Fred Contrada is a longtime reporter for The Republican of Springfield.
I know Fred because in the late 80s and early 90s, we were colleagues, working together at the newspaper in its Northampton bureau, searching for good stories and getting them out.
Fred was also a neighbor in Florence, Mass., where I lived until 2007, and for several years in the 90s, we were in a fiction writing workshop together.
Fred has a great nose for news. He’s a skeptical guy, and so he knows how to ask tough questions and dig deep. He has a no-nonsense approach to news. Fred’s fiction carries the same weight, and like news and real life, it is serious, sometimes harsh and raw.
I knew this from the work I read of his in the writing group. Fred was prolific, and whenever it was his turn to show us a finished piece or chapter, his work was clean, polished; it would always shock you out of your safety net. His protaganists were hikers on long, rugged and solitary journeys and misfits who tended to wander.
In the years since I moved away from Florence, Fred has self-published four major works. As soon as I learned that his good work was in book form – in February – I wanted one.
It was tough to choose from his available titles, but I picked “New Orleans Stories,” about a 20-something guy named Jack who lands in New Orleans hungry, fresh out of luck and with 50 cents to his name. Jack is one of Fred’s trademark wandering misfits, a guy who sleeps on a bare mattress and has a tendency to get so drunk he can’t think.
In the early chapters of this page-turner, Jack settles in to the French Quarter with the help of a preacher man named Haystack, who takes Jack in, but after Haystack proves to me more of a sexual predator than a man of spirit, Jack moves on and finds his own place, a quaint yellow cottage he rents for about 60 bucks a month.
While this book – and the image of the cottage on the cover of the book – really fueled the fire that has become my desire to travel and explore, it also put a damper on my need to visit New Orleans.
Jack is surrounded by other wandering misfits. There are prostitutes, jailbirds who get hired to work on a painting crew alongside him, transvestites who walk the streets, and a young teenaged woman Jack falls in love with. She has a toddler and seems like a young dear who could give Jack a family, but she too can’t be trusted; she turns out to be an abusive mother who coats her baby’s pacifier with whiskey to calm it down, and she has sex with another man in Jack’s bed.
Fred’s characters are multifaceted, victims of life’s oppression who don’t know how to move forward or get out of their own way.
Jack, for instance, is by no means a freak. He is well-read and spends a good deal of his time reading books so heady I haven’t cracked their bindings, and he is a good and ethical man. But at the book’s end, he has gone nowhere. Fast.
There’s another fellow who is good and kind and so insecure he needs Jack to travel with him on a long and rather random trip to find a job that the guy doesn’t hold for very long. And there is Cat, a man who seems to think he is a cat; he refers to his hands as paws and tends to “meow” when asked a question.
I highly recommend New Orleans Stories – and any of Fred’s books. His characters are rich and alive, and they will force you to think and confront worlds very much outside your own.
Fred’s three other available titles are: Dorchester Ave, Trager Stories and The Trail. Dorchester Ave is available on amazon.com. To order the others, email Fred at email@example.com.
Fred continues to write for The Republican, and he has a column that runs every Thursday. You can find his journalistic work on MassLive.com.