s Joel R. Burcat may be unusual but not unique for waiting until is sixth decade on Planet Earth before adding the phrase “published novelist” to his LinkedIn page, just after the summary of his 39 year career of practicing law. The reference notes the release of his first novel, an environmental thriller, published by Headline Books, perhaps the nation’s top independent publishing house.
Titled Drink to Every Beast (a reference to Psalm 104), the book has something for every reader — good guys chasing bad guys, lots of surprising plot turns, not one but two love interests, and enough of Pennsylvania geography to tantalize folks into thinking, “Hey, I know the restaurant he’s talking about” even though the book begins with a disclaimer that it is a thorough work of fiction.
That’s not to say that the events related never occurred. The book is fascinating because it’s constructed on a foundation of factoids and vignettes collected by Burcat over the years as a physical geography major at Penn State, an assistant state attorney general specializing in environmental law, and as a partner and litigator at two of the state’s top law firms.
The story line reads like a daily newspaper—most people will remember those. On page one, two teenagers go swimming in the Susquehanna River (near Wilkes-Barre, not in Harrisburg). By page 22, both are lying in a local hospital covered with suppurating sores and ravaged lungs. Once you’ve read this far in the book, you’re hooked. Welcome to the growing genre of Amazon offerings, the eco-thriller. From this point on, the average reader will begin to see the story line spool out like the script of a doomsday movie. Bad guys linked to worse guys abuse Mother Nature. People die. Good guys try to make things right but face roadblocks thrown up by “the system.”
It makes a good read but might even be a better movie. Cast James Franco as the idealistic but young Mike Jacobs, armed with a law book and a clear grasp of geology rather than a Glock 19. (Movie rights for the book, just coming off the presses in May, haven’t been optioned yet.)
The eco-thriller is a growing niche in book publishing. The events chronicled in Drink to Every Beast reflect recent history in Pennsylvania. People have polluted water supplies via midnight dumping of hazardous wastes; these substances can kill; landowners threaten environmental inspectors regularly. Burcat calls his book “an environmental-legal thriller,” a sub genre of the eco-thriller. The larger category includes blockbuster authors like Michael Crichton, John Grisham and James Patterson and novels like Jurassic Park and what Burcat calls the “original in the genre,” The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, written in the 1970s.
“I’ve always written – a lot in high school and in college,” said Burcat. “Then as I was beginning to practice (law) almost none. I was too busy. Working crazy hours—60 to 70 hours a week— so there wasn’t a lot of time left over for writing.”
Then, he relates, “I turned 40 and I wrote a short story about it for Harrisburg Magazine. A few years later, maybe 13 years ago, I was stuck in Maine and the weather was horrible and cell phone reception was bad and I was inside so I started writing again.” He produced a number of short stories, publishing many in literary publications. Gradually he turned to novels.
Unlike Raymond Chandler or James Michener, Burcat kept his “day job” and wrote at night at the Riverside Manor house he shared with his wife and two daughters.
“The first draft of Drink to Every Beast was completed in 2011. It went through several rewrites and revisions and then I put it down. Then I completed three more before publishing this. It’s sequel, Amid Rage, is set to come out next year,” said the soft-spoken Burcat. Mike Jacobs, is his intrepid environmental lawyer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. His chief villain next time is “a psychopathic strip mine operator.”
Burcat also enters an even more exclusive pantheon of authors besides the “late bloomer” classification. Due to a debilitating illness, Burcat is now legally blind. It’s a variable affliction affecting ability to see details and a full field of view. He can no longer drive a car; it limits his ability to do the kinds of things that are taken for granted in the practice of law. Fortunately, technology makes it possible for him to continue to create prose. While he can no longer read a traditional “ink on paper” book, he can read a computer screen or hand held device like a Kindle. He composes now using voice recognition software.
Of authors facing vision challenges, the most famous is Homer, the ancient Greek. In modern times, the most notable include James Joyce, the Irish author who suffered from recurring intervals of blindness, and short story writer James Thurber, whose sight was damaged by a childhood accident.
Drink to Every Beast will be released by Amazon.com on May 31. It will also be available through independent booksellers like Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, Cupboard Maker Books in Enola and Aaron’s in Lititz.