A concentrated dose of sixties mythology, Zachary Lazar's 2008 book Sway puts a fictional spin on the Manson family, the rise of the Rolling Stones, and the Lucifer-referencing underground filmmaker Keneth Anger. One of the first things you'll notice about Sway is that its characters are based on and named after real people, but the author states in an introductory note that the book is a work of fiction. And it is: Lazar's story might weave around and intersect with actual historical moments (Altamont, for instance), but it is primarily interested in imagining how its intertwined characters push beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior and into art (or murder). Despite the blood and Mick Jagger's stage presence, what's most stunning about Sway is how well it inhabits its characters as they think about and interact with one another. Their dialogue is charged with charisma, druggy rhythm, and threats. In Lazar's hands, even a seemingly banal conversation can suddenly point to jealousy, hatred, even mayhem.
Considering the skill with which Sway re-created its characters' head games and rivalries, it's easy to understand why Lazar chose his new nonfiction-ish project, Evening's Empire. The book retraces (and in some cases reimagines) the events leading up to the 1975 murder of Phoenix, Arizona, accountant Ed Lazar. There are no rock stars in Evening's Empire, but the book comes with a live-wire angle, which you'll see right on the book's cover: The victim, shot to death by Mafia hitmen, was the author's father. Zachary, only six when Ed was killed, has almost no memory of the deceased. He calls the project "a kind of conjuration," and writes:
You look at the facts and see an intricate puzzle with some pieces missing. You establish a time line. You think of possible motives, of psychology. You piece together what you know and imagine how things could have played out in rooms forty years ago, most of the players long dead.
Using interviews, research and his ample storytelling gifts, Lazar guides us through the career of his father. In the early sixties, he moved from Minneapolis to Phoenix, where he became involved in a multi-million-dollar real estate scandal with Ned Warren, a smooth if imposing ex-con with a gift for selling uninhabitable land to overseas soldiers. Like Sway, the book has a heightened sense for the subtleties of influence and charisma, particularly Warren's. Though Lazar evokes a Phoenix where corruption was common, he also nails the casualness of his father's social circle—the dinner parties, the alliances with respectable public figures (even Barry Goldwater). But eventually, the scheme slides irrevocably into disaster. Ed is summoned to appear before a grand jury, but he's shot to death on the day he's scheduled to testify.
Evening's Empire is not as successful as Sway. The new book's figures are unknown to us, and Lazar must add too many details to keep his story afloat. So many people were embroiled in Warren's corrupt businesses that keeping track of them sometimes makes it difficult to enjoy Lazar's powerfully understated voice.
Still, there's something fascinating, and even realistic, about this book's confusions. Reading it, one realizes that the situation, like an intricate conspiracy, was beyond comprehension to many of those involved. And even while some passages are top-heavy with background information, Lazar still delievers scenes of criminal behavior that are at once deeply disturbing and morbidly comic: at one point, an eager hitman-in-practice intentionally detonates a stick of dynamite in his yard.
It's impossible to forget this book's back story—Lazar is writing about his father's murder, a crime that must have radically changed his life (the fact that he doesn't remember it suggests as much). For the most part, the author restrains himself from entering the narrative, but toward the end he emerges in deep distress, printing his photos of the stairway in the parking garage where Ed was shot. "You can see that my hand was shaking as I took some of the photographs," he writes of the blurry images. This loss of control is a crucial and welcome moment—it's a reminder of Lazar's ability to write compellingly about a topic that literally makes his hand shake. If his book's motion is somewhat slowed by Byzantine subject matter, it still reveals a writer with emotional heft, artfully terse prose, and searing insights into the complexities of a criminal world that must have looked pretty harmless—until it suddenly wasn't.
Michael Miller is an editor at Time Out New York.