Chris Rice Cooper’s
Scripted Interview with Jere Krakoff
Something Is Rotten in Fettig
A short biography
I was raised in an eccentric Jewish household in a colorful Jewish enclave of Pittsburgh, all of which is loosely portrayed in Something Is Rotten in Fettig.
When I came of age, I enrolled in law school and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. (http://www.law.pitt.edu)
My legal career, which spanned four decades, was primarily spent as a civil rights attorney with several public interest law programs. Much of the work involved representing inmates in civil rights cases challenging the conditions of their confinement such as profound overcrowding, poor medical care and the total absence of psychiatric treatment for emotionally ill prisoners.
In addition, I had litigated a class action suit to reform the abysmally superficial legal services provided by a county public defender agency to indigent people accused of crimes. As a result of these and other activities, I came to understand how our criminal justice system fell far short of the aspiration of equal justice for all.
This background—in in combination with my experiences with judges, juries, over-zealous adversaries and demagogic government officials—gave me a mother lode of fodder to write the legal satire that ultimately became Something Is Rotten in Fettig.
As noted, most of my writing experiences prior to the novel involved crafting legal briefs and other court submissions in cases I was litigating.
This, of course, was a much different kind of writing than creating a work of fiction, although they more often than not involve fictionalized versions of the underlying facts or relevant case law.
In my pre-law life, I worked a few months as a reporter for a newspaper located outside Washington, D.C., and wrote a few freelance non-fiction pieces for the Washington Evening Star’s weekend magazine. Unfortunately, the Star stopped publishing soon after the articles appeared—a demise I trust I did not precipitate.
What is the summary of Something Is Rotten in Fettig?
Something Is Rotten in Fettig is a humorous satirical novel about endemic injustices in the criminal justice system. Rooted in the prosecution of kosher butcher Leopold Plotkin for crimes against his unnamed Republic, the book lampoons judges, juries, district attorneys, public defenders, witnesses and other components of the criminal justice apparatus.
Plotkin was a meek man with a pathological aversion to conflict. One evening, while most Republic citizens were sleeping, he did something that unwittingly propelled him into conflict with every branch of government. Soon, he was pursued by an ethically-challenged prosecutor, indicted by a feckless Blind Jury, imprisoned in the notorious Purgatory House of Detention, tried under the auspices of a congenitally pro-prosecution judge, and represented by a lawyer who had never been inside a courtroom. His only witness was an ostensibly delusional resident of the Warehouse for the Purportedly Insane, a man with a questionable past. Nobody, including Plotkin, believed an acquittal was possible.
What writers or books influenced you in writing Something Is Rotten In Fettig?
Among the writers/ works influenced me as I wrote the novel are Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Eugène Ionesco’s The Lesson.
Can you give me the step-by-step process of Something Is Rotten In Fettig – from the moment it was first conceived in your brain until final book form?
The gestation period was unusually long. It took me more than twenty years to complete the book. My first vague thoughts about writing a novel came in the mid-1990s while I was working on yet another legal brief on behalf of inmates confined in a state prison. I was a civil rights attorney at the time, and crafting briefs in the heat of litigation was a recurring task that was vitally important but no longer particularly exciting.
It occurred to me that writing a novel related to the law might be an interesting diversion from practicing law; something to do when time allowed but not necessarily something to do with any rational expectation of having the material actually published. If nothing else, I was realistic about the unlikelihood of a novice “author” having his first stab at a novel admitted into the hyper-competitive literary world.
Over the next several weeks, I asked myself what I should write about or, more particularly, what I knew well enough that was sufficiently important to warrant writing about.
Eventually, I decided to write a satirical novel about systemic problems in our criminal justice system, something I knew a fair amount about as a result of representing inmates in class action conditions of confinement suits as a legal aid attorney and, later, as a lawyer with the ACLU National Prison Project. (https://www.aclu.org/aclu-national-prison-project)
In the summer of 1994, while traveling by train to a deposition in Washington, D.C., I scribbled the first lines on a legal pad of what would become Something Is Rotten in Fettig. Not yet having more than a vague notion that the trial of someone named Leopold Plotkin would be the centerpiece of the plot and that the trial would be a Kafkaesque spectacle, I placed the petrified kosher butcher at the Accused’s Table in the Low Court of Criminal Transgressions, waiting for his trial to begin.
