On the third day, he forced open his eyes, breaking away the crust of salt that had kept him from seeing the world since the fierce glow of the sun had woken him that morning.  Something felt different in the way the sea was moving his limp body.  He could still feel the bubble of the ocean beneath him, the swell of buoyancy that had allowed him to survive so long, but the waves were no longer batting him back and forth.  The acidic swill inside his stomach had settled.  He no longer had to time his breathing to match the sloshing to and fro of the waves.

He did not bob.  He was still.

At first he could see only the white glow.  But squinting allowed him to resolve faint hues of blue at the edges of the sky.

When he was ready, he lifted his head out of the water and looked around him.

When he saw the objects resting half-submerged in the glass-sheet plane of the sea, he could not identify them.  He lapped in their direction with the remaining strength in his right arm and came close enough to take hold of the nearest of them.

When he gripped it, matted clumps of his soggy white flesh came off, as if the object was serrated on every edge.  From the lack of pain, though, he knew that it was simply a sign of his decaying body–and likely, of his impending death.

The object itself was impossible to identify.  He catalogued its properties with what mental faculties he had left.  It was long, slender at one end.  Some portions of it seemed translucent, others had a pearly shimmer.  He knew it was man-made, but he could not discern if it was a piece of art, some kind of tool, a piece of some larger whole, or if it was something he might have easily identified before he went into the water three days earlier.

He let it slip from his fingers.  It stayed just within the moon shape of his open palm, surrounded by a thin fog of his blood in the water.

Hundreds, or thousands of other items dotted the surface for as far as he could see.  Each might be as puzzling as this one, and he no longer had the energy or will to investigate.

Floating in a Sargasso Sea of refuse, somewhere beyond the reach of the tidal pull of the moon, he was finally finished, finally spent and ready to surrender.  He had survived all that might have been expected of him.

He let his head fall back into the water–slowly, without any audible splash.  His eyes closed again.  Without the splashing of the ocean, he imagined that they would not be sealed shut by evaporating salt water, but he didn’t care.  There were still hours to wait, during which he tracked the heat source above move over his body and followed the orange bloom creep downward through his eyeball.

As night came, the last night, he thought, naturally, of her.



Julie Turkewitz recently wrote an article for The Atlantic on Chris Arnade’s photographic career documenting the downtrodden addicts of New York’s red-light district.

The glimpse Arnade offers into this world is disturbing, and many have questioned his motives and methods.  He is, after all, affluent–photography is a side-gig; high finance pays the bills–and some allege that he is both exploiting his subjects’ situations while also perpetuating them by paying paltry sums for them to allow him to photograph them.

As I examine these images, though, it’s not Chris Arnade who I think should be ashamed.

At least, not him alone.

Arnade’s subjects live at the margins of our society.  They are trapped in a cycle of addiction.  Some live fix to fix.  Many turn tricks to afford drugs.  In a nation of promise, they have none.  Many of them were born into this world without hope.  Some have brought other children into it.  Right beneath the lights of our greatest city, these poor human souls are caught in a vicious cycle of debasement and despair.

It would be easy to comfort ourselves:  I am not a drug addict.  I have my life in order.  Yet our choices and the choices of our elected officials have bearing on these people’s lives.  What have we, as a society, invested in?  How might their lives have been different with greater educational opportunities?  With a well-funded system of interventions, perhaps these people could escape the grip of these drugs.  Instead we send them through the rotating doors of the prison system.  The greatest nation on Earth has allowed these people to languish, and that fact calls into question the whole notion of our greatness.

If you look at the photos–and you should; you really should–you will see ordinary faces, staring out from a wasteland.

It is more than a physical poverty that these images speak to.  It’s a poverty of mind, of opportunity, of vision.  These people cannot see themselves as anything other than raw nerves, seeking out a salve.  And as a society, we have not found a way to see them as anything other than anathema, other than a blight.  We should have been striving together all along to find a route back to dignity, to a wisdom befitting citizens in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in human history.  That we have not is a ringing condemnation of our culture and its priorities, and it casts a pall on everything that is America.

Cowardly Art

Still reflecting on 2012, I caught an article on CNN declaring last year the “Year of Meh.”  The gist of Todd Leopold’s argument being that there was very little that was genuinely exciting in entertainment in 2012.

As a through-and-through movie geek, I paid most attention to his points about Hollywood.  In 2012, I had been looking forward to three giant geek-fest movies this year:  Avengers, Prometheus, and Dark Knight Rises.

The latter two are now notorious disappointments.  Prometheus is especially tragic since even though it was a clunk, awkward mess of a movie with some overwrought characters and some inexplicable ones, the deleted and alternate scenes (yes, I still watched the bonus material for a movie I didn’t like) prove that Ridley Scott had a decent movie on his hands, but he left it on the cutting room floor.

That would’ve been “decent,” but still nothing compared with his original sci-fi classics like Alien or Blade Runner.

The Dark Knight Rises was entertaining while soaking it up in the theater, but a little reflection opens up some gaping holes in the narrative.  More than anything, though it all had the feel of the last, sensational Batman movie, but lacking the bold presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker.  That feeling is getting all too familiar in Hollywood lately.

