The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

January 9, 2012

START SHOOTING by Charlie Newton

Chicago cop Bobby Vargas and aspiring actress Arleen Brennan were childhood sweethearts, but the brutal rape/murder of Arleen's twin sister at age 14 exploded their world and their innocence. Fast forward 29 years: Arleen has a shot at playing the lead opposite Jude Law in A Streetcar Named Desire if she just goes along with a pair of crooked cops who are putting the screws to the Korean Mafia. And if she can stay one step ahead of those two cops who see her as a loose end that needs tying off. Bobby awakes one morning to find his brother and fellow cop, Ruben, is under investigation for the murder of Arleen's sister. And Bobby, well, to make his week one to remember Bobby has been identified by multiple children as a pedophile. When a Federal agent dies during one of Bobby's vice stings, the hole someone is digging for him gets a hell of a lot deeper. But what do Arleen and Bobby have to do with germ warfare? Or with Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics? And can either of them stay alive long enough to find out?

Charlie Newton's second novel is a rampaging rogue elephant of a story, dense in its complexity, with a slam-bang on almost every page. The unexpected violence and the tense character dynamics keep the reader so on edge that frequent breaks are necessary in order to just remember to breathe. Chapter by chapter, page by page, the author weaves an airtight frame of doom around his two protagonists. Justice they don't expect. The law is a tool for the rich and powerful to become even more rich and powerful. Justice is whatever the newspapers say it is. Happy endings, who gets those? Maybe the dead. Maybe. Good guys? Bobby would scoff at the term, even as he wants desperately to be one, to be a real straight-arrow, stand-up cop. But it's tough when everybody -- everybody -- is double-dealing, lying, and manipulating the truth for their own purposes. Trust has been taken out of the dictionary. Survival might be on its way out, too.

The story rips along at light speed, and the reader must pay attention.  Not only do Bobby and Arleen have little breathing space, the same is true for the reader, and it's exhausting. But their lives, the events of that one week are never less than compelling, and along the way the reader starts rooting for Bobby and Arleen to see even one of their small, small dreams come true. Think of this book as a Michael Mann movie on speed. Now make it more complex, more unexpected, more cynical, and yes, anybody can die. Yeah, you're starting to get the picture now.

The story is told in first person, present tense (which adds to the tension), over the course of one week, by Bobby and Arleen alternately.  Bobby's voice in particular is magnificent, as that of a young cop who has seen too much to retain his idealism, but clings to the last shreds of it all the same. In the opening paragraphs Bobby describes for you the Chicago he knows, a city intimately bound up in race, violence, and politics:
Black, white, brown or yellow, on Chicago's South Side, your neighborhood is your surname. Put on a gun belt, a suit. or a nun's habit, and all you did was accessorize.

For those of you exiting the 'L near Eighteenth and Laflin in the Four Corners, the etiquette is grab a length of rebar, scratch a cross in the concrete, set both feet solid in the quadrant that best fits your skin tone, lean back, and start shooting. Welcome to Chicago, the "2016 Olympic city." We're glad you're here.

How Olympic? We have the best hot dogs, best pizza, worst baseball team, six months of weather that would give pause to a statue, and a river we dye green on St. Patrick's Day because we can. If the IOC could possibly require more, page two is fourteen miles of sandy beaches, blues bars that actually play the blues, icebergs in the winter, four race-tracks, and street gangs with twenty thousand members. Think of Chicago as Club Med, but with issues. Wear clean underwear and socks in case there's an accident, and you're good to go.

On a good day.

Which, unfortunately, today isn't.
No, and the six days following aren't going to be kind to Bobby or Arleen either.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (January 10, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 0385534698
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385534697