by X. Libris

Chapter 21: Chasing an Ambulance to Posterior

book "Uh oh," said Horatio Toast from the front seat of the taxicab, "where's he going?"

Leaning forward from the back seat, author escort Goldie Markson and You've Got Piles! store manager Prim Reaper peered out the front window.

"Why, that ambulance driver must be nuts," said Prim. "He's taking the wrong bridge!"

The three were following the ambulance that had picked up a comatose Justin Thyme - the obscure Southern writer whose first novel had just won a Pulitzer Prize - at the San Francisco airport and was supposed to be heading toward Francisco's, the bookstore in Posterior where Thyme was due to appear for a rare autographing.

"You're right - there, see?" Horatio groaned. "We've just missed the Pray Bridge onramp" (so named after the 1989 earthquake, when the bridge nearly broke in two).

"Good heavens," exclaimed Goldie. "He's going up Hell Street toward the Golden Fate Bridge!" - so named after Danielle Schpiel's best-selling romance, "Love Beyond the Toll Booth," set on the Spoil Drive exit ramp. "That means he's not going to Posterior . . . "

"He's going to . . . " Horatio whispered in horror.

"Oh, my god, we're going to . . . " murmured the cab driver.

"No! Not to . . . " Prim grimaced, actually baring her teeth.

"ANTERIOR!" they all exclaimed in unison

For anyone in the book business, Anterior, Calif., was the new wasteland, devastated by "the bookstore wars." Far more than any town in Europe during World War II, it had been reduced to literary rubble for years.

A decade earlier, chain bookstores had targeted Anterior as one of the most affluent book-buying markets in the country. Moving into the verdant and sleepy Marooned County like silent Sherman tanks, the chains filled every inch of retail space while bulldozing whatever independent bookstores remained.

"Oh, lord, don't slow down now," exclaimed Horatio as the ambulance ahead of them reduced speed between the once- picturesque towns of Spill Valley and Sharkster. "We're in right in the middle of No-Book Land! It's - it's horrible!"

"I can't believe how bad it's gotten!" Prim murmured.

They gazed in silence as the cab wove carefully around giant hulks of once-grand "big book box stores," as they had been called in better days. The then-stupefying Hoarders Books & Music, with its many football fields of books, now sat ashambles.

A tilted sign, "Hoarders' Hot Bestsellers: All Two of Them!" hung crazily over the store's eviscerated Cafe Lesse, with its pathetic special of freeze-dried coffee and no-fun milk called "Latte Special: Freeze & Skim."

Towering over Hoarders only milimeters away was the warehouse discount store, Costno, behind another beat-up sign with the store motto, "No Cost Too Pricey For Us!" which nobody had ever understood.

Itself fallen on bad times, though still the size of an airplane hangar (helicopters and planes in bad shape were sold in the back), Costno was strictly limited to members only - small businesses, retail stores, toilet paper users, conglomerates, small foreign countries.

You could buy anything at any Costno, but the store in Anterior discovered early that bestsellers and "Prizes of Literature" (gimmick books) got the highest turnover. As chain superstores moved into the area, Costno tried to enlarge its market share of readers by filling the place with "Book Bin Bargains" the size of petroleum vats.

Selling thousands of self-help books like "The Inner Somalia Diet Book" (readers shot each other before eating) and the inspirational real estate guide, "Come On To My House! - My House! - Come On!" by the larcenous and charismatic Tony Robbem, Costno had been so successful so quickly that it "bled out the niche," as its consultants liked to say - and therein made its greatest mistake.

Installing even larger vats of books, into which whole families disappeared in their zeal to buy that sensational pre-Clinton expose, "Lyndon's Johnson" by Doris Spurns Brooklyn, Costno tried to be the Number One book retailer in Anterior, an impossibility given what happened.

Sensing high turnover sales and low rents, cavernous branch stores of other chains began moving in - Choppers, Stallmart, Tartgut, Hawkware, Hoed Earth, You've Got Piles!, just to mention a few. At the time, every chain had the same fixation: Kill the little guys and pick up their business. "Kaplowee!" Store managers liked to joke with pistol-shooting gestures. "Another independent hits the dust! Bring on the next one!"

It was easy to cripple independents by the usual practices - forcing publishers to pay for freight, advertisements, fixtures, staff lunches, pension funds, dormitories, property taxes and management-backed political parties "in a timely under-the-table fashion," as the Riskway Supermarket buyer in Irradiated Produce liked to put it each time he doubled as the book buyer.

