“Mike Sager’s keen, journalistic eye and unique voice transfer to fiction with highly entertaining results…Deviant Behavior is a street-level, symphonic portrait of an American city.”
–George Pelecanos, author, The Night Gardener, producer, HBO’s The Wire.
Sager portrays a vivid panorama of the American capitol, from self-righteous anti-vice yuppies to pure ghetto squalor, constantly juxtaposing the characters and plotlines to depict a synchronous view of social life and destiny. With some semi-profound truths fleshed out in a rollicking storyline where stark realism is fantastic enough, “Deviant Behavior” makes for a very entertaining, quick read with lots of laughs and gut churning tragicomedy. Definitely leaves one fiending for more.
–Abiort Magazine, Canada
“Do we give in to our urges, despite societal restrictions, and possibly lose everything? Or do we follow the rules and possibly lose ourselves? Sager answers those questions without saying a word about them, leaving it up to the reader to decipher what he means. And because of that…Deviant Behavior is a worthwhile read.”
—Philadelphia City Paper
Sager’s characters bolt from the starting gate and don’t slow down much in the course of his first novel. His eccentrics operate out of Washington D.C.’s notorious 14th Street, the cast led by a likeably reluctant hero, reporter Jonathon Seede, who’s trying to derail the war on drugs and reconcile with his wife and son. There’s a hooker on the run; a combination prophet-pot dealer; a cop descendent of the feuding West Virginia Hatfields; and myriad others.
Best of all, we have diminutive billionaire Bert Metcalfe, grandson of a British adventurer who found an infamous crystal skull in Honduras. Is it an artifact of ancient Atlantis and a key unlocking all the mysteries of the universe?
Deviant Behavior swings between streetwise Elmore Leonardish dialogue and the quasi-mysticism of the adventurer’s diary, but Sager is a good writer with a sure hand. He knows where he’s going, so just ease into the wild ride and roll with the flow. Rating: 3 Stars
“Prostitutes. Drugs. Politics. It sounds like last week’s headlines, but these things also are the backdrop for journalist Mike Sager’s debut novel, Deviant Behavior. Sager has previously mined contemporary society for his best-selling nonfiction (Scary Monsters and Super Freaks and Revenge of the Donut Boys). Now, he takes his finely honed observations of societal craziness and applies them to a suspenseful noir tale.”
–Santa Fe Reporter
“Sager blends a magnified slice of urban subculture in late 1980s-early ’90s
Sager presents a multifaceted District, an effort that speaks to his long experience as a Post and magazine journalist. Jonathan Seede, the novel’s hero, in fact appears to be a Sager-esque kind of guy: The time is 1992, and Seede is a rising star at the Washington Herald, where he “wrote front-page stories read by millions, some of them the most powerful people in the world.” His efforts to preserve his status as the paper’s golden boy leads him to spend time researching a book about the drug war. (“It’s about the crack economy. Look at us: we’re only a mile from the White House—the rabble in the rubble outside the castle walls.”) That means he also spends time wrecking himself on crack and heroin. Sager’s wobbly narrative is an odd merger of noir and satire, with a large amount of the plot swaddled in mystical goop about the search for crystal skulls. But the story has the benefit of moving around the city a lot: Sager spends time roving D.C., bouncing from a decrepit motel off New York Avenue NW to the prostitution strip on 14th and P Streets NW to a Georgetown mansion. And he gets at a few colorful characters: A gay ANC chasing johns out of his neighborhood by slapping bumper stickers on cars reading this car has been prowling the strip, a “Pope of Pot” who runs a weed delivery service through a toll-free number, and a Rick James-esque crack enthusiast.
