A Dangerous Man
Published by Ballantine Books
304 pages, 2006
The Ballad of Henry Thompson
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
"This is how you lose your life."
With those words uttered partway through Charlie Huston's new novel, A Dangerous Man, protagonist Henry "Hank" Thompson recollects the totality of his harrowing journey, told over a three-book arc that should ultimately prove to be a crime-fiction classic. Hank's tale has transported him from his beginnings as a bartender on Manhattan's Lower East Side (in Caught Stealing), through a quest to protect his parents that took Thompson from his hideout in Mexico back to the States (Six Bad Things), to his current reincarnation as a Russian mob hit man in both Las Vegas, and then back to New York. Serving as a hip-noir testament of a promising life gone horrible wrong, A Dangerous Man forces the reader to witness Thompson's coerced and propelled slide toward the dark side. The slope isn't just slippery for Thompson, it's at a 90-degree angle. While you may want to yell the proverbial "Fire" on this unfortunate life going up in flames, there is no one to douse the inferno, nor an available supply of water. Each book in Huston's remarkable trilogy moves with the tempo of a speeding car careening recklessly down the freeway (a cool, souped-up car, of course), with A Dangerous Man providing the awful wreckage of a conclusion. I have never felt so saddened and sickened after reading a novel; yet, like a TV reality-show addict, I can't help but watch in transfixed fascination, as the mess of Thompson's life is splayed open for America to see.
In the opening salvo of this latest book, we discover that Thompson has undergone plastic surgery in order to hide his identity, courtesy of his new Russian mobster boss, David Dolokhov. Introduced back in Six Bad Things, Dolokhov is ruthless in his expectations. He owns Thompson (and makes sure the latter knows this), because it was Dolokhov's $4 million that Hank originally stole in Book One. With the money seemingly lost at the end of Book Two, after Thompson murders the friend who was safekeeping it, Dolokhov exacts a form of servitude. There is an additional, coercive caveat, in case Thompson gets it in his mind to run again: he does as the mobster wishes, or else Thompson's parents will pay for his disobedience with their lives. Dolokhov's turning Thompson into a hit man is not only physically painful for Thompson (he has to pop pills to kill the pain in his surgically altered face), but the brutality is also sapping Hank both spiritually and emotionally (the painkillers help to numb this, too). The murders of the innocent and not-so-innocent give Huston's protagonist bad dreams (in one of which he plays video games with a boy whom he shot in the head), and portend the certainty of his own demise.
I walk to the elevators and push the buttons and stand there wondering how long I have left before David Dolokhov sends Branko to kill me, and whether he'll send him to kill my parents before or after I am dead.
To guide Thompson in his new life as a hired murderer, and to keep an eye on him, Dolokhov employs a professional Serbian killing machine, known here only as Branko. Branko teaches Thompson about clothes, cars, taking care of himself and, above all, taking lives efficiently. Thompson is an investment for Dolokhov. When he falters early into his murderous role, it is Branko who steps in and finishes the kill ("Branko gave it a minute, then he shot the guy with his own gun"). Soon enough, the proficient Thompson learns how to do it all by himself. Hank's altered appearance is intended to give Dolokhov a secret-weapon killer ("I was gonna be his ghost, the guy no one knows about"). However, someone who does suspect that Thompson is working for Dolokhov is Ana, the mother of Mikhail, the young Russian man whom Thompson killed in Mexico in Six Bad Things. Ana wants Dolokhov to assassinate Thompson, though Dolokhov is more inclined to kill his bothersome sister-in-law, instead. Though small in stature and emotionally wrecked over losing her son, Ana later proves to be a lethal adversary, with her battle-hardened Russian ex-military nephews, Adam and Martin, providing muscle.
A Dangerous Man is filled with musical references, my favorite being the arcane-named "Strawberry Letter 23" (the title refers to nothing in the song). You can't have a hip book -- and this book has cool tattooed all over it -- without dropping song titles. There is also a return in these pages to the subject once dear to old Hank's heart: baseball. (Thompson, you'll recall, is a former high-school baseball prodigy, whose hopes for a career in sports ended with a badly broken leg.) Dolokhov assigns him to protect a baseball player by the name of Miguel Arenas, who's on a gambling jaunt to Las Vegas. A number-one pick and multi-million-dollar prospect for the New York Mets, Arenas is an amiable and betting-addicted young man. Together with his childhood friend Jay, they blow a significant amount of money, mix it up with several beautiful girls, and get into a fight during their single-night gambling spree -- but at least Hank gets them safely aboard their plane the next morning. When Arenas is assigned to the Mets minor-league team in Brooklyn, Dolokhov promotes Thompson to come back to New York City and protect this idolized hotshot, who seems to have taken a liking to our hero ("He will have only one man. He will have only you, Henry."). Also at stake is Arenas' accrued $2 million dollars in gambling notes, which the mobster has purchased. Dolokhov sees this as a means to siphon even more money away from the vulnerable ballplayer.
Sprinkled throughout this novel are familiar refrains from past books. Thompson tries to get in touch with his parents, who are in hiding (though Dolokhov knows where they are located). He talks to them in his dreams, and even renews contact with Sandy Candy, the stripper from Six Bad Things, in an effort to reach them. With a guilty conscience, Thompson also hopes Sandy can tell him what happened to T, the Vegas friend who attempted to help Hank battle two youthful killers; nearly losing his life in the process, T disappeared with Sandy Candy at the conclusion of that last novel. However, Sandy offers no solace to Thompson. Her hatred of him runs too deep, as she explains:
Just so we're clear. I don't like you. You fucked up my life. I was already pretty messed up ... but at least I didn't wake up screaming five nights out of ten. I want you to leave me alone.
What Sandy can't see, though, is that through all the violence, what makes Hank Thompson ultimately likable is his über good-guy instincts. Even when all hell breaks loose toward the end of this novel, with Thompson fending off multiple bad guys, he nonetheless manages to steer Miguel Arenas in the right direction -- away from the likes of Dolokhov and his cronies ("Get out man. Get out of trouble.").
A Dangerous Man wouldn't be a Hank Thompson book if it didn't have a slathering of violence, and this one surely does. When Dolokhov and Ana are pitted against each other, both using Thompson as their weapon, the fists fly, the bullets find their marks and the saps break skin and bones. No one is left untouched, and some players are killed. Huston's third novel is poignant and soaked in street creds, with a noirish foreboding lingering over every page. While all three books in the series are substantial, A Dangerous Man might boast the greatest sophistication in its writing. Huston has tapped into a cool-jive, bad-boy vein that I hope he explores again. Given what he has done with both his Moon Knight comic series and the Joe Pitt vampire books (Already Dead and the forthcoming No Dominion), I think clues to what he can do in the future might already be apparent. Perhaps Hank Thompson's greatest legacy is in setting his hard-working creator free to open up new vistas. Thompson will be missed, but we still have Huston. We should all be thankful for that. | September 2006