Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Poor Boy's Game


Is this a great cover or what? 

Well, the book that goes with it is very good, too.  I wouldn't expect anything less from Dennis Tafoya, whose third novel this is. The Poor Boy's Game is about a federal marshal named Frannie Mullen, from Philadelphia, and how a case she's working on in the Philly area dovetails with the escape of her brutal father from prison.  It's a crime novel both exciting and evocative, and I talk about it in detail over at my usual spot, Criminal Element.

Monday, April 14, 2014


I'd never read anything before by Max Booth III, so when I started Toxicity, his debut novel, I didn't know what to expect.  And to be honest, I didn't feel much excitement as I started the book and encountered a character named Johnny Desperation and a suburban town called Loathing, Illinois.  These sort of hit-you-on-the-head names in a crime novel struck me as too obvious and jokey.  But as the book progressed and I became more attuned to the author's tone and method, it became clear that I was reading a book sort of half crime novel, half over the top comedy, and the names fit part and parcel with the overall approach.  What Booth tries in Toxicity is a difficult balancing act, a mixture of tones that more experienced novelists don't always pull off.  He has daring and ambition to spare, and that he succeeds as well as he does is a testament to his skill.

Toxicity follows three separate story lines.  One involves a former Chicago Cubs prospect turned criminal just released from prison. Another involves the criminal's teenaged daughter, her junkie mother and stepfather, and her gentle caring boyfriend. And the third involves that guy named Johnny Desperation, a teenager who gets caught in the grip of a new powerful drug called Jericho, or more commonly, the purple.  You could think of the purple as a kind of steroid for the brain, and the very name made me laugh, reminding me (especially with the book's baseball connection) of that major performance enhancing drug called the "clear".  Nothing is clear to anyone who takes the purple, and as Johnny Desperation falls deeper and deeper under the drug's sway, the book abounds in hallucinatory imagery.  These sections had a feel reminiscent of Philip K. Dick; we watch a character's identity disintegrate as he struggles with the idea of what is real and what not and what he may or may not be chosen to do.  From ordinary adolescent loafer, Desperation turns into a messianic figure hell-bent on destroying the world for a greater good dictated by an entity I won't give away.  We are in the clutches here of psychological horror, and a serious tone predominates. 

At the same time, we follow the nearly intersecting lives of Maddox (the criminal) and Addison (his daughter), and for each of these story strands Booth adheres to a specific tone.  The Maddox parts follow the mediocre criminal and his blockheaded brother as they try to get money Maddox desperately needs, and the tone vies between realistic and comical, even slapsticky.  The element of the grotesque that's played for horror in the Desperation parts is here played for laughs: imagine something of the tone of the Coen Brothers' RAISING ARIZONA and you'll have the idea.  By contrast, the Addison parts carry real emotional weight, and the narrative frequently adopts a genuine sweetness.  You care for Addison in her predicament, and you're rooting for her to escape the foulness she's living in.  The relationship between her and her boyfriend Connor is the most convincing and involving one in the book.

In Toxicity, Max Booth burrows into a world of human stupidity and greed, and he does it in a way that entertains.  He keeps his juggling act of tones and storylines going at a brisk pace, never allowing the novel to drag.  There's a good bit of effective humor.  He connects his horrid view of the suburbs to a caustic look at family life and family ties, and one starts to feel as one tears through the pages that only the lucky will survive.  Not everything in the book works; at times the depiction of people shades toward caricature (Johnny's mother, for example), and perhaps Booth strains a bit too much to make certain characters gross or stupid (Addison's stepfather, Maddox's brother), providing them with nothing more than base or simplistic motivations.  But these drawbacks, all things considered, are minor in the scheme of things. Taken as a whole, Toxicity works.  In a book with fireworks shooting off in many directions, the climax becomes extremely important: there had better be an ending that brings things together in a satisfactory way.  Here, without question, there is.  The final scenes of the book combine horror, frivolity, violence, and sweetness  quite well.  The authorial control is there.  I had a fun time reading Toxicity, and I'm curious to see what intoxicating mixture Max Booth will cook up next.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tom Pitts' HUSTLE

Over at the Criminal Element site, I did a write-up for Tom Pitts' novel HUSTLE.  Below is a version of the review slightly longer than the one on the site.

