Cynthia Hamilton


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Cynthia Hamilton

The Story Behind the Story: Justin Dipego “Seven O’Clock Man

The most vital part of any story is the authenticity of the author’s voice. Is it believable? Do we trust the message he or she is trying to convey? Does the language put us in the moment, allowing us to see what is unfolding, feel what the characters are experiencing?

While reading the debut novel “Seven o’Clock Man” by Justin DiPego, I felt as though I were watching the scene through the characters’ own eyes. The sense of place was acutely visual—grimy and ominous; the degradation the central characters face eerily ominous. I found myself clinging to the author’s voice, even though my figurative feet told me to RUN! RUN, AND DON’T LOOK BACK!

Despite the sense of foreboding, I could not stop reading. I had never come across anything quite like this novel. What I got was a look into the life on the streets that hasn’t improved any in the last three decades. I belong to the part of the parallel universe that exists side by side with the invisibles. Even though I know this world exists, even to the point of trying to imagine—for short periods of time—what it would be like to live the life of a homeless person.

But there is beauty in almost anything, and what shines through these unfortunates is their hope and sense of humanity—greatly diminished, but courageous in spite of everything. Lay this on top of a well-crafted mystery and you have a riveting work of fiction.

It is my sincere pleasure to introduce Justin DiPego:

Lots of people say they hate Los Angeles. When I tell someone where I’m from they frequently respond with something like, “I’m so sorry.” And when I ask how long they lived here it turns out most have only visited for a few days. LA has a bad rep that’s hard to put your finger on. “There’s no there there,” no culture, nothing real to do, it’s so fake, it’s so spread out, it’s so crowded. All of these things are true. And none of them are. The real truth is LA is hard to get to know. I’ve lived here most of my life and I love this city.

Have you seen Hellboy II? Guillermo del Toro creates a New York in which if you know what door to open you can find the secret Troll Market. Los Angeles is a series of doors. They aren’t hidden, but you have to be paying attention to find them. Behind those doors whole worlds open up.

In Seven o’Clock Man I want to open one of those doors and pull you through to the other side. This particular door won’t give you a more positive impression of my city, but it will introduce you to one of the flourishing cultures here—the world of Vagabondia. That’s the archaic, romantic term your narrator and guide uses to describe the population of homeless that live on and off the streets.

Vagabondia isn’t invisible. It’s just out of the corner of your eye and most of the time we choose not to look there. But I’ve lived in parts of town where the homeless are hard to ignore. I got to know some of them and the complicated issues that pushed them to the outside and that kept them there.

I am a storyteller. I could not help but take what I learned from my acquaintances on the streets, my visits to shelters, conversations in dive bars, bus trips across town or working security in a junk yard, and ask myself—what if one of these people on the absolutely lowest rung of our society was the hero of our story? All of them come from somewhere. In each of their own real lives, they are the main character.

Skid Row is changing. Now there are galleries and coffee shops on 5th Street. The homeless are still there, but the giant encampments are gone and the population has largely been pushed along to Orange County. But back in the late 80s and early 90s, that transformation was in its infancy. Skid Row spread out from 5th and most of Downtown LA was a no-go zone after dark.

But I was there. Because in the abandoned hotels and shuttered storefronts, there were floating, underground clubs if you knew how to find them. Club Scream or The Hole would be in different locations on different weekends and you could open a door into a world of gothic DJs and dramatic lighting. But there were other doors inside those places. If you opened the wrong one, you were instantly transported from a Bauhaus dance floor to a shooting gallery where junkies and crackheads smoked or shot up their poisons. That sudden contrast was jarring to this young storyteller, dressed all in black and listening to songs about death, and then suddenly finding myself face to face with people barely surviving on the edge of the world.

So another “what if” presented itself to me. What if the homeless hero of our story was living through the Downtown LA of my youth? I think I have a way into both those worlds that can bring them together to deliver a story that takes you in and gives you more than a glimpse at places you might never go, gives you a guide who invites you along to listen to his tale that is a dark mystery and a tense thriller but is also a trip you can take down the rabbit hole without ever leaving town.

To take that trip, check out Seven o’Clock man here:

And be on the lookout for my next novel, now in progress, about what magic you might rip up if you scratch the surface of Los Angeles.

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