–Washington, DC City Paper
Esquire writer gets Deviant in his office, a pool house behind his San Diego home, freelance journalist Mike Sager writes the foreword for an upcoming book and finishes up an e-mail before beginning our interview. Later in the day he will meet with Fran Drescher to work on a profile he is writing about her for AARP The Magazine. But right now, Sager is on the other side of the microphone, fielding questions about his first novel, Deviant Behavior. The novel, which will be available April 11, follows journalist Jonathan Seede in Washington, D.C., where Sager once lived and worked. While working on a freelance story, he finds himself chest-deep in the mucky world of prostitutes, users and runaways in this sin-filled city. It’s a story about morals, purpose and what one man decides to do when he finds himself in over his head.
Vox: Who are your influences?
MS: Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists. Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and more than any of them, Gay Talese. His writing, but with Hunter Thompson’s energy and Tom Wolfe’s sort of anthropology, but with a more accepting sort of voice. I always felt like Tom Wolfe was there in his white suit and not getting dirty. I like to feel that I’m sitting down on the lawn or around the campfire, breathing in the soot with everyone else.
Vox: Why did you make the jump from magazines to writing novels?
MS: I’ve always wanted to write, but I had nothing to say. For around 30 years, I went out and wrote other people’s stories. I’ve never loved being a reporter; I’ve become good at it because I needed stuff to write about. So the joy of being able to stay home, live my own life and not live my life at the beck and call of others is liberating.
Vox: How have your previous books and personal experiences helped you in writing this novel?
MS: I’m not the same person that I would have been if my life had taken another path. I lived in a sheltered Jewish community in Baltimore County, and everybody that lived around me was basically a saint. That could have been my life. But by becoming a journalist, I was exposed to all this other stuff, and I couldn’t have written any of this without all of that. I would be a lawyer living in suburban Maryland somewhere.
Vox: This novel is very dark and gritty. Why did you choose the material?
MS: That’s my area of fascination. I’ve always been able to look into the maw of evil and deal with it with a sense of humor — I find the heart within people, and you go in kind of expecting one thing and coming out with something else. Even though I’m seen as kind of an edgy person, the story that I end up writing for 311 pages is a very conventional tale with heroes and a happy ending for some and not so happy for others. We love that stuff; we like sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. We can do them vicariously at least.
Vox: What’s next on your agenda? Any articles or other books in the works?
MS: In October, I have another collection called Wounded Warriors, which is what I think is my greatest hits. They are all my drug stories: when I lived with a crack gang, heroin doers, the first meth story from Hawaii when they called it ice, pit bulls, all this great, hardcore stuff.
–Vox Magazine, The Missourian
Coming-of-Age Keeps on Coming
Skinhead Teamsters! Pimps and hookers! Shag carpeting! Esquire writer Mike Sager discusses his new novel, Deviant Behavior, his writing process and bad places to stash weed.
“It just so happened that some of what he wanted to do had changed.”
Why he wrote the last line: I’m sitting at a desk by a window in the extreme southwest corner of our nation, twenty-three miles from the Mexican border, because some of what I wanted to do had changed. I guess this comes as no big surprise; since Creative Writing 101 they’ve been hammering the same point: “write about what you know.” I figure you can follow this for a couple of books. After that, you probably have to learn something new.
I like to think of Deviant Behavior as a coming-of-age novel for the second thirty years of life. When we are young, we are sold the idea that coming of age is a teenage thing — that all the important growth of body and soul is done during the years between birth and 21, whereupon we are magically granted legal status as adults, handed the keys to ourselves, and sent off into the world. When I was 21, leaving college for my first job, I seem to remember having some vague notion that after the rough childhood I’d weathered (the terrible twos, the pimply adolescence, the star-crossed college romance) things would be pretty smooth until middle age, when I’d likely freak out and buy a red sports car or dump my wife for a younger model, or both. I sallied forth, feeling very grown up, ready to tackle adulthood.
As I discovered, as we all discover, the trials don’t stop. In truth, life is a series of coming-of-age trials. Looking back on my own life, I’ve probably had some kind of “middle age crisis” ever four to six years since I was 21. Probably this is the case with everyone.
