The Ride: A Shocking Murder and a Bereaved Father’s Journey from Rage to Redemption. By Brian MacQuarrie. Da Capo. $26.
Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott. By Zac Crain. Da Capo. $15.95.
The search for meaning after a horrible death is frequently undertaken not only by those immediately affected but also by those who feel they were closely tied to the victim in some important way, even if not through an official relationship. The dead thus become symbols, standing for more than they did in life – and symbols become books like these two. The Ride is the more harrowing of the two and is better written, but is also more novelistic in its treatment of a nightmarish scenario. Its focus is what happened after the murder, in 1997, of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley. The boy was lured into a car by two men, Salvatore Sicari and Charles Jaynes, who took him to the Boston Public Library and used a computer there to visit the Web site of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Later, Jaynes tried to assault the boy sexually, gagging him with a gasoline-soaked rag when he resisted – eventually killing him and sexually assaulting his corpse. Even in bare prose, this is almost too awful a story to tell, and Brian MacQuarrie’s prose is far from bare. MacQuarrie, a longtime Boston Globe reporter and editor, makes it clear from the outset that his will be an interpretative book, filled with thoughts and feelings that an objective reporter could not know: Jeffrey’s father, Bob Curley, “tossed a glance toward the Boston skyline three miles away” just after waking up, MacQuarrie writes, and later “blocked out the jarring sound of heavy trucks bouncing in and out of gaping potholes.” These are likely things to do but not journalistically certain ones; they are the touches of a novelist. And such touches abound as MacQuarrie focuses more and more on Bob Curley’s remarkable emotional journey after his son’s murder – a journey that eventually turns him into a strong critic of the death penalty rather than the staunch advocate that any reader, and especially any parent, would likely expect him to be. As it progresses, The Ride becomes less the story of one family and one murder than a societally oriented look at the death penalty, tending to emphasize comments like one by state representative Tom McGee after a vote to reinstate the penalty in Massachusetts: “In the pit of my stomach, I had this feeling when you know something isn’t right.” MacQuarrie makes an effort to be fair, and his knowledge of the ins and outs of Boston and its surroundings – and the politics of Massachusetts – is everywhere apparent. And The Ride does tell a remarkable story, for if Bob Curley could become an activist against sexual predators instead of an advocate for the death of his son’s killer, then does that not tell us something about the inherent immorality of the death penalty? The problem is that no, it doesn’t. Bob Curley’s tremendously admirable conquering of the desire for vengeance reflects greatly on him but does not necessarily indicate anything about the way other relatives of murder victims feel or should feel. Curley and his wife, Barbara, did file a lawsuit against NAMBLA, claiming that it had incited Jeffrey’s murder, but they dropped the suit last year when the judge ruled that their sole witness who would testify to a link between NAMBLA and the killing was not competent to give testimony. But except for the lawsuit, Bob Curley’s reaction – after a period of tremendous anger – is an exceptionally positive one. That makes The Ride an uplifting book, but not a convincing one for death-penalty proponents, whose “pit of the stomach” feeling may well be that it is Sicari’s and Jaynes’ continued life after the hellish killing of Jeffrey Curley that they “know…isn’t right.”
The killer of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott did not provoke any grand debates about whether or not he should continue to survive after committing murder: Nathan Gale’s rampage, in which he shot three people dead in addition to Abbott, ended abruptly when police officer James D. Niggemeyer killed Gale as the murderer held a hostage as a shield. Unlike The Ride, in which the killing occurs at the beginning, Zac Crain’s Black Tooth Grin puts Abbott’s murder near the end of what is essentially a chronological biography of the heavy-metal guitarist. There is a lot here about Abbott’s influences (Van Halen, KISS), his metal cover band (Pantera), his major-label albums (starting with Cowboys from Hell in 1990), the creation of Damageplan after Pantera’s messy breakup, and of course all the alcohol and drug stories that are de rigueur in books about the rock-and-roll world. In a sense, Abbott’s heavy metal was already fading when he died: punk was on the rise. But Black Tooth Grin is clearly aimed at the remaining fans of heavy metal in general and of Abbott in particular. Crain, senior editor at D Magazine and former music editor of the Dallas Observer, suggests that, despite the inevitable ups and downs of any career, Abbott pretty much went where he was always destined to go: “Darrell never changed. …He just wanted to play his guitar and live his life as loudly as possible. He just wanted to be himself, and being himself was more than enough to make him a star.” If so, it may have been enough to get him killed, too: Gale, an ex-Marine discharged from the Corps as a paranoid schizophrenic, apparently thought that Pantera had stolen lyrics from him – or possibly that Abbott and other band members were reading his mind. Black Tooth Grin is a book for a very limited audience – one that will gravitate to the 16 pages of black-and-white photos, the information that Abbott was killed exactly 24 years after John Lennon was shot to death, and the fact that Abbott was buried in a KISS coffin, and holding Eddie Van Halen’s Fender Stratocaster guitar.