HUNCHED OVER A CUP OF MINT TEA IN A quiet Manhattan cafe, Caleb Carr is talking about the power of anger. “I write,” he says, “out of outrage. My neighborhood on the Lower East Side, for example, pisses me off with the drugs, crime and homelessness. I’m afraid of what happens the day I wake up and find I’m no longer angry about anything.”
That day may be approaching, for Carr has much not to be angry about. A historian whose last published work was an essay on Somalia in World Policy Journal, Carr, 38, now has a hit novel. The Alienist (Random House), an atmospheric tale of a serial killer set in the New York City of 1896, has won raves (The New York Times called it so grippingly effective that “you can smell the fear in the air”) and has been bought for $500,000 by Hollywood producer Scott Rudin.
All that is a bit ironic for a fellow who dislikes historical fiction. “I hate the Gore Vidal approach, where a writer reinterprets a real person’s life for his own neurotic purposes. Everything in my book is real except for the main murder case,” says Carr, explaining how The Alienist combines fact with fancy. The man hunting down the murderer of boy prostitutes is none other than Theodore Roosevelt, who was then New York City’s progressive police commissioner. Carr’s portrayal of Roosevelt and his times has been hailed by scholars for its lively accuracy. He is assisted by the fictional Laszlo Kreizler, a psychiatrist specializing in the mentally ill (then thought to be “alienated” from society). “Roosevelt,” he says, “is my favorite American. Despite the heights he rose to, he kept the same morals and beliefs he developed in childhood.”
A native New Yorker, Carr is one of three sons born to Lucien Carr, now 69, a retired editor for UPI, and Francesca von Hartz, 64, a social worker. Carr’s parents divorced when he was 8, and the boys lived in lower Manhattan with their mother and her second husband, novelist John Speicher, while seeing their father weekly. Lucien was an early member of the beat generation who counted Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs among his friends.
“There was a lot of craziness in the family,” says Carr, “and a lot of alcoholism among the adults.” Sometimes disputes between father and son turned violent. Carr won’t talk specifics but says the rift is now largely healed and that elements of his life story are in the book. “The Alienist is about how violent behavior is perpetuated from one generation to the next,” he says. As a teen, Carr found a mentor in James Chace, a political science professor and family friend. “Because of his difficult upbringing, Caleb didn’t trust many adults,” says Chace. “I became the exception because he sensed I was on his side.”
While attending Friends Seminary, a Quaker school, “I was the kid flushing cherry bombs down the toilet,” he says. Declared “socially undesirable” by teachers despite high marks, Carr was nevertheless accepted at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he spent two unhappy years with people he describes as “a bunch of beer-drinking morons” before returning home for a research job Chace found for him at Foreign Affairs.
After completing his history degree at New York University in 1977, Carr earned a modest living writing freelance articles on global issues. At night he worked as a director with a theater group and played guitar in a bar band called Hell and High Water. In 1980 he published a coming-of-age novel, Casing the Promised Land, which quickly disappeared. In 1991 he wrote Bad Attitudes, a Fox TV movie about terrorists who capture a planeload of vacationing teens, which he dismisses as “an absolute disaster.” The following year, Carr published The Devil Soldier, a biography of 19th-century American mercenary Frederick Townsend Ward.
Carr’s recent success has made him a hot commodity in Hollywood. He is writing a screenplay based on The Devil Soldier and working with director Joe Dante (Gremlins) on a TV sci-fi show. But apart from his work schedule, Carr hasn’t changed much. Politically, he is a self-described cynic who “voted for Perot and will still admit it.” He is close to brothers Simon, 40, a painter, and Ethan, 36, a landscape architect, and still gets around town on a banged-up mountain bike.
As for relationships, Carr—who has been in therapy for six years—remains resolutely single. “Any woman who gets involved with me is taking a chance,” he warns. “I’m just not emotionally available right now.” That, Carr explains, is why he is vague about the personal lives of his novel’s characters—a slight he may rectify in the inevitable sequel. “Many readers have asked if anyone in my book is capable of a relationship,” he says, laughing. “To which my answer is, when I’m in one, they’ll be in one too.”