“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.