The hero of my novel is the picture of Washington D.C. respectability, a 29-year-old urban pioneer with a pretty wife and a job at the town’s most esteemed newspaper, a heart full of hopes and dreams, a raging ambition to create something great and important and memorable. Then his wife, whom he adores, has a child.
And it hits him: His life will never be the same.
I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story, though I will tell you, in words culled from the back jacket, that it involves an inferno of repressed urges and human frailties, pimps and hustlers, an accidental hooker, an honest cop, a store front prophet/marijuana dealer, a beautiful teenage runaway, an A-List gay activist, huge quantities of heroin and crack, and a diminutive billionaire who is searching for the answers to life’s greatest questions in a crystal skull.
In short, Deviant Behavior is a novel about a young man finding his place in the world. After some searching, I have found my own place. It is here, on the coast of Southern California, in this house, in this office. I love my office. It has my things, my photos, my Best in Fencing trophy from Camp Comet, 1969. For the first six years of my working life, I worked at desk in the middle of an acre-square newsroom, spread across the fifth floor of three different buildings, housing some nine hundred other reporters and editors. It was exciting, challenging, demanding, life altering — sort of like the experiences of grad school, a first marriage and living homeless in Grand Central Station all rolled into one. Taken together with the thousands of people I’ve met, interviewed, taught, listened to, sojourned with over 30 years as a journalist, I think you can see why I now prefer to be quietly alone.
It is a warm blue afternoon. Checking the date, I see that it is the actual anniversary of our move here from Washington D.C. Exactly eleven years ago the furniture arrived in the big truck, driven cross-country by a skinhead teamster and his accomplices, who stole half an ounce of pot from the inside of my shoe on moving day — no doubt it helped ease the tedium of their cross-country journey; I can’t say the same for my own. I am still finding those little green numbered inventory tags they stuck on everything — just yesterday, one appeared mysteriously in the middle the floor. Where it came from, I have no idea; it’s like it crossed a time warp and ended up here on the Mexican travertine, a little reminder of our anniversary. I’d spent the night before the truck arrived in a sleeping bag so as to be ready for the movers’ non-specific ETA; the wife and two-point-five year old were crashed at my father-in-law’s. The horizon was clear that evening as the sun set over the Pacific. I saw a wondrous green flash. I have since seen many others. If you think it doesn’t matter where you live, that living is all about how you feel inside, you’re wrong. I figure that fair weather is good for a five percent bump in your overall outlook. Sometimes, that’s just enough.
As I write this, I can hear the odd woody chirping sound that hummingbirds make, the distant drone of a leaf blower, the rustle of the breeze through the stand of bamboo planted out of spite many years ago by the evil absentee landlord who owns the property next door, part of his plan to disrupt the view from this room here in the pool house — at the time the feud was initiated, this building was occupied by the teenaged son of the previous owner and known as “The Love Shack.” Here in my office, I, too, am free to pursue the thing that I love, the craft of writing.
When I first occupied it, my office boasted a rusty wet bar, thick shag carpeting, a fake (gas) fireplace — more remnants of the randy previous owner. (I’d gotten the house for a song during the last recession, in ‘96; it had taken everything I had, there’d been no money left for improvements.) There is of course a pool to go with the pool house. I seldom go in. My son swims sometimes. He prefers the ocean. But without the pool, I suppose, there would have been no pool house, so in that way I feel indebted to the thing, and hence spend precious dollars to keep it from turning green. The pool and its companion building are twenty steps or so down the hill from our main domicile, a modest stucco affair perched on the edge of a canyon of fragrant costal sage and native cacti, home to snakes, skunks, opossums, and raccoons, a particularly violent pair of which had a full-out rumble the other night the roof of my little building, rolling around and scrapping like a pair of drunken sailors, shrieking and growling, the shit and fur literally flying off the roof. (I had to be rescued by my wife, who shined a powerful flashlight out the living room window to scare them away.)
