A Perjurer's Tale

Questions & Answers about A Perjurer's Tale

Q. Rowley is obviously writing about Boston. So is this fiction at all, or simply Ralph Memolo's interpretation of certain events in Boston's recent political history?

A. I spent 20-plus years in Boston's City Hall. I wasn't a "player" by any means, so this isn't some kind of insider story. On the other hand, I couldn't help but notice some of the things going on around me.

This may not be a particularly elegant way to put it, but I always likened my job, only half-jokingly, to that of a piano player in a brothel. Like any pianist in such an establishment, I didn't have anything to do with what went on upstairs, but I had some idea of what might be taking place up there.

So yes, there are events in the novel that have some rough parallels in Boston's recent political history, notably the busing chapters. There are other instances, however, that only Rowley could write about. I know no parallel, for instance, in Boston politics to Rowley's actions in the chapter, "The Steinberg Heist." In short, Boston's political culture provides a framework of sorts for this novel, but the content, Rowley's memoir, that's all his own.

Indeed, many aspects of the novel that are similar in some way to Boston's recent political history are more than offset by events and characters that bear no resemblance to political events in Boston, recent or in the distant past.

Q. And Donlan? Isn't there a similarity between his career and that of a recent mayor of Boston?

A. Certain character traits of Francis Philbrick Donlan, notably his ambition, have their parallels in any number of political figures, local and national. Then again, this is Rowley's story to tell and he wants badly to settle a score or two with Donlan. Under those circumstances, the portrait that emerges of Donlan is hardly complimentary.

In a broader sense, however, novels that have a political setting always run the risk of having readers trying to match up the characters in the novel with real-life politicians. That's simply the nature of the beast. If readers want to find these parallels in A Perjurer's Tale, they are free to do so, just as I'm free to use my imagination in creating a memoir by a fictional character named Rowley who was an associate of a fictional character named Donlan.

Q. Why the busing chapters, which seem not to have that much to do with Rowley's subject, which is, as he says, his association with Donlan?

A. Rowley is trying to make the point that happenstance accounted for Donlan's election as mayor—that is, he was fortunate enough to run against a one-issue candidate whose entire appeal consisted of "standing up" to black parents who were demanding better schools. It's not unimportant, then, for Rowley, in telling about Donlan, to cover what happens when the issue of racially segregated schools becomes the most pressing, most overwhelming problem, Donlan has to contend with as mayor.

Also, Donlan's actions during busing lead to political problems he encounters later on, and the need therefore, for Rowley and his friend, Lester Duncliffe, to come to Donlan's aid. Throughout this book, Rowley finds himself tethered to the ups and downs of Donlan's career, whether he wants to be or not.

Q. The book jacket seems to suggest that Rowley's only purpose in writing this memoir is revenge. Might we assume that you, as the creator of Rowley, have the same motivation?

A. Well, that would assume that I'm a former political reporter and columnist, which I am not. Also, unlike Rowley, I've never threatened to write an expose if someone failed to provide me with a payoff.

My own feelings about City Hall and whatever political associations I had there, which were minimal, are somewhat beside the point. I worked there. It was a job. It helped pay the mortgage. My reward, after 22+ years as the public information officer at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, was a modest pension for which I am grateful.

Q. This relationship between Rowley and his wife, Martha—it seems like they are two people who simply share the same house rather than star-crossed lovers. Did Rowley ever love Martha, or vice versa?

A. Rowley says at the outset that he would have preferred to keep his private life private, but was forced into revealing more about himself than he liked because he couldn't otherwise tell about his association with Donlan. In Martha's case, she literally stumbles into the story when she interferes with Rowley's plan to write a story that might have derailed Donlan's political career before it even began.

It does appear, from what Rowley says about his relationship with Martha, that they were kindred spirits, at least when they met. i.e., both were deeply cynical. In Rowley's case, this deeply-rooted cynicism helped him build a successful career. In Martha's case, it seems to have led to an existence in which she gravitates to her neighborhood bar, the Golden Lion, where, as Rowley describes it, "She and her friends, the locals, could be found seated at a horse-shaped bar, wrapped in a cocoon-like haze of alcohol and smoke and small talk that was interrupted now and then with loud and senseless arguments in which neither side could keep straight who said what to whom, let alone what they were arguing about in the first place."

So, yes, Martha and Rowley are very much like two ships passing in the night until Martha somehow discovers that Rowley has been unfaithful. Interestingly, Martha does not confront Rowley directly on this matter. She pretends at first that she knows nothing of what Rowley has been up to, but then turns on him and tries to wreak revenge in a unique (and quite disastrous) manner.

Q. Should one judge politics in Boston from the rather bleak and cynical view of it expressed by Nathaniel Rowley?

A. A Perjurer's Tale is fiction, but it's not fantasy. A fable I once heard might explain what I mean. It involves a duck and scorpion. The scorpion is in the Public Garden and he wants very much to get to the other side of the little pond there. But since he can't swim, he asks a duck for a ride across the pond. The duck says, Uh, uh, you're a scorpion, you're likely to sting me. No, no, says the scorpion, I promise you, I just want a ride. The duck finally agrees, so the scorpion gets on the duck's back and they begin their journey across the pond. But halfway across the pond, the scorpion just can't help himself and he stings the duck. The duck says, "Hey, what are you doing? Now, I'm going to die and when I do, you'll drown." To which the scorpion says, "Welcome to politics in Boston."

My only question is whether this fable applies exclusively to Boston.

