Michael Zimecki's novel Death Sentences (Crime Wave Press) might be a little too real for some Pittsburghers. His fictional narrator draws heavily on the story of Richard Poplawski, who in 2009 shocked the city when he killed three Pittsburgh police officers responding to a call at his home in Stanton Heights.
Death Sentences takes the form of death-row writings by Peter "Pop" Popovich, like Poplawski an unemployed young gun collector who posted racist diatribes on white-supremacist web sites. Popovich chronicles his past in the third person, as when describing the beginning of his "politicization": "He started with a book he picked up at a gun show in Monroeville that was given to him by some guy who was looking to sell him a handgun, then got all jacked off when he found out Pop was just 18."
Zimecki grew up in the 1960s, in a South Side mill family, studied writing at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon and taught English (among other jobs) before getting his law degree in 1994. The compellingly written Death Sentences (available locally at Amazing Books) isn't "true crime"; Zimecki says most characters are drawn from his own experience. But while his portrait of Popovich is not unsympathetic — the killer's turbulent upbringing, his meager job prospects — Zimecki says he wrote the novel largely to comment on American gun culture and the unintended consequences of what he calls "the right-wing noise machine."
"I think in our culture there's some denial about the motivation of people like Poplawski," said Zimecki in an interview. "This was a guy that was pretty politically motivated. They may have been misguided politics, but politics had a lot to do with what he did. He talked from the beginning, when Obama was elected, that he's gonna take away his guns, and when the police came to the door, I think the fear that was in his mind was that at last what he feared had come true."
Zimecki had Popovich write about himself in the third person because "It allowed me to get inside his head — but then to jump back outside the story."'
Does Zimecki, a left-leaning East Ender, feel like he can really enter the mind of someone like Popovich? He thinks so, and says that it's cynical to think that you can't empathize with fellow humans: "I think understanding is a good in and of itself, whether it brings you closer to people or not."