Two years ago, due to excessive mold, the inside of the pool house was finally gutted. The inside of the fake fireplace was writhing with termites — they look a lot like maggots, elicit a similar icy feeling in my gut. I’d never considered it before, but termites are a lot like maggots — living off the stuff that’s dead, a sort of natural garbage removal system. Now, post-renovation, my asthma is much better. The surfaces are all light wood and Mexican stone. I have shelves for my books, files for my papers. The mottled windows were also replaced; I can see clearly now the Pacific Ocean, one half mile distant as a bird flies. At the moment there is a red-tailed hawk making lazy circles in the sky, as poetic and corny as a line from a Broadway musical, yet somehow no less moving. At any moment the hawk will spot his next meal. He’ll hang in the air the way hawks do — so thrillingly cool, his wings backpedaling like some mythological god of war– then execute a fearless dive. Back in Washington, D.C., we lived in a century-old townhouse in the ghetto, about a mile from the White House. You could buy crack on my street. There were drive-by shootings at the playground. Life hung in the balance. (This, of course, is the setting of Deviant Behavior.) In some ways, my new ‘hood in Socal is no less violent. Think of the field mouse or baby opossum that is about to become the hawk’s dinner.
Typically, I start my days making breakfast for my son, a peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich on healthy whole wheat bread, with a glass of Naked Juice. Though he has just turned 13 and claims to have made out with a girl in La Quinta during our family vacation over Christmas break, he still pads out sleepily into the living room each morning carrying his two beanie doggies, which were exchanged many moons ago for his two pacifiers. I get the coffee going for the wife, bring in the two newspapers (three on Sunday). At a little past seven, I wave them off to school and commute the thirty or so steps to my office. I begin with email — like scales for a singer or stretches for an athlete, it gets me warmed up. I try to keep it under fifteen minutes — thirty at most. If I get sidetracked on email, I start feeling antsy. By the way, I have my email set so that it cannot interrupt me while I work. In order to receive an email, I have to click “send/receive.” This way, email is my tool and not vice versa.
My morning energy is always the clearest. I guard it like a prodigious child. I try not to let anything spoil it. There is a big clock on the wall, the kind we used to have in our elementary school classrooms, a simple white face with simple black hands and numbers. Every time I look up at it, a whole lot of time has passed. When I am engaged in writing, I never notice the time pass. It just flies by, you know, whoosh. In this way, writing for me is a lot like sex — so absorbing that I never watch the clock. (Of course, writing takes a whole lot longer.) When I’m writing, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. (Ditto sex.) If I can spend five or six hours a day at writing — not counting emails, phone calls, etc — I’ve had a productive day.
Though I am not always happy with what I write every day, I keep pushing through until I am. I try to see myself as a technician, as a craftsman. The minute you think of yourself as an artist, you’re done. You are absolute toast. You are all those people you swore you would never become. Yes, I believe in magic. Yes, there is a divine spark — things appear on the screen; I don’t know where the hell they come from. But the moment after the inspiration, the moment after the magic, the miracle, the moment after that, the moment after I take a split second to marvel, I get my sorry ass to work. I get to sweating. The inspiration, like they say, must be followed by the perspiration. The thoughts and ideas may come from the ether, but as soon as they do, the task is clear: To render them into precise and evocative prose. To honor the appearance of blessed magic with heroic effort. I can not imagine how people wrote with quill pens. I have rarely ever scratched out a perfect sentence the first time. To me, writing is rewriting. Each sentence is slowly and carefully constructed and deconstructed, visited and revisited — cursor left, cursor right, home, end, insert, delete, backspace erase (my favorite key, often the first to wear out on my keyboard, that or the letter e). Likewise each paragraph, each section, each chapter — until the sound and the feel and the imagery and the pacing and the logic is just right. Then I go over everything one more time, just to be sure. Later I’ll print it out and edit with a pen. Key in the changes; one more read.