Over the course of the next several months, a more detailed plot emerged as I thought more about the book and added paragraphs, here and there, as inspirations arose and time permitted.
As the years passed, I continued to write in small increments. Hewing to the proposition that one should write about things one knows, I created a cast of characters who resembled people I knew from my law practice, exaggerating their idiosyncrasies and behavior to make points.
As I came to better understand Plotkin, the story arc eventually came into high relief with characters such as Umberto Malatesta (the bombastic Prosecutor General who brought the meat merchant to trial), Felix I. Bleifus (the feckless lawyer with the Society for the Apparent Representation of Indigent Criminal-Types who was originally supposed to defend Plotkin), and Wolfgang Stifel (the Lilliputian judge who longed to facilitate Plotkin’s conviction) populating the novel.
The characters led me in various directions, sometimes down blind alleys, more often along avenues that enriched the narrative. During the next twenty years, I wrote whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself.
After retiring a few years ago, the opportunity presented itself much more often. When a draft of the entire manuscript was finally completed in 2014, I asked my wife, along with a friend, for honest critiques. Abjuring false praise, they pointed out that the alleged novel was verbose, riddled with too many adjectives and adverbs, lacked credible dialogue and in other ways woefully inadequate. Though my feelings were pricked by these frank assessments, I vowed to carry on and, in the ensuing months, edited dozens of versions until at last, in the summer of 2015, I naively concluded that there was nothing more to be done.
Believing that the book was ripe for publication, I submitted the manuscript to scores of publishers, hoping that one of them would agree with that conclusion. After receiving a raft of rejections, I was about to give up. However, with the encouragement of my wife, I submitted to a few other places, despite believing that nothing would come of it. A month or so later, Anaphora Literary Press, a small publisher located in Georgia, offered to publish it.
Naively thinking that the twenty year gestation period was finally over and that Something Is Rotten in Fettig would soon be an actual physical book, my wife and I celebrated.
Unfortunately, the celebration proved to be premature. The end was not even remotely in sight. During the ensuing several months, in an exhausting editing process encouraged by Anaphora, I excised pounds of superfluous verbal fat and needless digressions from the manuscript. The 120,000 word tome was ultimately reduced to a much tighter and more enjoyable 80,000 words.
In February of this year, the book was published. My wife and I celebrated again. This time, the celebration was not premature.
Where did you do most of the writing for SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN FETTIG? Can you describe the place using the five senses?
The early writing (i.e. the first decade and a half) occurred in coffee shops, bookstores, libraries, motel rooms, courthouses (while awaiting jury verdicts), and railroad cars (traveling to depositions and other law-related activities).
The later writing (five years or so) took place in a small writing room of the converted farmhouse I share with my wife. Coffee shops were among my favorite places to write because background chatter and aromas stimulated my imagination. The writing room, however, afforded me the necessary solitude to focus on the final stages of the writing and editing processes.
The sparse writing room is furnished with only a deeply distressed library table with indentations and indecipherable scribbles to use as a desk; a tattered, second-hand computer with two letters worn away (both frequently used vowels); two lamps; an easy chair and a stash of jellybeans in a table drawer. As the dappled sunlight from the surrounding trees brightens the room, I am essentially alone with my thoughts and able to fully concentrate.
When you wrote it did you use pen and paper or laptop? Did you write at a certain time of day? Did you have to have music playing, or a certain drink or snack?
Until the last few years, I wrote with pen and paper because I didn’t know how to use a computer. Every few weeks, I would have my secretary transcribe the handwritten drafts on a computer. At some point, my wife managed to convince me that writing with a computer was not as intimidating as it seemed, would be more efficient and could enhance my creative powers. With her assistance, I learned the necessary skills of computing and abandoned the practice of writing in longhand. My wife turned out to be prescient. Writing on a computer was more efficient. And I believe that composing on a computer greatly improved the work product.