"Remember when we thought it would be so much fun to watch the chains kill each other off?" Horatio said, shaking his head.

"They just ran out of deep pockets," sighed Goldie. "Too many discount wars, too many customer kidnappings . . . "

" 'Look upon my work and weep,' " intoned the cab driver. Horatio and Goldie stared at the cabbie. "Keats' 'Ozymandias,' " he said. "I paraphrased a little, but you get the point." He swerved suddenly to dodge a homeless author carrying a sign, "Will Fictionalize for Food."

"You couldn't paraphrase it fast enough!" shouted Prim, who had been silent for too long, the others realized. "Being here is worse for me than any of you! I'm a manager of You've Got Piles! for crying out loud! This is my future! It's America's future! These stores are coming to get all of us! No one is safe, no one!"

A jerking movement in the ambulance in front of them drew Horatio's attention. "Prim, look! Something's going on inside the ambulance!"

"My god," said Goldie, as the ambulance lurched drunkenly across the lanes. "It looks like they're having a fight in there! Hoary, we've got to do something!"

"Let me get my gun!" shouted Prim, out of her mind with that familiar malady of the times, Chain Store Psychosis. "Let's end this right here!" shouted Prim. "I'll never capitulate! I'll . . . "

Suddenly the ambulance veered over to the shoulder and braked so abruptly, the taxi nearly rammed it. "Lo, what yonder dagger!" exploded the cabbie, and before they knew it, the back door opened, and out flew the man who had strapped the drugged Justin into the wheelchair at the airport and squirreled him into the ambulance at the airport.

"Whoa, watch that guy!" Horatio yelled, when bam! the left front door of the ambulance flew open and out fell the paramedic driver.

"Holy cow, I think Justin just woke up!" yelled Goldie. She couldn't help laughing. "Why he seems to be cleaning house! Look, Prim! See that meaty hand waving to us? Why, he's taking off toward the Switchman Gay Bridge!" - (so named after the electrician who hit the wrong switch during construction and AC-DC'd himself right off the bridge).

"Give me my gun!" Prim shouted again, her mouth showing signs of Chain Store Foamitis.

"No, Prim! Don't you see?" said Horatio. "This is just like that book about dangerous foreign travel, remember? 'The Whappagonian Express'?"

"Oh, yeah," said Prim, calming a bit. "The independents discovered that book, right? By Paul Itstrue?"

"That's the one," said Horatio.

"I remember. Then we stole it and made a big bestseller out of it. We did a good job."

"Okay, and how did Paul Itstrue get out of the country when he woke up on the train?"

"I don't know, I never read these things, they're sent down from New York, we're not allowed to read, I can't set a bad example, the staff hates me, I hate books, we cheat all the time . . . "

"Okay, I'll tell you," said Horatio. "He wakes up on the train and - "


"All right, driver, you heard 'em," said Horatio gamely. "Follow that pig!

Chapter 22: Descending into Posterior

The Monochrome Takes a Stand

"Tell me again why we're doing this," a perplexed Copper Field murmured to her colleague, San Francisco Monochrome book review editor Cody Kepler.

The two were driving across the SF Bray Bridge to Francisco's Bookstore in Posterior, where they sensed a great conflagration awaiting.

"We're going to Francisco's because a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is there," Cody said efficiently. "And because we'll be the first to interview that great Southern author and womanizing pig, Justin Thyme. And because he's just won the Pulitzer Prize."

"Even though all these deadlines are waiting at the office," Copper said. "We have the Guess Seller List and the Titterary Guide - "

" - and a chance to interview a brilliant novelist in an independent bookstore like Francisco's. It's historic, it's visionary - "

"It's colossally in debt and about to go under," said Copper.

"Exactly," Cody nodded. "The Monochrome to the rescue. First in breaking news - "

" - and breaking shmooze!" said Copper.

They laughed, though a bit ruefully. For years, the 'Chrome's penchant for "featurizing" the news had given the newspaper a shabby kind of fame among journalists across the country - and among readers at home. "People care about the news only when they're in it," as the grizzled senior executive chief administrative managing associate editor liked to say.

Human interest rather than hard fact became the guiding factor in news writing and placement for the 'Chrome. An example most often quoted to new writers was the approach to use if World War III erupted and the Monochrome was left standing to report it.

The old way - formal, newsy, fact-crippled - would begin like this: "A nuclear bomb exploded at 5th and Mission Streets today, razing every building within a radius of 30 miles."

