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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Desperately Seeking DeSario
In 1990, I read a novel called Sanctuary, by Joseph P. DeSario (Doubleday, 1989). Don’t bother looking it up—you won’t find anything. I plucked it from a paperback rack in Iowa so that I’d have something to read while our family made its annual five-hour haul to Grandpa’s farm. As a young Stephen King fan, I thought the machete on the cover had just enough blood on it, and that Chicago Tribune blurb didn’t hurt, either: “Violent, exciting, and quite satisfying!”
Regardless of the reasons, I tore through it like almost nothing else before or since. The story follows a tabloid news reporter named Matt Teller who comes across a bona fide scoop: a mutilated corpse strapped to a metal cot in the middle of the desert. The delirious plotline ends up involving an alcoholic baseball scout, fanatical Christians, brutal torturers, and Mayan prophesies.
It’s brash, whip-smart, brilliantly plotted, ambitious, funny, violent, and, you guessed it, “quite satisfying.” So satisfying, in fact, that I’ve been reading it semiregularly for 21 years. I took that paperback to college; it traveled to each of the eight apartments that followed. In my early twenties, I even had dreams of turning Sanctuary into the next Hollywood blockbuster. I wrote an (extremely long) first draft of a screenplay, but even I knew I had been too unflaggingly loyal to my source.
What I didn’t do—not once did I even think of it—was seek out more books by DeSario. Recently, however, I was weeding my home shelves, an activity akin to cutting off my fingers a knuckle at a time, and found myself flipping through the dog-eared, note-scribbled pages of Sanctuary. The front design trumpeted DeSario as the “author of Limbo.” How had I never followed up on this? Easily remedied: I purchased a used copy of Limbo for 83 cents.
My next thought was: Booklist. Did we review DeSario’s books?
A trip to Ye Olde Filing Cabinets informed me that, yes, in the March 1, 1987, issue of Booklist, Peter L. Robertson reviewed Limbo, calling it “gripping . . . a tough and compassionate first novel.” We weren’t alone in our praise: Publishers Weekly called it “extraordinary . . . a magnetic new voice in thriller fiction.”
Sanctuary was published just two years later—certainly quickly enough to capitalize on Limbo’s heat. But there was no record for Sanctuary at Booklist, not even in our files of rejected titles. Four years later, DeSario published one more book: Crusade: Undercover against the Mafia and KGB (Brassey’s, 1993), a memoir by former CIA agent Tom Tripodi, coauthored by DeSario. That one, by the way, we reviewed.
Then: 18 years of silence.
DeSario clearly stopped putting out books; the world, if it ever cared, stopped caring. This, truth be told, is the real story of publishing. Everything else you hear about is the exception. For these reasons, it seemed even more important that I remind DeSario that great books get overlooked all the time; we at Booklist miss our share. I had been the perfect reviewer to pick up Sanctuary. The only problem was that I had been 15 years old at the time.
I hit the Internet. Library of Congress gave me the most important information first: “DeSario, Joseph P., 1950–.” So he was alive, but where? It didn’t take me long to find a web page from the Illinois Center for the Book. It is nearly devoid of information aside from the following sentence:
“DeSario lives in Morton Grove, Illinois.”
I swear to you, I felt a chill. Morton Grove is a 30-minute drive from my home. I went to Google Maps, drew up Morton Grove, typed in “DeSario” and found a listing for “DeSario Enterprises.” There, staring me in the face, was a phone number. But what if it was a different DeSario? I hopped onto LinkedIn, searched the business, and found a résumé paragraph written by a “Joe DeSario.” It said that he had founded a management consulting company in 1981. None of this sounded like the same guy who had written such a gutsy, gory, globe-spanning novel. But then I read the C.V.’s final sentence:
“I am also the published author of three books, leading many of my clients to involve me heavily in various writing-intensive projects.”
And, suddenly, my palms were sweaty. Maybe DeSario’s adventures in publishing had been less than pleasant. Maybe he’d been screwed over by editors and agents, the vagaries of releasing art into a fickle world. Maybe he’d put all of his energy into a masterpiece (say, Sanctuary) that very few people (including Booklist) had bothered to review. Maybe he would not appreciate somebody ringing his phone during a busy business day and dredging all that up.
But it was too late to stop now. I dialed the 11 digits. It rang three times, and a machine picked up. A male voice uttered two words: “Joe. DeSario.” The machine beeped, my heart skipped a beat, and then I began rambling, quickly straying from the bullet points I’d so carefully prepared. Two and a half minutes later, I had poured my heart out, left my number, and hung up.
Precisely 20 minutes later, my phone rang.
“This is Joe DeSario,” a voice said. “I got your message.”
“Mr. DeSario,” I stammered, “This is really a thrill for me.”
“I doubt that,” he laughed. “But it’s nice to hear anyway.”
I recommenced my rambling: how much Sanctuary had meant to that kid scribbling stories in his basement, how it continued to influence my writing even today. I asked if we could meet for lunch. He said sure and suggested a spot. It was tough to get off the phone; I kept hurling compliments.
A week later, I found myself at the Seven Brothers Restaurant & Pancake House in Morton Grove, shaking hands with the Joseph P. DeSario. My first impression was that he sure came off like a thriller writer: dark-haired, goateed, black jacketed, and possessed of several attributes befitting an undercover cop, including a no-nonsense demeanor and a habit of ending sentences with an are-you-following-along “okay?” The first thing he wanted to make clear was that there were no regrets. “I love writing,” he said. “It would have been great to make a living doing it, but things went in a different direction.”
