Status Updates posted by Chris Harnett
Set in the ominous three months preceding 2020’s arrival, The Quiet Car follows a crew of FBI agents moonlighting as Deep State guardian angels. Led by the legendary J.W. Winchester and her eccentric partner, Charlie Barrow, Unit 13’s agents, mistakenly rumored to be psychics, rely on heightened powers of observation and empathy -- a maddeningly unpredictable talent they refer to as “it.”
As J.W. and Charlie find themselves bombarded with still-unfocused concerns of impending danger, Unit 13 is running on fumes. J.W. is old as dirt and Charlie isn't getting any younger, either. One of their beloved colleagues on death’s doorstep at Sloane Kettering. The Unit is increasingly misunderstood by the Bureau at large and having difficulty attracting new blood with the requisite talent.
But then, the magnetic Special Agent Amethyst Suarez arrives on the scene. She’s an intense former army intelligence officer, endowed with “it” in a big way. Reenergized, the Unit 13 agents make short work of official cases and focus, instead, on their efforts to make things better, one human at a time. Operating under the radar and not entirely by the book, Unit 13 tackles seemingly unrelated cases involving a bizarre uptick in New Jersey Transit train track suicides, mistreatment of refugees at the Mexican border, and prosecution of a shadowy political figure.
Even after they begin to notch successes, Unit 13's future remains in the balance. J.W. and Charlie are drawing unfortunate Bureau scrutiny and it isn’t clear that Unit 13’s methods can withstand a mysterious new tide of cruelty and indifference -- or the narcissistic bullies behind it. As Unit 13 marches onward, several disparate story lines converge, culminating in a 2019 New Year’s Eve conclusion that serves as a fitting farewell to pre-pandemic, pre-insurrection times.
Assignment One: Story statement.
A crew of misunderstood FBI agents moonlight as Deep State guardian angels.
Assignment Two: Statement on the antagonist.
My novel’s antagonistic force is a bewildering talent possessed by the agents in FBI Unit 13, which they self-depreciatingly call “it.” Unit 13’s agents are idiosyncratic students of human behavior and nonverbal communication, leading some FBI colleagues to apply the label “psychic” -- a label they reject emphatically. The Unit 13 agents believe there’s nothing supernatural about their abilities; they’re based in neurology, not magic. The problem is that “it” sometimes provides the agents with troubling insights, even though they are powerless to act. But, when Unit 13 is firing on all cylinders, “it” is a formidable tool.
Unit 13's response to both the frustrating vagaries and heightened powers of observation and empathy associated with "it" propels the narrative in surprising directions as the Unit works its unofficial cases, hoping to make things better one human at a time. Operating under the radar and not entirely by the book, Unit 13's agents encounter an array of narcissistic bullies -- exhibiting characteristics antithetical to "it" -- as they tackle seemingly unrelated cases involving a bizarre uptick in train track suicides, mistreatment of asylum seekers at the Mexican border, and a morale crisis among public corruption prosecutors investigating a shadowy political figure.
Assignment Three: Proposed titles.
The Quiet Car
It Goes Without Saying
The It Squad
Assignment Four: Genre and comparable works.
Genre: Upmarket fiction (elements of magical realism, detective/buddy story, and dark comedy).
My novel is comparable to No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy, sharing common themes involving law enforcement officers as they confront a mysterious tide of inhumanity with stoicism and bemusement. Likewise, my novel bears resemblance to The Sportswriter by Richard Ford in its elevation of commonplace New Jersey settings to iconic significance. In advancing the story, my novel includes narrative echoes of David Foster Wallace (simplified for mere mortals like me) and dialog influenced by the Coen Brothers.
In terms of visual media, my novel could be described as a present-day reimagining of the film, Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders (guardian angels watching over Berlin) combined with the quirky, humanistic squad room antics depicted in the 1970s television comedy series, Barney Miller (which, remarkably, still gets extensive, cultish play on cable channels). Rustin Cohle from the first season of True Detective and Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks might also feel at home in Unit 13.
Assignment Five: Hook line.
A pair of aging FBI operatives struggle to preserve the Unit they run, hoping their young protégés can continue the Unit’s unofficial, altruistic charter as they confront a sinister tide of cruelty and indifference.
Assignment Six: Protagonist conflict sketches.
My novel features two protagonists, whose fates are intertwined -- J.W. Winchester and Charlie Barrow, the FBI operatives who run Unit 13. J.W. and Charlie are endowed with the heightened awareness, empathy, and communication prowess associated with “it.” Because of their abilities, both developed a sense of hyper-responsibility to use them for the greater good, even when doing so is anxiety provoking, personally burdensome, and not exactly consistent with FBI protocols. Misunderstood by the Bureau at large, J.W., Charlie, and the Unit 13 crew make short work of standard, official cases and focus instead on their preferred guardian angel projects, doing what they can to stem society’s pernicious tide. It’s tough work but, hey, someone’s got to do it.
Protagonists’ inner conflict.