When I was in college, I tried to write fiction. My stories sort of sounded good — good imagery and cadence and word choice — but they had nothing to say. They went nowhere. I was a young kid with good intentions, with a love of typing. But I knew nothing of the world. I knew nothing about myself. That’s why I was drawn to journalism — for the material. The stories were there, ready made. I just had to find and reconstruct. Through journalism — nearly thirty years of meeting people and going places and seeing things — I have learned about the world, I have learned about myself and my craft. But the worst thing about journalism is that you have to rely on other people and their stories. You have to spend large chunks of your life living someone else’s life instead of your own. You have to spend large chunks of your life away from your wife, you son, your beloved office with the view. And you have to tell the story exactly as it happened, because that is the responsibility of journalism — the story has to be true. Over the past three decades, I have had the privilege of telling some amazing true stories. My collections — Revenge of the Donut Boys, Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, and the upcoming Wounded Warriors (the title piece is an expansion of an Esquire piece, thanks again to my mother ship for another great assignment) — are my pride and joy, my badges of achievement in the trade of literary journalism, a trade I hope to ply for many years to come.
But as we all know, there is one huge problem with journalism:
The truth sometimes gets in the way of a good story.
With Deviant Behavior, my first novel, I have finally been allowed to break the bonds of journalism. There are composite characters, there are fabricated incidents, there are scenarios run amok. Nothing is true. Yet everything is true-to-life. Well, almost everything. And even though I did a great deal of research to create a sense of documentary super-realism, a sense of plausibility that would string my reader along, there were no rules to tell me what I could and couldn’t say or do. In the novel, for example, an account of someone smoking a hit of freebase cocaine is told with the same sort of precision and detail as is devoted to another account of someone experiencing an opening in the fabric of the universe, courtesy of a crystal skull, a relic retrieved from the lost continent of Atlantis… All of it created here in my chair, by my window, just down the hill from my house, near my family.
When I was young, I thought my writing came first, that everything else needed to take a back seat. Over the years, I have come to see life as a total package. As a father and a husband, a long-time hoops coach and soccer manager (now retired and watching from the stands), a gardener (as choir not hobby), a citizen in our community, I have the kind of small but weighty obligations that every man has. And the big but weighty ones, too. It helps a lot when you can be there. In family matters, I have come to believe, presence is utmost.
When I am in my office I am a happy man. I have a sense of place. It is where I can do what I want to do.
And still be close to those who love and need me.
Set in the early ’90s at the end of the elder Bush’s presidential stint, Mike Sager’s outlandish but well-researched first novel, Deviant Behavior: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, Fatherhood and Crystal Skulls, focuses on Jonathan Seede, a functional junkie and dedicated reporter investigating Washington, D.C.’s seedy underbelly for his secret book project. It’s a nonfictional walk through the drug war, social politics and sexual indiscretions of D.C.’s 14th Street strip, where Seede meets an interesting crowd of people — some friends, some foes, some just a story — who provide problematic, but entertaining, individual tales. Among them is Jim Freeman, the gay activist who opens an Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center (and later dies of AIDS); Salem, the “white-girl-talking-black” accidental prostitute who witnessed the murder of her rich Cuban lover in Miami; and Sojii, the exotic teenage runaway with mommy issues but also insight and beauty.
The selfish Seede, with his just-say-yes attitude, is eventually done in by his penchant for an irresistible high and sex. His indiscretions land him almost dead in the gutter, hallucinating about — and subsequently battling with — his wife, child in tow, who left him some months ago. It’s a nod to the philosophical queries of the book: Do we give in to our urges, despite societal restrictions and possibly losing everything, or do we follow the rules and possibly lose ourselves?
Sager answers those questions without saying a word about them, leaving it up to the reader to decipher what he means. And because of that, despite the skull and the stereotypes, Deviant Behavior is a worthwhile read.
–Philadelphia City Paper