As time passed, I evolved into a coffee addict. This enhanced my stamina, if not the writing.
After retirement, I wrote from six in the morning until about noon when my creative energy tended to wane. However, I thought about the book throughout the day. Occasionally, my best ideas came at night, while lying in bed, waiting to descend into sleep. More often, I was inspired when reading other satirical books in the afternoon, or while weeding my wife’s gardens.
It would be an understatement to characterize my post-retirement way of life with the writing process as obsessive-compulsive.
What was the most compelling part of the book for you to write and why? May I include it as an excerpt?
I believe that the most compelling parts of the book are the chapters (chapters 18 and 19) that detail the inadequacies of public defender services to indigents accused of crimes. This is because, rather spectacular shortcomings continue to exist in the criminal justice system, despite the landmark Supreme Court ruling a half century ago (Gideon v. Wainwright) that established the constitutional right of indigent criminal defendants to free legal representation in cases that can result in imprisonment.
With the nominal services often provided by public defender offices in mind, I satirized their token representation in a scene where Plotkin is introduced to Felix I. Bleifus, a marginal employee of the “Society for the Apparent Representation of Indigent Criminal-Types” and the public defender appointed to represent Plotkin. Although Bleifus is exaggerated, his apathetic attitude and the inferior service he is prepared to offer/invest in Plotkin, are all too representative of public defender offices in our country.
In these chapters, I found an opportunity to raise awareness of the injustices that are all too often put into practice by the very office designed to mitigate inequalities of representation in the criminal justice system.
Can you go into detail about the publishing process?
The process has been, among other things, extremely time-consuming, frustrating, and ego-deflating. Despite these negatives, in the main it has been gratifying to successfully work through the publication process. Although I knew, going in, that it would be difficult if not impossible to find a publisher, my rather thin skin was easily pricked by the raft of form rejection letters. The disappointment evaporated when the book was accepted by a publisher. While I realized that there would have to be a round of editing before the manuscript would arguably warrant publication, I was stunned by how much editing was needed to enhance the writing. On the other hand, I was proud and elated when I read the published version. I was disappointed by how many of the fifty newspapers and other professional review sites declined to review my novel, but thrilled when Kirkus and several other reviewers published positive critiques.
More important, I was gratified by letters from readers telling me that they enjoyed the novel and encouraging me to write another book (which unbeknownst to them, I had already begun drafting on the trusty old computer in my Spartan writing room).
Excerpt Chapter 19
Felix I. Bleifus tottered into the Legal Consultation Room, clutching a briefcase with one hand, a handkerchief with the other. Ashen and stoop-shouldered, he personified chronic
The lawyer eased into a chair without acknowledging Plotkin. It was not his custom to look at potential clients during initial intake sessions. When meeting prospective clients for the first time, he ordinarily fixed his eyes on the Society’s intake sheet or his watch.
“I am Bleifus, a permanent probationary attorney with the Society for the Apparent Representation of Indigent Criminal-Types,” he said as he removed a set of papers from his briefcase. “And you are Nussbaum?”
“No, I’m Plotkin,” the butcher corrected.
“Where’s Nussbaum?” Bleifus asked before emitting a fusillade of raucous coughs.
“I have no idea,” said Plotkin.” Alarmed by his visitor’s coughing, he backed away from the screen that separated him from the lawyer as a precautionary measure.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Bleifus exclaimed. “Plotkin is sixteenth on the list. Nussbaum is first.”
“I can leave,” Plotkin offered deferentially.
“No, I might as well get rid of you now; Nussbaum can wait,” said Bleifus.
The lawyer placed a single piece of paper on a table.
“Repeat your name to ensure that it isn’t placed in Nussbaum’s le by mistake. If that happens, you’ll never hear from the agency again. You’ll be left out in the cold.”
