Tag Archives: criminals

Out of Control

The Descent of Man: A Novel by Kevin Desinger (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 272 pages)

Writer Kevin Desinger found a great setup for his debut novel.   Jim Sandusky, a good citizen and wine steward, is home one evening with his wife in a fine, quiet neighborhood when their peace is disturbed.   Jim looks out the second-story window to observe two men in the process of stealing his Toyota Camry.   Jim initially plans to go outside to write down the vehicle license number of the truck that the thieves have arrived in, but once outside he impulsively changes his mind and steals the truck….  Such is the effect of adrenaline on a once innocent man.

That’s right, our good citizen breaks the law before the two thieves get the opportunity to do so themselves; however, as one might expect, this is not the end of his problems, it’s merely the beginning as he now must deal with two violent criminal brothers (Larry and Wade Hood) and law enforcement.

It’s a great premise and starting point – but the execution doesn’t match up with the inherent possibilities.   Firstly, our good citizen Jim is a bit too calm – no make that far too calm – in the face of danger.   Even Sgt. Rainey, the police officer assigned to this strange case tells him that he’s too controlled in the midst of unforeseen events.   As a result, we never feel any actual fear for Jim’s safety, which takes a lot of the air out of this big balloon.

Secondly, there are some strange inconsistencies in the telling.   For example, Jim’s first encounter with the rotten Hood brothers occurs when he goes out to the street in front of his home in an attempt to write down a license plate number.   Yet, in the second half of the story, when he’s being staked out by someone who parks in front of his home each night in a clunker of a Mazda, Jim never thinks to write down the creep’s plate number.   This is even stranger when we remember that we’ve been told, earlier in the tale, that Jim has a pair of bird watching binoculars downstairs in the kitchen.   (This is the type of script inconsistency that’s destructive if left un-caught in the filming of a movie.)

We also see that Jim, who has never had any prior contact with those who live outside of the boundaries of the law, is pretty shrewd – as even Sgt. Rainey will be forced to admit – as he seeks to protect himself and his wife from the literal Hoods.   Yet Mr. Desinger goes to great pains to paint Jim as a foggy-headed protagonist (“…I would grope along blindingly until I simply disappeared into the fog.   I spent the day wandering through mental corridors in the fog.”), a man who really doesn’t know what he’s doing.   So which Jim Sandusky is the real Jim?

Another flaw has to do with the language.   Early on in the telling, Mr. Desinger’s style is awkward (it subsequently calms dawn) and the character dialogues never seem quite real.   Occasionally sentences feel as if they have words missing:  “…the cellar was where I kept the treasures that were no longer in distribution.   The cellar bottle was to represent what I thought the other wines were aiming for, the essence of the grape of interest.”   I’ve read the latter sentence at least 10 times now, and I still don’t know what meaning is supposed to be conveyed by it.

Truth be told, this is an engaging story but it just didn’t feel quite real enough.   The Descent of Man is like an almost great song played not very well.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Descent of Man will be released on May 3, 2011.

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Jailhouse Rock

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $24.95; 416 pages)

“…many of the prophets were either criminals, or prisoners, or had spent time among criminals.”

Avi Steinberg’s story will ring true for anyone who has ever worked inside of or visited a prison.   This is the account of a Harvard graduate, a once highly ambitious and religious person, who accepts a job among society’s outcasts.   Steinberg worked as a freelance writer before being hired as an afternoon shift librarian in Boston’s oldest prison.   He winds up, in Running the Books, telling some great stories of the inmates he was both attracted to and repelled by.   This, however, leads to one of the faults with this telling…  The author never seems to be sure whether the inmates he worked among were unlucky people who were not truly bad, or truly bad people who may have been fortunate to be incarcerated (a number of the inmates died of drug overdoses and violence after being released).

This is like one of those nonfiction narratives where someone with money decides to live without a job to see what it’s like among the working poor.   Here, an upper middle class highly educated young man goes to work in an alien culture and writes about it.   What seems to be lacking is the life’s lesson to be learned from it all.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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