Published by Ballantine Books
258 pages, 2004
Enough to Win the Game
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
In Charlie Huston's fast-paced debut novel, Caught Stealing, Henry "Hank" Thompson is a displaced Californian living on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the year 2000. He's a former high-school baseball prodigy, whose all-but-given major-league career ended with a hard slide into third base and a resulting broken leg. Hank's life changed after that. He started hanging out with a different crowd and got into "some trouble." After six years of trying college with no degree to show for it, Hank went to New York City with a girlfriend. She left fairly quickly, though, and Hank stayed, eventually settling into an unassuming life that swallowed him whole.
You're a good guy, you're tough and you have a reputation in your neighborhood for helping people out. It's nice. It's not the life you expected, but it's nice enough for you. You feel useful, you have friends and your parents love you. Ten years pass.
Hank now finds himself paralyzed by past misfortunes and haunted by nightmares of a car crash that ended a friend's life back in California ("I remember the last time I saw Rich and I remember his face as we flipped through the air and he looked into my eyes ..."). Hank was the vehicle's driver, and the psychological scars left by that accident have kept him from climbing behind the wheel ever since. Being a passive man with no firm goals in an aggressive and ambitious city can make for difficult circumstances. Hank tends bar six nights a week, which feeds his binge-drinking habit and gives him bad feet, and engages in an affair with Yvonne, a fellow bartender.
Despite this seemingly mediocre existence, author Huston establishes an intoxicating first-person voice for Hank Thompson -- a voice that bears both an urban neurotic charm and a keen edge of dry humor. For example, after being beaten one night by two goons at the bar for having made a "bad drink," Hank loses a kidney to the injuries. Following his release from the hospital, he sidles up to a stranger and says, "Did you know, between you and me we only have three kidneys?" A sardonic viewpoint and grim acceptance of fate are part of his natural makeup.
But even Hank eventually has his breaking point.
When his questionable neighbor, Russ Miner, leaves town for a few days to visit his sick father, he asks "patsy" Hank to watch his pet cat, Bud. This opens the bartender to a flurry of trouble. Russ, it seems, is a career criminal with several nasty friends, who has been safeguarding a large quantity of laundered money. His sudden departure from Manhattan alarms a thug named Roman and his gang. They want the money back, and they don't hesitate to turn their malicious attentions on Hank.
Caught Stealing succeeds on at least two levels. The exuberance of Hank's narrative is thick with engaging descriptions of virtually everything he does, and the story boasts a breakneck tempo. Huston's plot is straightforward, with very few detours, which serves the action effectively. The thugs here go by single names only -- Roman, Bolo, Red, Bert, Ernie -- and they can be brutish and homicidal, lacking dimensionality in a pulp-fiction or action-adventure movie sort of way. Huston is a screenwriter, besides being a novelist, and he clearly has the dramatic talent to kick up the action and give his violence a visceral edge. After Roman and his gang grab Hank in an effort to make him reveal Miner's whereabouts, there comes a riveting scene in which Roman and Red torture Hank by pulling his surgical staples out with pliers:
The sock is stuffed in my mouth. I'm in the middle of drawing in a lungful of air and the sock cuts it off. I get sock fluff lodged in my throat and I start to choke. I feel like I might vomit. I don't want to vomit. Please, God, don't let me vomit. Please, God, I don't, I just don't want this. Please make this stop. Please. Red gets a grip on the next staple and starts to tug. The original wound was sharply defined, a pain that had carefully designated borders. As Red pulls at the staple, I feel the wound stretch. The original pain is distorted and twisted and a new pain, more crude, takes its place. Just as the flesh around the staple starts to tear, I feel a pop and the wound snaps back.
Hank has to rely on his wits alone to keep from getting killed. The police aren't an alternative. For starters, Hank has a negative attitude toward the cops, which may be a result of his juvenile police record. And as this story rolls along, law enforcement takes on a sinister coloring. In a nice plot twist, Roman turns out not only to be the leader of a murderous crew, but also an NYPD detective. Perhaps a bit too conveniently, and pushing hard against the boundaries of credibility, Roman manages to place himself squarely in the middle of the official investigation involving Hank and Miner. "Any time your name, the name of one of your associates, or one of a few key addresses pops up on the computer, it's tagged and they let me know," Roman tells Hank, ominously. The reader is given the impression that Roman's the lone sheriff in town, with his fellow cops being easily duped. "We walk right past two of New York's finest. I flag a cab and we're gone. So much for police gauntlets," Hank notes cynically at one point.