“I’m Leopold Plotkin,” the butcher repeated.
The notorious name meant nothing to Bleifus. The lawyer was a man of limited curiosity who rarely read newspapers or discussed current affairs. Although vaguely aware of the Mud Crisis, Bleifus knew nothing about its origin or the person who ignited it.
“I don’t have a wife.”
“Children, legitimate or otherwise?”
“I assume you’re familiar with the Society?”
“Not at all.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Bleifus droned with regret. “Due to your ignorance, I’m obliged to explain what the Society is...does...does not do...will not do...cannot do...and has never done—unless you’re willing to listen to a condensed version of our services that glosses over most of the information I’m otherwise required to pro- vide. I hope you’re willing to hear the short version. I have more than two dozen criminals to see today.”
“The condensed version is ne,” said Plotkin, who didn’t want to spend any more time with the sickly-looking lawyer than necessary.
“Thanks for being so flexible and disinterested,” Bleifus said, still not looking at Plotkin. He removed the condensed version from his briefcase and began to recite. “’Reduced to its essence, the Society represents criminals who are too poor to purchase the actual services of private lawmongers and provides them with the apparent services now required by the Constitution.’”
“Did you say apparent services?” Plotkin asked.
“I may have,” Bleifus replied.
“That bothers me a li le, if you did,” said Plotkin. “Linguistically speaking, the word connotes something superficial, ephemeral, ostensible, specious, or pretended.”
Glancing at his watch, Bleifus saw that a minute of the eight minutes allotted to intake sessions had already slipped by. Always concerned about time, he returned to the condensed version with- out bothering to address Plotkin’s concern.
“’Why has a Society representative come to see me? You are probably asking yourself,’ the lawyer read. “In a nutshell, there are two reasons. The first is to determine if you are poor enough to qualify for the Society’s array of apparent services. The second is to propose a strategy that will bring about a speedy and just resolution of your legal nightmare and remove the dark clouds of uncertainty hovering over you and possibly over a loved one, if you have any.’”
“I have several,” Plotkin interjected, not wishing to be seen as someone without loved ones.
“As we get to know each other intimately during our brief time together today,” Bleifus said without enthusiasm as he reviewed the remaining sections of the truncated sketch, “the Society hopes we will form a strong enough bond so you will accept my advice without questioning its wisdom. Do you understand?”
“I believe so,” Plotkin replied.
“Now we turn to the eligibility standard for our broad range of services,” said Bleifus. “To be eligible, one must be indigent. Do you consider yourself to be at or near the poverty level and, if so, why?”
“I suppose so,” Plotkin replied. “My business barely makes a pro t.”
“How meager are your typical earnings?”
“Do you have any dependents?”
“How many and who?”
“Four. My elderly father, decrepit mother, and two unhinged uncles.”
“Considering the number of mouths you have to feed, the ages of the mouths, and other factors that need not be discussed, you qualify under our sliding scale for the entire range of apparent services, which in the Society’s estimation need not, should not, and, hopefully, will not have to be delivered in this instance.”
After surviving another coughing fit, Bleifus resumed reading from the shortened script. “’Now that we’ve forged an intimate and trustful relationship, this is a good time to touch upon the Society’s overarching policy. What is the policy? Simply stated, it is to encourage clients the Society apparently represents to plead guilty and throw themselves on the mercy of the Court rather than risk a trial, an event replete with catastrophic possibilities for you and your loved ones, not to mention Society lawmongers. A superficial in-depth study shows that, in most instances, clients who insist on a trial and waste the Court’s time receive harsher punishments when it comes time to sentencing.’”
