REVIEW: To call Dennis Tafoya's new novel both powerful and moving is to use a cliché too frequently bestowed on undeserving novels. But The Wolves of Fairmount Park is deserving of all the praise readers can muster. This is a story dark and sweet, poignant and provocative, raw and real.
A truly great crime novel is about more than just whodunnit. It's about the characters, and how their lives are turned inside out by the crime. I had a professor once who told me that if you wanted to study crime, you must study two kinds of people: criminals and, well, there isn't a second kind, he admitted. Crime, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. In this book Tafoya has done a brilliant job of bringing his characters and criminals to painful life, and I can already say with great certainty that this is one of the best books I'll read this year.
The prose is dark and lyrical, but not florid, and the author has great insight into his characters. Orlando, the uncle/addict, is so very memorable. The reader is constantly torn between pity, revulsion, fear, and heartbreak for him, and yes, pride in him, too. Orlando may be the one character who doesn't deceive himself, even though he will deceive others or descend to petty crimes in order to get his fix. And Orlando knows the streets and the people of the streets as well as he knows himself. He can read intent and motive in every nuance and gesture. To get at the truth, he endures and he sacrifices in ways most people cannot imagine, even while he lies and steals and uses.
Orlando isn't seeking the truth out of some action-hero notion of vengeance either. Finding the truth may be his last opportunity to prove his value as a human being, a value that was dismissed long ago by his family and friends. He wants what, in the end, all of us want: redemption. All of the main characters have their reasons for seeking the truth: Orlando's brother, the beat cop, wants justice for his son. The businessman wants, too late, to get to know his son. The detective is looking to his career. The beat cop, the businessman, and the detective all want Orlando to stay out of the way. His drug habit is perceived to be part of the problem that must have initiated the shootings in the first place. It is easier to point fingers at Orlando and other users than for these men to undergo the kind of self-examination that might result in personal culpability.
Here is an excerpt in which Orlando, shot by a psychotic PI working the case, is visited in the hospital -- the same hospital in which his nephew lies in a coma -- by the boy's father, Brendan. Orlando's girlfriend, Zoe, also an addict, is present.
He heard her breathing and looked over to see her head down, her hands over her eyes.
"What am I supposed to do, you get killed? Where do I go then?"
He breathed out, tried to think what to say. Then he saw a shadow in the door and it was Brendan. Shit.
He ducked his head, a reflex. Looked up at his brother as he resolved from a dark figure into someone recognizable. Saw for the first time the gray pasted into the hair at his temple, the deep cul-de-sacs under his eyes. Looked down again.
"You're out of bed? You're okay?"
Orlando couldn't think what to say, mumbled "sorry" under his breath, looked from Zoe's wary, foxlike eyes to Brendan's frantic ones.
"Jesus, Orlando. Jesus."
"I didn't do it. Didn't do anything. This crazy fuck tried to kill me."
"We don't have enough, me and Kath? Not enough to worry about? We have to hear this, too?"
"I swear to Christ, Bren." He held his hands up, empty palms catching the light, and the IV pole rattled. He felt like a ghost, a phantom festooned with chains. Not fully present in life, able only to horrify. Looking from one disappointed face to another. The fact of him an object lesson, a curse.
If you want to read a book that the critics are going to be falling over themselves to praise, read The Wolves of Fairmount Park. I'll be very surprised if this book doesn't make a whole bunch of "best of" lists this coming December. I know it will be on my list.
THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK
by Dennis Tafoya
Release date: June 22, 2010
Hardcover, 352 pp.
Available online from these independent booksellers:
Aunt Agatha's New & Used Mysteries, Detection & True Crime Books
Seattle Mystery Bookshop
Mystery Lovers Bookshop
The Poisoned Pen