But the 'Chrome way - lively, personal, "featurey" - would start as follows: "Bob Jones was crossing 5th and Mission today when he spotted this big flash . . . "

For a while, journalism scholars derided the Monochrome for its admitted "Featurefication Drive," which called for every news item to have a "storyteller's feel."

When, for example, his reporters wrote a news expose without quoting enough sources, Sam Sadlee of the Washington Boast cried, "Give it to the Monochrome - they'll take anything!" New York Mime language columnist William Shatfire even wrote a book about the practice called " 'Featurizing' the Fatuous," an autobiography.

But soon enough, to the astonishment of everyone, newspapers everywhere began to follow the Monochrome trend. As readers turned increasingly to cable TV and the Internet for - well, not for news but "entertainment input," a term coined by media standard-bearer Ben Grabastickian, circulation for many of America's finest newspapers began dropping.

Even the 'Chrome, whose mastery at chasing its audience was undisputed, felt the pressure. The head executive managing editorial planning administrative newsroom chief threw out pesky foreign news as "a barrier to the comics page." The Monochrome's stringer in Washington, D.C., was told to "tone down" scary economic predictions by Alan Greedspan.

"People want views, not news," came the new watchcry, and one by one, every newspaper in the country adopted the new "upbeat" way to "manage" the news. Even veteran reporters found it was more fun to float a rumor than report facts. Readers loved the "participational aspect" of gossip over news and said so in discussions facilitated by the Hocus Focus Group, professional "subscriber synthesizers" who often resold their discoveries to Hollywood studios.

For years, Cody Kepler and Copper Field watched these changes in newspaper reporting with some amusement. Running a Book Review had little to do, they thought, with the tossing out of journalism standards. "Literary criticism existed long before we were born," Cody liked to say, "and readers know it. You can't futz around with the next Faulkner, for corn's sake."

But then came The Great Domino Effect of literature - one publishing house after another bought up in a conglomerate frenzy, and with it the entrance of that dread new element, the celebrity bio. Book after commercial book by such stars as Poopi Goldberg and Jay Beano brought pressure on book reviewers to forget the next Faulkner and chase after the blockbuster audience.

When the popular singer Slutonna published her long-awaited memoirs inside a metal case entitled "My Box," newspapers jumped at the chance to build circulation among the millions of 6-year-olds who comprised her audience. Before she knew it, Cody's six-inch review had grown to 1,732 feet, introduced by Slutonna's billboard-sized face.

It was amazing how easily a book reviewer could fall for the commercialization that had taken over the book industry, Cody realized, and when the Monochrome dropped the Featureification Drive for an all-out Schmooze Campaign, trumpeting a new slogan, "All the News You Can Schmooze" on the front page, she knew the book industry wouldn't be far behind.

Sure enough, massive media attention on various personalities allowed readers to do more than learn. Now they got to judge. Was OJ Simpson guilty? Did Monica mean to seduce? Should Hillery run for the Senate? Dozens of books took the decision from posterity and handed it to readers: You be Judge Judy. God knows she never hesitates.

"Uh oh," said Copper with sudden alarm as the car neared Francisco's. "What's going on?"

Cody pulled to a stop behind a crowd of people staring up at a mountain of books. "Good heavens, it's Justin Thyme's novel, 'Ureter Sleeping'!" she exclaimed. "Why, there must be thousands and thousands of copies."

"Somebody stacked them into a single - " Copper began, but a siren off to the side distracted her. Everyone turned to see an ambulance careen wildly across the town square, followed by a taxicab in hot pursuit.

"Copper, we have to get a photographer out here," Cody said: "The whole publishing industry is descending on Posterior!

Indeed, leaping out of the taxis as though to engage in hand-to-hand combat with each other came the two men who headed the New York office of Verschleppen, the German conglomerate that was systematically gobbling up all the book publishers of the world, and at least one online bookseller.

Here, too, pushing and popping out another cab, were the three executives of Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins, the publisher of Justin

Thyme and Verschleppen's most recent acquisition.

Out from a third cab rolled Tubby Shafts and his buyer Chintzy of You've Got Piles!, one of the major chain bookstores in the country. And nonchalantly stepping from their cab were Jesse Zebra and his right-hand colleague, Yahoo Flochart of, the upstart online book supplier whose logo of a huge bag of books bursting at the seams had long ago disgusted and enchanted its many billions of customers.

Suddenly a gun went off as Prim Reaper, You've Got Piles! local manager, went completely berserk, and Patriarch sales representative Horatio Toast held her back. Author escort Goldie Markson raced out of their cab to fling the ambulance door open and shout the question soon to be on everyone's mind, "Where's Justine Thyme?"