Bleifus consulted his watch again. After determining that several more precious minutes had elapsed, he resumed reading at a slightly faster pace. “’This remarkable cause and effect phenomenon—a slight reduction in sentence in exchange for foregoing trial—is most likely due, if it exists, to judicial gratitude for having been spared the burden of presiding over yet another trial. That said, I can assure you with sincere disingenuousness that the Society cares deeply about its apparent clients and will be at or near your side every step of the way to conviction, even if you foolishly choose to hold-out for a trial. We are committed to a high level of apparent representation whether you have sufficient intelligence to plead guilty or stubbornly require our over-taxed lawyers to sit beside you for however long it takes to convict you. Should you reject a mercy-throwing, an a attorney assigned to apparently represent you will introduce himself minutes before trial and remain in your general vicinity, a foot or two away, until you are led from the courtroom in chains, a broken man, to serve your sentence.’”
Still staring at the intake manual, Bleifus asked Plotkin if he had any questions, hoping that he didn’t.
“I have a three-part question,” Plotkin said.
“Oh,” said Bleifus with bitter disappointment.
“What do Society lawyers do to prepare for trial when an inmate decides not to throw himself on the court’s mercy; how long, before trial, does preparation begin; and how much time is usually spent preparing for trial?” Plotkin asked.
Surprised by the uniqueness of the inquiry, Bleifus needed a moment to compose a reply. “As far as I know, most of us don’t prepare. However, if you’re hooked-up with an idealist, you might get one who prepares a li le.”
When Plotkin said that he had no other questions, Bleifus was delighted.
“Before I call for a guard to take you back to your cell, I’d like to confirm that you will participate in a mercy-throwing,” Bleifus said.
“Actually,” Plotkin replied, “I haven’t decided. It’s something I have to discuss with my father. Can I tell you later?”
Shocked by his potential client’s obstinacy, Bleifus looked at the butcher for the first time. Squinting through the mesh screen that separated him from Plotkin, he struggled to make sense of the morose man standing on the other side of the divide. When squinting, he saw the bloodstains on Plotkin’s clothing.
The lawyer suspected that the stains were the residues of a violent crime and asked with uncharacteristic curiosity, “What’s that on your shirt?”
“Splattered blood,” Plotkin replied nonchalantly.
“That’s a lot of splatter,” Bleifus noted with disgust. Violent criminals were his least favorite clients.
“Unfortunately,” Plotkin lamented, “the shirt is ruined. I was standing too close to the jugular when I severed it.”
“You cut the throat?” Bleifus shrieked, his stomach churning.
“Did anybody see you do it?”
“There were other times?”
“Of course. It’s what I do for a living. Unlike most of my competitors, I do my own slaughtering. I don’t like to delegate. When I do it myself, I know it’s done right.”
“You say that...proudly.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, though it isn’t exactly fulfilling.”
“How many times have you done...this?”
“Sever jugulars or the other stuff?”
“What other stuff?”
“Disemboweling, removing brains, livers, testicles, hearts, and so on.”
Stunned by the disclosures, Bleifus fell silent before gagging. When able to speak, he asked, “Did anybody witness you...cutting the jugular this time?”
“Probably. Is that important?”
“Isn’t its importance obvious?”
“I didn’t think so.”
“Who might have seen you?” Bleifus demanded.
“Not to seem ignorant, I think this line of questioning is probably beside the point,” Plotkin said cordially. “If I were you, I’d ask something like why I covered it with mud rather than boards or a curtain.”
“You covered it with mud?”
“You seem surprised.”
“I’m not surprised! I’m appalled! Have you no respect for the dead?”
“What has that to do with my case?”
“Don’t you recognize the heinousness of your acts?” “Heinousness is a little extreme, don’t you think? You must
be a vegetarian.”
“Heinousness doesn’t begin to describe your depravity! Don’t
pretend to be naïve!” Bleifus screamed.
The lawyer tugged at his beard anxiously. “Under the circumstances,” he mumbled, “I don’t see how I or anybody associated with the Society can possibly represent you!”
Unimpressed with the Society’s services, Plotkin didn’t object.
Bleifus collected his belongings and pounded on the door, demanding to be let out. When a guard arrived, the apoplectic lawyer told the guard not to fetch Nussbaum or any other potential clients for interviews; he was leaving for the day. As Bleifus fled to his office, Plotkin was led to the basement. The butcher now understood why his father had such a low opinion of lawyers.