In the logic of Hollywood-think, “darker” is the new gravy train.  In the wake of the success of 2008’s The Dark Knight, the franchise factory has had its dials spun in one direction.  Sam Mendes, director of this year’s Bond movie Skyfall gives Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight direct credit as an inspiration.  That’s putting it mildly; the film actually turns out to be a kind of remake, with a villain constantly outmaneuvering the hero right up to the end, where the good guys still pretty much loses.  It even includes a scene with the baddie in a Hannibal Lecterish cell after allowing himself to be captured as “part of the plan.”  The need to recast all our pop culture heroes as dark or gritty continues in 2013 with a Nolan-produced Superman film Man of Steel and a new Star Trek sequel so eager to bask in the Nolan effect it’s actually going to be subtitled “into darkness.”

Next, prepare yourselves for the Avengers effect.  After Joss Whedon brought his distinctive voice to the Marvel comics superhero mash-up (which is still another dang comic book movie), Warner Brothers immediately rekindled plans to create their own super-hero all-stars flick, The Justice League.

It’s all so reductive.  And of course, this lack of originality stretches beyond just the action-adventure fare.  Romantic comedies are so formulaic, if you’ve seen the trailer then you’ve seen the whole story.  Hollywood is trapped by the three-act structure churned out by the bucketload.

It’s a shame.  Around the world, there is nothing more iconically American than our film exports.  Hollywood is the driving thrust of our cultural currency, our most potent ambassador.  It’s dearth of originality is a harbinger, a warning to dig deeper into ourselves and find more than an endless repetition of commoditized archetypes.

Yet even in this stew of “meh,” there are glimmers of genius, moments that speak to something deeper in us.  Mathew Shapiro stitches scenes from various films from the year together in his Cinescape series.  His 2012 entry is a tribute to the power of film.  It makes all these movies–slick successes and dreadful duds alike–look like intricate parts of a larger whole.  And that whole is our shifting cultural consciousness, prismed through the twenty-four frames of Hollywood’s often formulaic, sometimes moving story telling.

The End…




Before the year was up, I finished work on my Kindle conversion for the last book of my YA trilogy.  Arrow is now online.

I think all YA fiction is ultimately allegorical, all of it just a metaphor for young people growing up, coping with independence and responsibility.  That’s not only a universal element of the human experience, but it’s not really something that stops in young adulthood.  It’s no coincidence that all of the most successful YA series tickle the broader imagination with the fantastic–vampires, wizards, dystopias, etc.  We need to step outside the mundane to understand this most basic human journey as epic, heroic–as worthy of the page.

I began the Newland Armstrong series to entertain my own children, but I hope it’s also been an enjoyable read for everyone else who has opened up its virtual pages.  Obviously, it’s no seven tome epic of Tolstoy-esque proportions.  I prefer a lean, focused narrative.  A quick, fun read with some of the big questions bubbling just at the surface.

I don’t know that I’ll ever write in this mode again, but I do know that Newland’s story is done so it’s time to say goodnight to him and Franny.  They’re some of my dearest characters now and I hope you enjoy meeting them.

A Year of Writing Dangerously

AP Image

The ball’s dropped.  Another year behind us.

As I started thinking back over 2012 and what I’d accomplished as a writer, I realized that I hadn’t kept much space for my work.  I’ve always held Flannery O’Connor as a high-water mark for writing discipline.  She spent two hours at her desk every day, refusing to grow discouraged even if at the end of those hours she had nothing worth keeping to show for the trouble.  It was the discipline that mattered.

Now, Flannery didn’t have two kids or a day job to keep her busy, though.  In 2012, I did produce a few stories I’m proud of, along with a few noteworthy political rants (well, noteworthy in my book), and of course, I spent the last few weeks editing Slingshot and its sequels.  Still, I had no ritual like Flannery.  No rhythm to keep me producing, to keep me focused, to keep me true to the craft.

So, I think a New Year’s Resolution is in order.

At first, I thought:  Every day.  365 posts in 2013!  Boo-yah, baby!

But New Year’s Resolutions need to be realistic.  I learned that the hard way the year I resolved to give up smoking, pornography, and dark soda all at the same time.  I will commit to a slightly less-ambitious goal, then:

Five posts a week.

That’s it, then.  I’ve put it in writing.  There’s no going back.  I must abide by it.  (Of course, I can always edit this later.  One post a week, maybe?)

Happy New Year!  Look forward to more helmling.com in 2013.


I finished the edit I promised on Boomerang, the Slingshot sequel, earlier this week.  Seeing as Pearl Harbor Day factors as such an important date in both books, this seemed like the perfect day to send it live back onto the Internet.

Unfortunately, I forgot how long it takes for Amazon to process the upload.  But here we are, nick of time, and Boomerang is up and running.

Now those of you who downloaded Slingshot can continue reading the series…and those of you who haven’t downloaded it, well, go do it now.



My daughter–as the first person to read it–has been trying to post a review of Slingshot for the last couple of days, but Amazon doesn’t seem to want to post it.h

Oh well, I’ll just tell my favorite story about writing this book instead.  A few days after I gave her a copy to read I was downstairs working on my computer about an hour after her bed time.  Suddenly, I heard her door open upstairs and the rapid reverberations of her feet hitting the stairs.  She charged up to me and harangued me, “How could you do this to me?!?”

She’d stayed up reading and gotten to the cliffhanger ending.  I’ve never written a book like this before, so just knowing that she’d gotten that into the characters made me think I just might’ve done something right.

Speaking of that cliffhanger, if you’ve hit it too, then I’m working through the edit of the sequel, Boomerang, and it should be back up soon.