It's absolutely astounding that I was never flagged as a school shooter when I was a teenager because two big danger signs were flashing over my head for years: 1) I owned a black trench coat a la Harris and Klebold, and 2) one of my favorite books was The Park is Mine (1981) which I read cover to cover, over and over again. But isn't reading just a passport to adventure? Yes, but reading and re-reading a book about a deranged Vietnam vet taking over Central Park, booby trapping and mining it, and then going to war with the NYPD is probably a passport to an involuntary stay at a monitored care facility.
They don't write them any trashier than The Park is Mine. People complain that "boys don't read" but that's probably because there aren't books like this for boys to read anymore. TPIM feels like the novelization of its own TV movie (and it did spawn a TV movie, which starred Tommy Lee Jones and Yaphet Kotto), which is no surprise when you realize that the guy who wrote it was Stephen Peters, who later wrote the screenplay for trash classic Wild Things. Clearly he's a man who knows his good trash from his bad, and The Park is Mine is the Invicta watch of high quality, luxury trash.
Things start out with a bang as a dude named Harris arrives in Central Park one summer night with a duffel bag full of banana clips for his AK-47. He picks up the machine gun he'd stashed earlier, as well as a military helmet, fatigues and a scooter, then calls the cops, tells them he's going to blow up the 22nd Precinct (located inside Central Park) and then, well, he blows it up. As the smoke clears, he declares the park off limits to everyone, mines the Great lawn, and arms an impressive number of booby traps which he'd hidden inside the park in pieces over the course of the previous year.
The major delight that this book offered a 14-year-old boy were the meticulous descriptions of just how to take over Central Park. Everyone likes to read about how to do things, which partially explains Tom Clancy's career in techno-porn because, as Americans, we're suspicious of reading for pure pleasure and feel a lot more relaxed if we can pretend we're learning something as we flip pages. Even if what we're learning is the best way to kill cops.
Harris has spent a year prepping for his big adventure, and he has concealed firebases and resupply points all over Central Park and the fact that I am writing "firebase" and "resupply point" with a straight face just lets you know that I'm not immune to the military jibber jabber that infests this book from cover to cover. It's the kind of hardcore man-talk that made my adolescent heart pound with excitement and it helps that the book is constantly making "Did You Know?" digressions, like this love letter to the claymore:
"Harris liked the claymore mine. It looks like a curved, rectangular box, about ten inches long, resting on six-inch folding metal legs. The base was made from molded polystyrene and fiber glass. Seven hundred steel shards were imbedded in a plastic matrix at the front of the base. Behind the matrix was an explosive charge. When it was detonated, the shards dispersed in a single plane, in a 60-degree pattern one to five feet above the ground, to a lethal range of about 250 meters."
Shades of Clancy but whereas Tom Clancy prefers to talk about submarines and fighter jets, Peters lavishes his descriptions on handguns and claymores. Come to think of it, he talks about claymores quite a bit. In fact, The Park is Mine spends so many pages panting over claymores that you expect to find a claymore centerfold stapled into the middle of the book.
It turns out that this whole "I'm taking over Central Park," thing is Harris's attempt to recreate his Vietnam experience. Why would he want to do that? Because in the crude psychology of the book, Vietnam is what gave his life meaning and so he wants to do it again and again. As he screams at every cop corpse he creates, "The face isn't right! The face isn't right!" Meaning: it's not Vietnamese.
Eventually, a workaholic reporter named Weaver infiltrates the park and gets caught up in Harris's war against the NYPD, which keeps escalating to new levels of outrageousness as the body count leaps higher and higher like an agile mountain goat. Weaver freaks out and goes "dinky dau" as the book would say: totally nuts. She starts killing cops with Harris because the rush of guerilla warfare is too much for her to resist. In short order, their cop-killing romance culminates in one of the most heavily armed sex scenes in American literature:
"She removed his helmet and dropped it. She pulled the flak jacket from his shoulders. She unhooked his belt and set down the M-79 launcher and the sidearm. She pulled off his shirt and then unbuttoned her own. She pushed her breasts against his chest."
Bringing a little extra crazy to the party is the fact that Harris is swallowing fistfuls of speed for pretty much the entire book. In 1981, when it was written, amphetamines were viewed more as a useful tool than as the Devil's boogers, but even so Harris pops them like candy which can't be making the situation better.
What's truly exemplary about The Park is Mine is how it took two trashy strands of pop culture and braided them into one uber-trashy ponytail. Strand One was the urban blight narrative, while Strand Two was the deranged Vietnam vet novel. Together they're like Reese's Peanut butter cups or Sharktopus - two great things that go better together.
In 1981, the urban blight narrative was already well-established, and not only was New York City its home, but Central Park was its black, beating heart. As Peters writes in The Park is Mine:
"During the day, people filled the Park, lured in by the inviting natural environment. At night, Central Park was transformed into a dark, menacing presence, a no-man's-land replete with muggers, deviates, wild hordes of rapists and killers..."
The book features "Central Park is Hell" highlights like homeless men rooting through garbage cans with swollen hands, cops staking out the notorious Ramble and engaging in homophobic banter, and drug dealers chanting "Good smoke...Hey. Got that herb. Ludes and poppers, bro." Urban blight was a big deal at the time and movies like The Warriors (1979) which includes a fight in Central Park, Cruising (1980) with its gay serial killer stalking Central Park, and Death Wish (1974) with its Central Park mugging all reveled in the lawless sleaze of the wicked city.
Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) added the character of the deranged Vietnam vet to the urban blight mix with Travis Bickle, a disturbed veteran who resorts to gruesome maxi-violence to make sense of the nightmare New York City hell-scape around him. This was preceded by DeNiro's role in Brian DePalma's Hi, Mom! (1970) playing a draft dodger who becomes radicalized and winds up blowing up his NYC apartment building before impersonating a returned veteran suffering from PTSD. The other important deranged vet of the era was Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo in First Blood (1982) based on the 1972 novel of the same name about a returned Vietnam vet who takes on a small town and wipes them out, although he was rural, rather than urban. Then there was Ossie Davis's Gordon's War (1973) a blaxploitation film about returned veterans using their military skills to clean up the old neighborhood and Rolling Thunder (1977) with Tommy Lee Jones and company doing pretty much the same thing for white people.
Many of these movies were based on books, and the feeling was that not only were our cities polluted and falling apart but that fallout from the Vietnam War was a new form of psychic pollution that was poisoning society. It only made sense that eventually the urban blight drama and the crazed Vietnam veteran trope were going to collide. That they would collide in a book that features tank battles in Central Park and a serious discussion in the mayor's office about bringing in Agent Orange to defoliate the park makes it even more delightful. Like a wallow in the delta where two great rivers of sleaze meet, The Park is Mine leaves you feeling relaxed and satisfied, the way good exploitation should. On top of that, it's a how-to manual for taking over an urban park if ever the urge should strike you.