J.W. Winchester is the FBI’s oldest active woman, by far. Nobody knows exactly how old -- and she isn’t telling -- but smart money has her closer to 100 than to 80. Decades earlier, J.W. came to the attention of Unit 13’s revered founder, who told anybody who would listen that she was the best natural detective he had ever encountered. J.W. was a pioneer “when there were few women working at the FBI, let alone pregnant women, let alone pregnant woman without a husband, let alone pregnant women without a husband who had assumed high supervisory authority in the absence of any official title because, at the time, the FBI wasn’t calling any women ‘Special Agent.’” Being a pioneer came at a cost: J.W. had a challenging relationship with her daughter, Meredith, who was afflicted with psychiatric illness and ultimately died as a young adult, leaving a daughter of her own behind. Years later, J.W. still struggles with how she might have done better. J.W. also feels the daily weight of responsibility to ensure that Unit 13 will thrive after she is gone.
Charlie Barrow is a charming eccentric approaching sixty, preoccupied with his expanding prostate and waistline. Charlie’s marriage to his law school girlfriend is deteriorating, although he maintains a close relationship with his two children, including a daughter, who, like her father, recognized that she had “it” since early childhood. After J.W. Winchester assumed the helm at Unit 13, she took note of Charlie’s talents and persuaded him to leave his position at the U.S. Attorney’s office to be her second in command. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s as the son of a Jamaican father and Italian mother, Charlie became attuned to the frustrations of incomplete progress and learned to see things from the outside. Charlie’s experience as an outsider, coupled with “it,” led him to become a tireless observer of humanity, and one of his favorite perches for study is the New Jersey Transit quiet car during his daily commute. In an early scene from the novel, an unpleasant dispute concerning the ambiguous “quiet car guidelines” causes Charlie to become bombarded with ominous concerns about people in imminent danger, helpless to do anything about it -- for the time being, at least.
And when Charlie Barrow is bombarded, J.W. Winchester is bombarded….
The use of “it” as J.W. and Charlie’s preferred policing tool ultimately gives rise to several secondary conflicts, including confrontations with memorable villains, as Unit 13 works to rescue potential track jumpers, relocate courageous refugee families, and convince demoralized U.S. Attorneys to hang in there for another election cycle.
As the story begins, Unit 13 is running on fumes: J.W. and Charlie aren't getting any younger; one of the Unit's beloved Agents is on death's doorstep with a September 11th-related cancer; and the Unit is increasingly misunderstood by the Bureau at large, chronically understaffed, and having difficulty attracting new blood with the requisite talent.
But then, the magnetic Special Agent Amethyst Suarez ("Amy") arrives on the scene. She's an intense, dynamic former Army Intelligence Officer, endowed with "it" in a big way. Reenergized by her arrival, the Unit 13 Agents redouble efforts on their preferred, unofficial projects. Amy's presence also intensifies rivalries (and pranks) among Unit 13’s quirky young agents, and she becomes the focal point of several unconventional love triangles.
Assignment Seven: Setting.
With respect to time, my novel is set in the ominous three months preceding 2020’s arrival. Catalyzed by unorthodox police work, chance encounters, and romantic entanglements, several disparate story lines converge as the novel marches toward its New Year’s Eve conclusion that serves as a fitting, nostalgic farewell to 2019 and pre-pandemic, pre-insurrection times.
With respect to geography, the novel’s primary locations are metropolitan New Jersey, Lower Manhattan, and venues along the border of Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Several New Jersey locations and motifs are central to the novel’s themes, including the byzantine, claustrophobic confines of the NJ Transit system, where Charlie Barrow does some of his best thinking and where some of the novel’s most suspenseful and gruesome scenes unfold. The Dunkin’ Donuts storefront in Hoboken’s Lackawanna Terminal is where we meet several key secondary characters and where many of the novel’s comic subplots originate.
Throughout the novel, Charlie serves as the composer of a gritty love song to New Jersey and its diverse, resilient inhabitants, and we frequently find Charlie and other characters in recognizable, real-world New Jersey locations (notably, bars and pizzerias). Charlie is a longstanding resident of Montclair, a town that was once celebrated as the best place in America to be a biracial couple, and Charlie’s nuanced affection for the town serves as a platform to address racial issues that arise. And, of course, the novel includes several obligatory settings reminiscent of The Sopranos (e.g., a female psychiatrist’s office and a seedy hotel near the Resorts casino in Atlantic City).
Across the river in Manhattan, several of the novel’s scenes take place in a high-ceilinged, ornate courtroom that J.W. Winchester secured as Unit 13’s headquarters after most of the Southern District judges moved their chambers to a newly constructed federal building. Many gatherings of Unit 13 transpire in that magnificent, slightly deteriorating space. Other NYC scenes take place in J.W.’s Varick Street loft which, not surprising to anybody, she managed to buy at the exact bottom of the real estate market.
Down by the border, some of the novel's most tense and harrowing scenes take place in two locations -- the hastily constructed DHS detention center/processing facility under a highway overpass in Laredo, and a compressed gas factory building in Nuevo Laredo that Sister Maria Edgardo (who is working with the Unit 13 crew) has converted to a shelter for refugee women and their children.
Throughout the novel, physical settings are enhanced by projecting the narrative against pop culture backdrops that include film, sports, and music references.