The danger Hank faces only escalates when a second set of criminals -- siblings Ed and Paris Durante -- show up, also looking for Russ Miner and the money he'd been holding. The Durante brothers are a hipped-up version of Wild West outlaws, both of them dressed in black leather vests, cowboy boots and wide-brimmed hats. The Durantes had robbed a series of banks in the American South and Midwest, and had funneled their dough through Roman for laundering, with Miner holding the clean cash for safekeeping. That is, until the lure of millions of greenbacks proved too tempting for Miner. The Durantes are portrayed as dangerous, but they're also imbued with a warm, polite and fuzzy appeal, if that's possible. Their back story recalls their being shuffled off as children to the Boys Club, only to be picked on. "Me and Paris, we hated fightin'," says Ed Durante. Yet fight they did, and they were good at it. Things only went downhill from there, leading the brothers, as men, to rob banks and leave dead cops in their wake.
As it turns out, the money in Miner's care was hidden in a storage unit, the key to which Hank discovers tucked beneath the liner of Bud's cat-carry case. But our hero is no readier to hand that key over to the Durante boys than he was to give it to Roman, even if Ed Durante -- masking his ruthless determination -- tries to be nicer in demanding it:
"So now, the thing is, Hank, we need that key. I figure Roman, he told you that he'd do something bad if he doesn't get the key, right? Kill you, hurt your people, whatever, right?"
With friends like these, and enemies like Roman, Hank is in a world of woe.
Huston makes good use of New York City's elaborate physical landscape, setting a car chase on the FDR Drive and a foot chase on the subway system, capturing the little details like specific entrance ramps and the ping of the subway doors. A favorite scene of mine involves Hank using a well-known rotating cube sculpture at the Lower East Side's Astor Place as a weapon against a Russian heavy. Too often in fiction, real locales are given little authenticity. Huston knows these streets, though, and has captured the psychology and the pace of the people who live here.
With the perfect storm of criminals invading Hank's life, it is inevitable that good people should die -- which means most of Hank's friends. As the bodies pile up, our hero blames himself for waiting for things to "work themselves out." And he's right in this self-assessment. Hank has lost his self-worth and has lived a life of reaction. More alarmingly, his inability to understand how his actions will impact others eventually puts his friends' lives in jeopardy. There is no mistaking that deep down, Hank is a good guy. He regularly calls his parents, even at the most dangerous of moments. And he develops a real attachment to Bud the cat, exposing his soft side. Bud suffers in these pages as much as Hank does, including being tortured by Bolo ("The Samoan starts to twist Bud's broken leg. He twirls it around and I can see the loose skin bunch up on itself at the break"). This is definitely not a book for PETA advocates.
Hank Thompson has a jock's mentality -- it comes as no surprise that he spends time whacking baseballs in a batting cage, while gathering up the inner reserves to do battle against Roman. His anger is understandable, and palpable. But it can have negative results. In one uncontrolled moment, that anger leads to the unintentional death of Miner, who -- amazingly -- has returned to collect his cat. This blood on Hank's hands causes Roman to point out, correctly, how Hank's path has been forever altered:
"I mean, his dying at your hands. That pretty much screwed you and your chances of being Mr. Innocent-In-Over-My-Head. That was your point of no return, Hank. No going back now. No normal life for you."
Hank finally takes action, and that means answering violence with violence. However, the choices he makes are ones the rest of us might make, too. And his victims are murderers themselves, perhaps not deserving of the law's protection. By the time things are sorted out in Caught Stealing, the reader isn't disappointed. Charlie Huston has evocatively captured that all-too-common denizen of New York City: the transplant from another state who's battered and bruised by Manhattan life and has nothing to show for it. Hank is a persuasive character study, and his response at the hands of unexpected violence drives this novel. Yet, the new life he crafts for himself seems tenuous, and one cannot help but wonder whether the choices Hank Thompson ultimately makes won't catch up to him one day. | June 2004
Anthony Rainone lives in New York City and is a contributing editor of January Magazine.