The story he told was this: in his twenties, the Chicagoland-raised DeSario found employment with Motorola; in 1972, he married his wife, Peg (they just celebrated their thirty-ninth anniversary) and two years later “bought this little crappy house in Morton Grove that we were going to be in for five years.” He grinned affectionately at the locals milling about us. “We’re still there.”
It was during the daily commutes to Motorola’s Schaumburg headquarters that DeSario began to mentally sketch out a story about a masked rapist, a troubled priest, and a detective using herself as bait. In 1981, he founded DeSario Enterprises, and a few years later, between consulting gigs—including helping with a distribution plan for a new gadget called a “cellular telephone”—DeSario finally wrote what became Limbo. But here’s the thing: it was a screenplay.
“I never wanted to be a novelist,” DeSario insisted. But the relatively low number of movies produced led him to believe he’d have better odds of breaking in with a book. So he converted Limbo into a novel; it was surprisingly easy. Through a friend, he knew the name of a single agent; eventually, DeSario made the call, sent the pages, found representation, and then a sale when the manuscript caught the fancy of an editor at Doubleday.
Following Limbo’s strong release, Doubleday picked up its option on DeSario’s next idea: Sanctuary Lost. It was every bit the typically ambitious second novel (“This book,” he told me, “just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger”). It was published (sans the “Lost”), and though it wasn’t greeted as enthusiastically as Limbo, DeSario was—and still is—very proud of the final product.
After some false starts on new projects, DeSario became involved in Tripodi’s Crusade memoir. Though Tripodi became a dear friend (he passed away in 1999), the process was painstaking and devoured three years; what’s more, the book was tricky to sell and largely ignored upon release. Suddenly DeSario felt far removed from the novelist game.
Thankfully—if you recall—that wasn’t the game he was most interested in playing. Producer Mark Levinson and Scott Rosenfelt (Home Alone) optioned the film rights to Sanctuary and gave DeSario a shot at penning the script. John Boorman (Deliverance) soon became attached to direct. Eventually it fell apart, but DeSario was on his way, selling a script called Know It All to Twentieth Century Fox—a deal that netted him more than all of his books combined. He was on the edge of making it.
The nascent cell-phone industry, however, was at a tipping point as well. DeSario was asked to help a small Indianapolis distribution company called Brightpoint go public. It wasn’t that he doubted he would stumble upon another bankable screenplay idea, but with three children closing in on college, it was a golden opportunity.
“I loved playing at being a novelist and screenwriter,” DeSario said. “But I gotta make the responsible choice. Those are the struggles that every writer has; at some point, you go one way or the other.” So he took the job; Brightpoint went public in 1994 and is now, according to DeSario, the largest distributor of mobile wireless devices in the world. “I told myself that when the phone stopped ringing, I’d go back to writing.”
DeSario palmed his Superburger, one of Seven Brothers’ specialties, and shrugged.
“The phone didn’t stop ringing. For a long time.”
The subsequent 17 years are ones he treasures. He was there to watch his kids grow up, and he was able to be his own boss (and with “no damn commuting“). Even me, his biggest fan, sitting across from him at the diner, could not argue with that kind of logic. But then DeSario pulled out a final surprise.
“I started writing again,” he said cautiously. “Just recently.”
There was only one response I could muster: “Really?”
Yes, really. In 2009, DeSario began toying with a new script, finishing it last year. Ever since, he’s been wondering how to proceed, wondering if he should proceed, or if he was just too long out of the game to give it another go. If there’s one thing Hollywood hates, it’s age.
“I’m thinking maybe I should repeat history,” he ventured. “Maybe I should turn this thing into a book.” Unfortunately, he found the prospect daunting. “There’s something about the energy and focus that you have when you’re younger versus when you’re older,” he told me. “I sometimes look back at those days and wonder how I did it.”
It was at this point that he had received my original phone message.
“Who can explain the serendipity of that wondrous voice mail just as I was contemplating how I was going to find my way back?” he asked. “If you’d write it as fiction, it would be summarily rejected as implausible.” My call, it seems, had reenergized him. It was more than that kid in Iowa could have ever fantasized while reading Sanctuary over and over.
With the cauldron of dreams properly stirred and our burger plates cleared, I had DeSario sign my battered old paperback as well as a mint-condition hardcover I had picked up online for exactly 1 cent. (His inscription: “Dan—Once upon a time, I tried to be a writer. Thanks for remembering.”) Then, to my delight, he showed me the original galley to Sanctuary—the very review copy that Booklist missed all those years ago.
Some slights, I realized, deserve to be remedied. Debuting in this month’s Booklist Online Exclusives newsletter is the official starred review of Joseph P. DeSario’s Sanctuary. Yes, it comes 22 years late, but fiction this good has a way of aging splendidly.
Since meeting DeSario, I’ve read (and loved) Limbo. I’ve also managed to once again make my way through all 437 pages of Sanctuary, stumbling across passages that now seem especially poignant. “Time is a burden to be carried,” speaks the book’s villain, and though that’s true, I know there are ways to make that burden lighter. DeSario’s books are still out there. Don’t let your library discard them; snap up those used copies; let’s see if we can get these worthy stories back into print. My favorite quote from Sanctuary comes from tabloid writer (and wannabe novelist) Matt Teller, and it’s a sentiment I hope still pertains to DeSario:
“There was always something stranger, a better story just beyond the next turn in the road.”
— — —
Update 5/5/11: Fortune continues to smile upon Joseph P. DeSario. Doubleday has announced that they will be bringing both of his novels back to life via e-books. Sanctuary will be released on June 15, 2011, with Limbo to follow. No doubt this will bring DeSario’s books to a new generation of readers; perhaps it will also act as foreword to a new chapter in his career.
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