Q. What do you think a reader should take away from A Perjurer's Tale?

A. First, that reading it has not been a waste of time. But since it's a story, a tale, it doesn't necessarily contain a message or moral. Mark Twain put it more strongly, of course, when he said that anyone trying to find a moral in Huckleberry Finn should be banished. My feeling is this: A Perjurer's Tale, aside from the story, gives some insights into an ethos, which may be summed up best in the observation Rowley makes before he goes off to testify before a grand jury. He believes, he says, in that maxim: Do unto others as you would others do unto you, but do it first. I believe James Michael Curley said the same thing when explaining his own political philosophy.

As for Rowley's own moral code, right at the start of the novel, he tries to justify blackmail by saying it's simply one person taking advantage of another. In his case, he wants payments from politicians he once covered in return for excising their crimes and misdemeanors from his memoir. What's the difference, he asks, between what I'm doing and a banker demanding payment in return for lending someone money? He goes on to say, "Where is the dividing line between blackmail and the laws of supply and demand" You're left with the impression that Rowley wouldn't see anything wrong with bidding up the price of water he'd charge someone who was dying of thirst.

By the way, that same ethical standard seems to apply to Donlan, his lawyer friend, James McGarrick, and Rowley's friend, Lester Duncliffe.

Q. Okay, so there's no moral message, as such in A Perjurer's Tale, but didn't you have some purpose in writing it?

A. Not in the sense that I sat down to write with any given purpose in mind. I must admit, however, to a certain fascination with people like Rowley and Donlan.

Rowley is, first and foremost, a hustler, a guy on the make. I can never get over the intensity and single-mindedness of people like that. They allow nothing, including moral restrictions or consideration for others, to stand in their way. When he was a reporter and columnist, Rowley made deals if that's what it took to beat the competition. When he was no longer a reporter, he was still ready to make deals. You might think that Rowley became too much like the people he covered.

It may just be that Rowley and Donlan never get along because they are so much alike. Donlan, too, is a devout believer, maybe even more than Rowley, in using any means to serve any ends, particularly if the end result is the greater honor and glory of Francis P. Donlan.

As I say this is a novel, not a moral tract or sermon. Certainly moral judgments are not foremost in the minds of its main characters.

Q. Why should anyone believe Rowley? He's a thief, a conspirator in an arson plot and an accomplice in an extortion scheme. After all that, he chooses to confess, but only in a posthumous memoir.

A. Rowley's no paragon of virtue, but he has no reason, in a posthumous memoir, to make himself look good or to rig the story he wants to tell. Indeed, in his memoir, nobody comes out looking good.

Rowley's decision to publish his memoir after he dies is a practical one. He's not about to go public with his various sins, or that of others while he's alive, but somewhere, deep beneath his tough cynicism—he feels a need to leave a testament of sorts, a true, unflinching look at his association with Donlan, even if he has to confess to committing felonies. Perhaps this desire to set the record straight harkens back to his days as a journalist and an urge to tell the truth. Or as Rowley puts it: "This thing (the novel) can't be published until I'm'dead because everything in it is absolutely and utterly true, even the parts where I lied!"

Q. You make it seem as if this book is indeed Rowley's, which leads to this question, did you ever know Rowley in real life, or anyone like him.

A. Rowley is a product of my imagination, but I was able to draw on any number of people I've known who share some of his character traits.

I go back to that observation Rowley makes early on in the book, when he so deftly rationalizes his blackmail scheme. Rowley has this blind spot. He seems to think he's forever engaged in a battle for survival. It's either him or the other guy and he isn't going out of his way to help the other guy.

Q. Aren't you all but admitting that this dark view of politics in A Perjurer's Tale is based on your own experience, particularly the years you spent at City Hall?

A. An anecdote: It was Christmas time and a fellow passenger on a City Hall elevator was someone—Person A, for the sake of this story—who had recently been indicted for mail fraud. The elevator stopped and a colleague and friend of Person A—Person B—boarded the elevator. When Person B saw Person A, Person B expressed condolences on the recent turn of events. Then, in an expression of sympathy unique to City Hall, Person B added, "And they had to do it at Christmas time."

Yeah, imagine that. I mean, mail fraud is one thing, but were they (in this case, Federal prosecutors) so lacking in Christmas spirit that they couldn't wait a few weeks (or months, maybe) to issue the indictment? Those Federal prosecutors, they have no class.

Q. Why is there nothing in the novel about Rowley's background? Where was he born, where did he grow up? There isn't even a description of what he looks like.

A. This is Rowley's memoir, and he makes clear in his meeting with the executor of his estate, that there is only one reason for his memoir: he wants to tell his side of the story about his association with Donlan. Even when he strays from that—in the chapters on busing—he is recounting those events because they help tell more about Donlan and the kind of mayor he was. I did think at one point of bringing in something about Rowley's youth, but I decided it might detract from the focus on Donlan.

For anyone who wants to know, however, Rowley grew up in northern Maine, but left home right after high school. He came from a large family. They were very poor. His father, a junk dealer—a man who could never wash the ingrained grease and grit from his hands—died when his truck, top heavy with a load of scrap metal, rolled over on a sharp curve and plunged down a deep ravine. Rowley's mother than remarried, this time to a potato farmer. The stepfather adopted his new wife's children, but Rowley, the oldest member of the family, was in high school by then and he steadfastly refused to use his stepfather's name.

Rowley worked the potato harvest the fall after he graduated from high school, and then, with the money he earned from picking potatoes, he went off to seek his fortune. Once he left home, Rowley severed all ties with his family.

Rowley became a newspaperman when he literally wandered into The Post-Gazette looking for a job. He was taken on as kind of an errand boy and rose from that lowly position.

The first thing Rowley did when he left home was to buy a fingernail brush. Picking potatoes is a dirty business and Rowley wanted more than anything else to clean the dirt out from under his fingernails. Rowley was a fanatic all of his adult life about keeping his nails clean.