The American Horror Show: OJ Modjeska’s Happy Land.

As readers will know I have been grappling with several volumes of memoirs over the past few years. Most of my reading has been in the same genre and I’ve written a few reviews of books I have enjoyed (and some I haven’t). However with the current horror show I have been drawn to some other works which seem prescient of what is happening now.

Cover: Happy Land 2020

OJ Modjeska writes narrative non-fiction about horrible things. She is best know for her aircrash book Catastrophe in Paradise and the two-volume study of serial killers the Hillside Stranglers, set in the gritty LA underground. This was the decade where the contemporary horror-show really got started. Here is another gripping true crime account from this highly skilled writer.

OJ Modjeska 2020

A historian and legal scholar, with an uncanny ability to unfold a story and get right into its interstices, Modjeska opens up a more recent yet less familiar world, the bursting energetic immigrant life in the West Bronx in the 1990s. The topic is mass murder, not the familiar lone- gunmen-goes-crazy version but murder-by-arson, a deliberately lit fire aimed at just one woman which resulted in the death of 87 victims in a crowded nightclub. Julio Gonzalez’s target was his ex-girlfriend Lydia Feliciano who had rejected him. She survived, but the rest were collateral damage. This was the largest single-incident death-toll from a single perpetrator in the US up to that time. The victims were from a highly diverse local community, mostly immigrants from Puerto Rico, Honduras, Ecuador and Mexico.

People were poor but life was not all miserable and was certainly better than the grisly oppressions they had left behind. Modjeska summons up the powerful currents throbbing in these often undocumented and hand-to-mouth communities, with their hip-hop and reggae beats, local crafts and homestyle Latin and Carribean food. Thousands flooded into the area and filled the nightclubs where cheap alcoholic drinks were served and the fun went on long after midnight.

One such club was Happy Land, operating in cramped and definitely unsafe premises. But who cared? They were just immigrants, the landlords made plenty, why bother with stupid regulations about fire-safety and evacuation plans? And who could have imagined that a single, unhappy, traumatised Cuban man who had arrived on the Mariel boatlift in 1980 would take this terrifying course in order to kill his ex-girlfriend. Lydia was a middle-aged woman who had formed a strange love relationship with this much younger, insecure and unprepossessing man, and then discovered he was morbidly jealous, soon unemployed, and definitely no fun. Humiliated and enraged by her kicking him out, he took the only revenge that came to his mind.

As always with Modjeska’s highly skilled narrative technique the story unfolds in unexpected ways. It is never a “who-dun-it” because we know the identity of the arsonist right from the beginning. But the “why-did-he-dun-it?” becomes an unwinding of the whole framework of US urban history, of the flight of desperate people from the failed states of the South, of their uneasy occupation of decaying urban areas and the toleration afforded by the dominant powers towards their presence, as long as the only people they harm are themselves. It is an interrogation of the Two Americas, the uneasy accommodation developed between those who are marginal to the dominant narrative, the profound disconnect between everyday life in the immigrant ghettos and the dislocations that result.

Low income and marginal people are the most vulnerable. Unsafe buildings, appalling physical conditions, dangerous constructions, poor implementation of regulations: all these are the lot of the drifting immigrant populations embedded in rich urban cities especially in “free market” economies. They risk disaster because they don’t have funds, resources or civic recognition.

As is the case especially with her Hillside Strangler books, Modjeska depicts the inner life of the perp, a weak and fearful man unsure of his masculinity and desperate to keep “his woman” in a society where men’s ownership of women was no longer absolute and where women had enough power of their own to make their own complicated but definite decisions.

Modjeska’s great skill is to bring the reader into a sense of deep connection with the time and place when the crimes she discusses are committed. This is rare in popular true crime ficition. In the case of Happy Land, we learn not only what caused the murderous fire, but what happened afterwards.

Rapid gentrification has pushed more and more of the immigrant communities out of familiar spaces and into even worse conditions. Homelessness is obviously one of them. Now even the South Bronx is being bought up by wealthy white professionals, and the places left for the immigrant communities to go are dwindling.

Reading Happy Land is like being introduced to a whole era of recent American life through the desperate actions of one distraught man and his personal struggles which illuminate a far bigger whole. From scattered journalistic and some epidemiological reports it seems these are among the people being worse affected by the Virus at least in New York. The implications are really horrific.

One always learns so much from Modjeska’s books, and they open up questions about this rapidly emerging horror-show society which one day soon must surely be faced.  I wrote this review a week or so ago (end of May 2020). Unbelievably and suddenly, America is facing these questions in the most terrifying way imaginable, today, now, in early June.