Tag Archives: labor unions

A Town Without Pity

The Chaos of Order

Toby Ball’s debut novel,The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is a fine first work.   Fans of crime novels and/or the suspense/thriller genre will find this an enjoyable read.   Ball is true to the convention of short chapters and brief vignettes and anecdotes that keep the reader turning to the next page.

The Vaults are essentially a record (literally a criminal record) of one city’s depravity, and when the sole archivist, Arthur Puskis, notices that something is amiss with his detailed system of categorizing the files, the reader is led along a trail of corruption that reaches to the highest level, mayor Red Henry’s office.   Set in the 1930’s, the story involves tales of big labor, organized crime, political corruption, and journalistic heroes, somewhat reminiscent of a Doctorow novel.

The story is best when it does what it purports to do:  tell an action tale.   The plot is carefully constructed, and the pace is fast.   This reviewer’s primary criticism is that it became difficult to truly care about where the story was headed because it was difficult to actually care about the characters themselves.

In the first half of the book, character after character is introduced with little development and few clues as to what makes them tick or motivates their behavior.   The character one is inclined to be most attracted to at the outset, Puskis, essentially disappears for a good portion of the first half of the book, only to reappear more prominently toward the end to help tie the story together.   Frings, the reporter, who is the closest thing to a hero this book offers, is a rather shallow fellow and not overly likeable.   In the end, Poole, the Private Investigator whose travails run parallel to Frings’ throughout the book, probably comes across as the person with the most conviction and integrity in the story.

There are a few moments where there’s an attempt at social commentary, such as when Puskis contemplates whether the improved technology introduced to the Vaults will take away a layer of humanity from the information people receive or when Puskis and Van Vossen, who has set out to write a book about the tales hidden away, contemplate the significance of the collective humanity contained in the Vaults and come to the realization that order cannot be imposed on the natural universe by man.   Generally speaking, though, there is little of this.   That type of thought and discourse is not really the point of this novel.

Overall, the writing is strong and unforced.   The reader has to occasionally suspend belief to allow for some of the events to connect, but that is why they call it fiction.   This book is recommended.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   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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Dirty Old Town

The Vaults by Toby Ball

If The Vaults by Toby Ball is made into a movie, it will have to be shot in black and white.   A film noir mood permeates the City, from the desolate squatter camps in abandoned factories to City Hall, where heavyweight-boxer-turned-mayor Red Henry rules with a predator’s innate understanding of his opponents’ weaknesses.   It’s big-city America in the 1930s, the heyday of the newspaper, when deeply flawed men can become heroes by exposing corruption.   That’s where we meet Francis Frings, the Gazette’s star reporter, who’s working on a story that implicates the entire criminal justice system and threatens to topple Red Henry.

The hardboiled characters who populate Frings’ world – his lover, a sultry jazz singer; his hootch-swilling editor – are richly drawn.   Frings’ investigation, alone, would make a compelling crime thriller.   But his investigation is just one of three that threaten the mayor’s kingdom, and therein lies the genius of Ball’s novel:  Three “heroes” with vastly different motivations – and no knowledge of one another – simultaneously begin tugging on the threads of the central mystery.   Ethan Poole is a private eye with socialist leanings who’s not above blackmail.   Arthur Puskis is the rigidly methodical archivist of the City’s criminal files.   Mayor Henry lashes out at all who threaten his kingdom, his brutality kept in check only by the pragmatic consideration of public relations.

Ball’s writing is fast-paced and terse.   He rotates the action from one investigation to the next, and in the process, fleshes out a world of ingenious criminality, unionizing, strike-breaking, smoky nightclubs, and insane asylums.   The characters’ quests are provocative and timeless:  Truth, Justice and The Purpose of Life.   The book’s one weakness is the implausibility of the operation that Mayor Henry kills to protect.   But The Vaults is such a good read that it hardly matters.

The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is Ball’s first novel.   It’s a winner, and anyone who reads it will be standing in line to get his second.

Review by Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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For the Cause

The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement by Miriam Pawel

The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel is a unique if troubling look at the rise and fall of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union under the direct leadership of the late Cesar Chavez.   It is troubling because it is a tale told from the perspective of “disaffected former staff”, to use Chavez’s own words.   In addition to detailing the history of the UFW, the book focuses on the purges of early members/followers from the UFW, prior to Chavez’s death in 1993.

Perhaps this is the first attempt to demythologize a man correctly described in the book as “a world-famous icon.”   If so, the reader should keep in mind that this is but one version of the events that occurred.   A farm worker states in the book, “…we (need to) also listen to another interpretation of events.”   We hear little from two key UFW figures in the book, Delores Huerta of Stockton – a woman who appeared on stage with Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles on the night he was assassinated – and Gilbert Padilla; although Padilla is finally forced to leave the UFW.

Pawel has clearly advanced the record on the UFW’s achievements and failings.   But it will likely be decades before a balanced and comprehensive view of Chavez’s life, legend and leadership is told.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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