A fascinating thing about crime fiction is how it runs the gamut from predictably comforting to disturbing and challenging.  Cozies and traditional mysteries would be obvious examples of crime tales at the comforting end, but there's actually some level of reassurance in most books with series' characters, even the hardboiled ones.  Private eye novels, however twisted the story or troubled the detective, usually end with at least a smidgen of justice done.  Recurring criminal characters like Richard Stark's Parker, though amoral and remorseless, satisfy expectations by fulfilling a specified role in book after book.  This is the theme and variation side of genre fiction, and the reader gets pleasure from seeing certain familiar plot lines bent but not broken.  Characters should be deep enough to surprise us on occasion, but we more or less know where they'll end up at the end of the story.
Then there's the genre fiction where all bets are off.  These are the works, primarily standalones, that could go any which way.  Noir fiction in particular lends itself to this unpredictability, and what's great about noir, after all these years of it, is that it retains its disreputable side.  Despite all the good authors working in the field today, most noir is not exactly what you'd call mainstream. In noir's stubborn allegiance to darkness and loss, fuck-ups and crackpots, it may never be.  From a fan's perspective, this is exciting.  It means noir remains an area not entirely sullied by commercial concerns.  So much of the best noir gets published by small and independent presses, and the result are books that can take risks.  Tom Pitts' Hustle is that sort of book, a fearless exploration of a bleak, harsh slice of the world.  In its frank portrayal of drug-addicted male hustlers angling and scrambling to survive, it's a novel with a transgressive edge, and you don't have to read very far into it to sense it will take you where it needs to go, not where it thinks the reader may want to travel.     
We're in San Francisco, present day.  Donny and his friend Big Rich are two addicts with no jobs who make whatever money they can as street prostitutes.  Donny seems to be in his late teens; Big Rich is a little older.  They are best friends who look out for each other, and Rich serves as a mentor to Donny.  They are part of a group of boys who hustle, and from page one, Pitts gives us a clear-eyed view of their tight community:

            ...Down on that corner, everybody knew each other.  Everybody was into each other's business.  The boys depended on each other for information.  Information was survival.  They all knew the regulars, the older men who would cruise the corner in their luxury cars.  They got to know who was married, who liked to party, who liked it freaky, and who was HIV-positive.  Some of the tricks didn't care who knew, but some liked to keep it a secret.

Donny isn't there because he likes the sex; it's the party favors that come with the sex that he craves.  Of course there are dangers, but with Rich as his buddy, he has the right person to guide him through everything.  In his time on the street Rich has honed his survival skills well:

            Big Rich had been down there longer than any of them.  He was bigger, tougher, and more street-worn than the rest of them, but he was still handsome enough to be desirable.  His few years on the corner added up to eons of experience.  He was a seasoned pro.  Rich could smell vice before they ever hit the block.  He'd give a high whistle whenever he heard them coming and the boys would all start moving, walking, lighting cigarettes and talking on cell phones.  It's not like they were fooling anybody.  Everybody in the city knew what went on down there.

Donny and Rich's primary drug is heroin, shot intravenously, but they also do meth and coke.  They love speedballs.  They smoke cigarettes nonstop.  Both are young enough that their bodies haven't started to break down yet, but they're always a few hours away from the first achy signs of withdrawal.   Though content when in a nod in either of their rooms, Donny and Rich have had enough of the street and want to escape it.  They want something better, even if it's just a place to do drugs without having to hustle to raise the money for their habits.  There is a likeable sincerity to these two guys as they discuss their desire to improve their lot, and it's Rich who thinks up the simple plan that kicks the novel's plot into gear.  He convinces Donny that they can use their cell phones to film a session with one of Rich's regular clients, a wealthy lawyer secretive about his sexual proclivities.  They'll threaten to put the footage on You Tube unless the client agrees to pay them off and keep paying them off.  As Rich puts it, the money will be "Like a weekly paycheck, so we can stop the bullshit we're doing out here".  But what they don't know is that their intended target, for all his money, is caught in a bad situation of his own.  He's about to get engulfed in a scheme unrelated to theirs.  It's devised by others, and this scheme, which sucks Donny and Rich into its vortex, is far more nasty than what they thought up.
From start to finish, Hustle has a striking authenticity.  It's an authenticity that comes from Pitts' own knowledge of the world he describes.  He's been there.  But to live a certain life, as part of a specific world, is one thing; to take the material from that world and transform it into fiction is another.  Pitts packs his novel with precise details about San Francisco and the hustlers' milieu, but he never once stops the story's forward movement.  The passage here is a typical example, folding into it as it does points about the lawyer's character:

            It was already dark by the time he reached the intersection of Polk and Sutter.  The corner was near empty.  The wind was blowing and it looked cold.  Regular foot traffic; people with their collars up hurrying home from work, homeless derelicts pushing carts, transsexual hookers in outrageous clothing heading back to their roosts on the next block.  No young men out there.  Gabriel sat at a red light wondering why he'd bothered.  He had the boy's cell number, he could easily call and set up a meeting, a date, but he wasn't up for a face-to-face encounter, not tonight.  A horn blared from behind and startled him from his thoughts.  The light had turned green while he was staring at the corner.  He didn't even want to be seen down there.  Embarrassed, he hooked a right and headed back toward Pacific Heights.

