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

April 22, 2009

REVIEW: DOPE THIEF by Dennis Tafoya

SYNOPSIS: Ray and Manny have the badges, the jackets, the guns, the drug-fueled attitudes. They have everything they need to make small-time dope dealers think they've just been raided by the DEA. When the dealers figure out otherwise, who're they going to call? The cops? But Ray and Manny have already done time and they're smart enough to know that their little string of 'raids' can't go on forever. But they aren't smart enough to quit while they're ahead. Or maybe the dope clouds their thinking, their timing. Eventually it's one raid too many, one dealer too big and with too many resources, and you can guess the kind of trouble they're facing. But Ray's got other issues. He's just turned 30, and even if he lives through the violence he's embraced, he's wondering what it's going to take to escape his addiction, his predestination, the loser life that his sadder but not wiser father told him he could never be free from. What's it going to take for Ray to not only break those shackles but also to atone for his sins, the lives he's ruined, the years he's wasted, the hearts he's broken? It looks like an impossible task, and if Ray can't kick the dope, can't make some kind of amends, then he reckons he might as well be dead anyway.

REVIEW: When literary snobs look down their noses at genre fiction, Dope Thief is the kind of book they hurriedly overlook, or else it's the kind of book they claim is the exception to the rule and then go on to point out the vast amount of poorly written crime fic while blithely ignoring the staggering output of bad 'literary' fiction. Because beyond the dark edginess of the writing and the stark depictions of life on the lowest socioeconomic scale, author Tafoya has woven a character study that stands with any literary creation I've read.

And it's not just the character of Ray. It's his pal, Manny, it's Ray's step-mom and his just-out-of-prison dad; it's the thieving, doped-up teenagers he meets; hell, it's even his step-mom's dog - the cast of characters are all so individual, so completely rounded, and so ready to tip in one direction or another and forever alter Ray's life. He's pushed one way and goes another. Thirty years old and just starting to try to figure out what being a man, what being a human means.

The author plays no games with the construction of the story. It's told simply, in third person singular. There are a few well-placed flashbacks to help fill in Ray's backstory. The transitions are clean. The prose never gets flighty or purple, it suits Ray's story. And something not often seen in debut novels, there are smaller story arcs under the overreaching arch of Ray's struggle. The story is well-paced, with dread and tension building just before the raids and then the explosions of violence, then the adrenaline ebbs but the story remains compelling as Ray just tries to deal with the consequences of what he's done and what's happening in the lives of those he loves.

While books like Beat the Reaper may be getting all the buzz, Dope Thief is a book that truly deserves a wide audience. Few writers turn out a book this good on their fourth, fifth or sixth tries; this is a debut novel. I can't imagine how much better Tafoya is going to get, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

You know I love to provide excerpts. I had a lot of trouble settling on just one scene from this book. Here, Ray and Manny have met to discuss whether to use a guy named Rick on their next job. They digress a little, and Ray mentions Manny's gambling problem, and the conversation rolls from there:
"Great, then. She can dole out the money, get the rent paid and keep you from getting your legs broken by Dickie Legrossa when the Sixers tank. What you owe him now, about twenty grand?"

"Oh, stop. It's a couple thousand. Anyway, I got a system."

"Yeah, how's that working?"

Manny pulled a medal from inside his shirt and kissed it. "And I got Saint Bernadine on my side."

Ray said, "You and Arnold Rothstein." He squinted through the smoke from Manny's cigarette. "You're the one asked me to dole out the money. Hey, though, you got to love that there's a patron saint for gambling degenerates."

Manny waved his arm expansively. "There's a saint for every fucking thing. My ex-wife's cousin, Deborah?"

"The good-looking one."

"She says there's a patron saint for meth cookers."

Ray held a palm up as if to stop the flow of bullshit. "Get the fuck out."

Manny held his hand across his chest, cigarette out. "I swear to Christ. Saint Cosmas she says. He's like the patron saint of people who work with chemicals. She was dating that guy, you know the one. Jacques or Jocko or some shit."

"I remember. He's in Graterford now, right?"

"When she moves in and finds out he's dealing, she goes to the priest and asks what does she do. You can imagine that conversation."

Ray smiled. "He's cooking in the house, the kid's there..."

"But deep down he's a good guy."

"A sweet girl, not a smart one."

"No. But the priest comes up with Saint Cosmas. And of course that she should dime Jocko."

"Which she does."

Manny gave a half-shrug. "Of course, the asshole is also beating her and the kid, so..."

"Well, wherever he is, I'm sure Saint Cosmas is looking out for him."

They stood in the lot for a minute. Ray watched tiny waves cross a coffee-colored puddle. "So...the Rick question."

"You really think the cops would get onto us and try to put a guy inside?"

"Don't seem likely, huh?"

"What are we, the Dillinger gang? I think we run into trouble, it ain't going to be that kind. I don't see nobody calling the cops."

They both thought about that. You could only do this shit so long. Someone was going to recognize them, or follow them, or just do something brainless when they came in the door. They wore the cop jackets and badges and they moved with purpose and told themselves they were smart, but there was only so much luck and then it was gone. At the end of the day they were as doomed as the goofy bastards they were ripping off. Manny and Ray would do lines in the truck before they went in, getting their edges sharp, making their minds fast. It couldn't go on forever. Everyone was high. Everyone was stupid. Everyone had guns.