This is clean, fast prose, and it exemplifies how the entire novel reads.  Pitts manages to evoke his world without any sensationalism, nor does he plumb these underworld depths to give us a taste of the exotic.  His prose throughout is perfectly pitched, and he does not shy away from presenting actual sex, encounters between the hustlers and their tricks.  In these scenes, which are essential to our understanding of the people involved, Pitts is able to convey a number of things at once: sadness, humor, disgust, the yearnings of the characters:

            Donny opened his eyes and saw the old man watching, his eyes darting back and forth between Big Rich and himself.  He looked at him there on the floor, lobster bib around his neck, not caring that Donny watched him.  He saw the old man's tongue flicking between his lips like some kind of hideous reptile.  Donny was repulsed.
                Gabriel commanded, "When you're ready, cum on my face."
           Donny closed his eyes again, trying to think of something, somewhere else.  His sexuality had become so confused, so oversaturated, so polluted, that he didn't know what to fantasize about anymore.  He just kept pulling at his cock, hoping he could get there.  Images flashed through his mind, but none of them stuck.  A fast montage of pornography - unfocused, spliced, and flickering.  It was useless.  He thought about the girl he lost his virginity to, a junior-high sweetheart named Becky.  He thought about the woman across the street he used to watch mow her lawn.  He'd watched her from his bedroom on sunny Saturday afternoons and masturbated while he focused on her tanned brown cleavage.  These were the images that never failed him, usually.  They weren't even getting him hard.
               He opened his eyes to see Big Rich achieving his goal and the old man making whimpering sounds beneath him.  Donny reached for his underwear and jeans and started to dress.
               "So, would you boys like to watch TV while we order some food?  I believe they have HBO." Gabriel was already on the phone to room service, taking the liberty of ordering for them.

It takes guts to write a scene like this, not to mention skill.  What's more, Pitts presents the players before us as just human, not freaky or grotesque.  Donny, Rich, and Gabriel are all fully fleshed, idiosyncratic people, and their solidness makes you care about them.  Despite the hustle they're trying to run on Gabriel, I liked Donny and Big Rich, and from the moment he's introduced, Gabriel comes across as a sympathetic person. You don't want to see him hurt. It's as if you're in the corners of all three participants, and added to the mix is the fourth main character, a fifty year old biker named Bear.  Summoned for help by Gabriel to help the lawyer deal with his large problem (not the Donny and Rich plan), Bear is a guy who has done his share of hell-raising. He's had run-ins with the law.  Gabriel is his lawyer, and because of past legal assistance from him, Bear doesn't hesitate to help the old man.  In this gruff, weathered guy who now lives a quite life transporting weed, drinking beer, and watching television, who has a sense of honor despite himself, Pitts creates a type of person I have encountered before in fiction, but it doesn't matter.  Like everyone in this book, Bear has a presence that leaps off the page, and the scenes with him, Donny and Rich, with the two addicts constantly getting on Bear's nerves, are both touching and funny.

              Bear looked up,  "You fuckers got no shame, you know that?"
             "It's a..." Donny was stuck.  He felt shame, more than he had in quite some time.  He wanted the biker's approval.  "It's a necessity."
            Bear went right on, "But then again, look what you guys do for a living, you definitely got no shame.  It's in the fucking job description."
             Donny was hurt, torn, half of him wanting to deny what he did, what he was, half of him yearning to be up in  that bathroom right now, needle in his vein.      
          "You two ought to think about making some big changes in your lives.  I mean, I'm not one to judge anybody, believe me, but, what you two got going, you got some bad karma coming.  It ain't right. It ain't right, right on down the line.  This is no way to live your life.  You know this."  Bear paused to see if he was getting through.  He could tell he was, the kid looked like he was on the verge of tears.
And a short time later:

           There was no way Bear was bringing these two mutts home with him.  He had a rule in his house about guests.  The rule was: No Guests.  Especially not two heroin-addicted, speed-freak, boy whores.
             Donny leaned in from the back seat and said, "We wanna help." And in case it didn't sound sincere enough, he added, "We wanna help save him."
              Bear looked in the rear-view at Donny.  He felt bad; he was beginning to like this kid.  Too bad he was so full of shit.
Bear comes to develop a somewhat protective attitude toward Donny, and as the story races along, the book touches on notions of friendship, loyalty and loneliness.  There's a scene where Bear explains to Donny why he's putting his life on the line to rescue Gabriel, saying that because of the legal work Gabriel did, "you could say I owe him my life."  This prompts Donny to reflect:

            Donny sat back in his seat and thought about this.  What it must mean to have a friend like that.  Someone who you could count on.  Someone to save you.  Donny knew that Big Rich was his friend, his good friend, but he also knew it was the drugs that drove Rich.  He knew that, if shit got bad enough, Rich would abandon him.  He knew that he had no one in his life that would save him.  Donny was alone.  He looked at the back of Bear's head while the biker drove and felt a terrible sensation of sadness overcome him.  It swept over his pain from the previous night, it swept over the drugs he'd saturated himself with to quell that pain.

In Hustle, Tom Pitts has written a memorable book.  It blends plot, character, setting, and pacing beautifully.  It's a crime novel full of twists and suspense as well as an unflinching look at a drug-driven, sexual underworld.  It seems to me that Pitts has the ideal temperament to be a crime writer; he's one of those chroniclers who presents behavior but does not judge.  Not once in Hustle does he moralize.  People do the things they do, and he understands that everyone, as the saying goes, has their reasons.