April 14, 2009


Reading and reviewing a graphic novel are both firsts for me, so bear with me. I'm a rookie here. I saw this book in the library and was unable to resist the artwork.

SYNOPSIS: P.I. Fernandez Britten and his partner, Stewart Brulightly, are hired to discover the truth behind the mysterious death, officially a suicide, of Berni Kudos.

REVIEW: Well, here's the hard part: reviewing a format I've no familiarity with. I can't draw any comparisons to other graphic novels because I haven't read any others. I can only tell you what I think about this one and compare it, unfairly perhaps, to all-prose novels.

The story is noir in that those characters who want or seek salvation are doomed not to find it, and those who want and find the truth are never really prepared for it and ultimately reject both truth and those who reveal it. Pacing isn't something the reader has to worry about, the book is only about 98 pages in length with fully 75% or more of the story told in the artwork. The pacing, the tension, the atmosphere, the emotions of isolation, despair, and soul-deep pain, are all captured in what I, in my admittedly untrained eye, consider to be superlative graphics. There is little color in the graphics, much of it is in shades of gray, and what color there is is muted. There are no vibrant colors ever. The drawings themselves are quick shots - sometimes half shots - from differing perspectives that lend much to the ambience. The artwork is the setting here; no need for the elegiac lyricism of James Lee Burke or the sharp-edged poesy of Ken Bruen. Pictures do indeed say a thousand words. But more on that later.

The text and dialogue, scant though it is, fits perfectly with both story and art, and Raymond Chandler wouldn't be ashamed to own much of it. Here's a small, very brief, sample:
All-night greasy-spoons -- sanctuaries for the sleep-deprived -- sat placidly out of reach of the long arm of the Waiters Union.

An oily no-man's land of drowsy static, caught between sleep and wakefulness.

The black depression suffered by PI Fernandez Britten is captured not only by the text but by the vision of his stark bedroom where he sleeps with his clothes on, by the sad eyes that appear bruised, by his hangdog expression. The old command to writers to "show, don't tell" is followed to perfection throughout a story that is original but feels like it was just found last week among the papers of a revered noir writer.

By now you may be thinking I was captured, hook-line-sinker-rod-and-reel, by this book. And you'd almost be right. Have you noticed I haven't said much about Britten's partner, Stewart Brulightly? Mm, yes, well. How do I put this... there's something about Stewart... well, there's no way to say this but to say it: Stewart Brulightly is a teabag. No, seriously, he's a teabag. Literally. Britten carries him/it around in his pocket. That's just the kind of gimmicky bit of nonsense that turns me right off a story. However, at less than 100 pages and most of it pictures, I hung in there. I'm glad I did. Whatever the author's intent in making a teabag a character, there is a purpose served by Stewart's presence - and it's not for refreshment, at least, not all the time. No, Stewart serves as a sounding board for Britten's thoughts and inner conflict when he's alone. And occasionally as slight comic relief.

Now that's one way of looking at Stewart's character. The other is that since Stewart does not interact with other characters, it's possible that Britten has gone right 'round the twist, talking to a teabag and carrying it everywhere, and that he is only a half step away from commitment to an asylum. Either way, Stewart is essentially a device that aids the author to use fewer words than she would otherwise have to while also adding depth to the story and character. No self-respecting writer of an all-prose work of noir could ever hope to get away with such a character/device, but it works here. Mostly. I don't know whether such devices are often used in graphic novels, whether this is something I should expect in other graphic novels, or whether Berry hit on something original albeit just the kind of thing that causes prose readers like me to clutch tightly to our disbelief while reading.

I have only a couple -- OK, three more small quibbles, and again I don't know whether these things are true of all or most graphic novels. I found them to be irritants though. One is that there are no chapters as with an all-text novel. That means there are no clearly defined places where the reader feels comfortable marking the spot and going off to see the man about trapping that giant opossum who wanders about in daylight and tries to get in my house. (Yes, you read that right.) Second, there are no page numbers so if I don't have a book mark handy, I can't just remember the page number and go right back to where I left off. Both of those omissions, chapters and page numbering, may be due to the flow of a graphic novel; maybe the author wants the reader to have more of a 'movie' experience than a 'book' experience, but I think it would take a lot of time and a lot of graphic novels under my reading belt before I could become accustomed to rather than irritated by that lack. Third, the dialogue balloons or whatever they're called, well, it wasn't always clear to me who was talking. Sometimes I had to read a page over again to figure out who was talking.

Now, I did say I'd get back to that bit about pictures saying a thousand words. And this is not meant to denigrate graphic novels, especially this one which I think is a remarkable book. Maybe pictures can replace words, but I think I'm a person who enjoys reading or hearing the words. I like it when a writer uses words to convey deep emotions; to place in my mind's eye a city, an apartment, a restaurant, a park; to create characters who live and breathe in my mind's eye without ever giving a physical description. The articulation does more for my imagination than pictures, however well done they may be. Those pictures will always be someone else's ideas and imagination, and they leave little or nothing for my brain to do. All the work is done for me. Imagine Elvis Cole and Joe Pike in a graphic novel. It would be just the same as Crais selling those characters to Hollywood. We'd be stuck with someone else's idea of what those characters are like. The argument to that is in this case Britten and Brulightly are original characters to this graphic novel and the art was done by the author. No problem, then, I just wish there had been more for me to do besides turn the pages and try to sort out the dialogue balloons.

So now I've rambled on, let me try to summarize it all: Britten and Brulightly is a terrific graphic novel, although admittedly I have nothing similar with which to compare it. But if I were going to make a habit of reading graphic novels I would want them all to have stories and artwork as good this book has. I'm pretty sure that with this book Hannah Berry has got a great career underway.

Life imitates art, lacks the irony.

I saw this article this morning about a 5-year old riding unchaperoned on the NYC subway. A parent's nightmare. I couldn't help but be reminded of an outstanding short story I read earlier this year: Going, Going, Gone by Peter Blauner. The story appeared in Best American Mystery Stories of 2007 but you can listen to it, if you're not familiar with the story, here on one of NPR's Selected Shorts program. Be patient, give it a few seconds to start loading and get through NPR's intro.

April 12, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Detective Mercado illegally enters the USA in order to find her father's killer and exact revenge. But for vengeance to equal justice, she must not only discover the truth about the killer, but also the truth about her father and about herself.

I read this book through twice, it was that good. If you're already a fan of McKinty's Michael Forsythe books, let me just say that I think this book is even better. The story is a strong one, with wonderful characterization told through the first person of Detective Mercado. Bolstering the plot is a pace that blisters at the opening, pulls back just slightly, pounds the reader again, pulls back, relaxes, and then HAMMERS the denouement into the reader's head. And in closing, he allows the sun to warm your bones while an almost undetectable breeze raises goose bumps. When I finished this book I felt as a giant marlin must when he's been landed by an expert fisherman.

Yeah. It's that good.

It's a rare author who can write a strong female protagonist without going over the top. Mercado is strong, but human. Bright but not brilliant. Determined but not rigid. Tender but not a fool. As a cop you might not expect her to be so naive on occasion, but even she knows that another ten years on the job and she won't even be able to recognize naivete in another. She's conflicted, as we all are if we only admit it. The secondary characters are brilliantly limned, nobody is either good or bad, black or white, to the bone. Every character has a life beyond this story.

In telling the story of Mercado's pilgrimage to the place where her father died, McKinty doesn't flinch from showing America's racism and class consciousness, but he never allows those realities to turn the focus of his story from Mercado's mission. Instead he uses the ugliness as the underpinnings that allow the story to unfold as it does. And McKinty creates a Havana, Cuba, unlike any I've read and which I suspect is far closer to reality than many of us have guessed.

The plot is relatively simple but the characters, the setting, and the tension all make it succeed and feel original. But what really sets this book apart, and above -- way, way above -- similar stories, is the prose. McKinty is a poet. Now don't freak out. McKinty doesn't go all Lord Byron or anything. His prose is sparse, even staccato at times, yet still fluid and evocative. If his words were dance they would be more tango than flamenco. None of that frilly waltzing.

Fifty Grand is worthy of launching McKinty's name onto a big old heap of award nominations this year. You can read the entire first chapter here, or here's a brief excerpt, in which the narrator has trapped a naked man in an icy lake in the Wyoming wilderness:
I offer him one of the cigarettes. He nods and I put it between his lips. It'll help him. In a couple of seconds the dissolved nicotine molecules will be firing neurotransmitters that'll release small quantities of dopamine into his brain. As the cold starts to get to him, blood will retreat from his extremities and his brain will become over oxygenated, perhaps releasing more dopamine and endophins. The feeling will not be unpleasant.

I put my hand beneath his armpit and lift him a little.

He draws on the cigarette and nods a thank-you.

"I just g-gave. M-man, this is ironic, it r-realy is," he says.

companero, don't you read the poets? Irony is the revenge of slaves. Americans are not permitted to speak of irony, certainly not Americans like you.

He grins.

He probably thinks I'm starting to crack, that I'll change my mind about this business.

I won't but I am so caught up in that grisly smile and the fading blue of his eyes that I don't see the black Cadillac Escalade idle its way to the locked gate behind us. I don't see the doors open. I don't see the men with guns get out.

I don't see anything.

I'm in this moment with this man.

Are you ready?

Are you ready to speak the truth?

Or do you want to wait until the black angel joins us on the ice?

"D-d-don't d-do this. D-Don't d-d-do this." His voice drops half an octave, keeps the imperative, but loses the
tone. "Don't, p-please."

Much more effective.

A call to prayer in the wilderness.

We Cubans are the vagabond descendants of the Muslim kingdom of Granada. We appreciate that kind of thing.

A call to prayer. Yes.

The dogwood minarets.

The ice lake sajadah.

The raven muezzins.

"How d-did it c-come to this?" he asks, crying now.

How did it come to this?

Mi amigo, we've got time. I'll tell you.