Hard, Hard City
by Jim Fusilli
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
278 pages, 2004
The Kids Aren’t Alright
Reviewed by Yvette Banek
New York City never appears quite as noirish as it does in Jim Fusilli's unique vision. This is the author's dark take on the Big Apple, made clear in his intimate, biting style. Fusilli didn't invent "Manhattan Noir," but he has certainly appropriated it for his own uses and, in the process, raised that subgenre to art. Think Woody Allen's Manhattan, punctuated with ghastly murder.
In these turbulent modern times, New York as a fictional setting needs to be handled with special care. The affinity that Jim Fusilli, a music critic for both The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, feels for his town is evident in every line of flawless prose he sets before us. That wounded metropolis is the obvious co-star of his novels, and the events of September 11, 2001, are never far from our thoughts as we are ushered down Manhattan's shadowy, glistening side streets in company with the enigmatic, heartsick Orr. The reader begins each of Fusilli's books with a slight twinge of fear, as we're aware that this author never does the expected. We never know how far he will take Orr. This protagonist is about as far from cookie-cutter as a genre character can be.
Just listen to him for a moment:
I take it whenever I can find it. Time, I mean; specifically, time in the present, the now. This moment, before it dies. I take it and I hold on to it, I try to hold on to it; try, but it's a slinky thing, an ethereal thing. Here, gone. Now. You know, now, as opposed to then, the past. Stay here, be now. Be here now. Be here now so I no longer daydream of the past, about what was. Fantasize about what I wish had been. Living now is the antidote for fantasy and, sometimes, for fear.
If not for his precocious teenage daughter, Bella ("who dressed as if she had raced through a thrift shop and wore whatever stuck") -- a brilliantly written character who every now and then overshadows her father -- Orr would probably not have earned our sympathy, and little might have been made of his continued reliance on history as constant metaphor. In fact, reading the first book in the series, it was difficult to like or even to know what to make of Terry Orr. Initially, his casual disregard for the daughter who needs and adores him made the reader impatient for a handy weapon.
Little by little, we're getting him. And he is so worth the effort.
"I'll try to stay busy," I said as we reached Greenwich.
Hard, Hard City finds detective Orr responding to a request from Daniel Wu, Bella's best friend, that he look into the case of a missing high-school student. It seems that Allie Powell, a gifted rich kid who's been taking additional classes at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology, has vanished from his uncle's place on East 64th Street, along with $471 and some papers from the uncle's safe. Allie, we're told, is originally from Silver Haven, a small, exclusive New Jersey enclave -- the kind of money-glazed place that imperiously repels all outsiders. His parents seem, on the surface, unfazed by their son's disappearance. The father, Harlan, a high-tech entrepreneur who has recently drawn some unwanted attention from the Securities and Exchange Commission, looks to be hardly more than a well-dressed thug, while Allie's mother, Alexandra, is an icy photographer with political connections and a hazy past, evidently more interested in her cameras than her son. However, when Orr comes calling at chez Powell, he's given a vicious beating for his trouble. Hardly appropriate when all he's trying to do is find their absent offspring, but an indication of how Fusilli has been influenced by Ross Macdonald and Robert B. Parker, both of whose novels often feature children seriously neglected by wealthy but narcissistic parents.
Later in this story, an attempt on Orr's life and a nasty murder lend an even more ominous tone to the proceedings, and as Terry, dogged as ever, refuses to back off, more serious attempts are made to intimidate him. Being tossed around and springing back for more is Terry Orr's specialty, and in Hard, Hard City -- to the consternation of his attractive girlfriend, attorney Julie Giada -- he receives more than his fair share of bruises. "I'm walking the halls, ass out, protesting my shabby treatment," he tells Julie after one beating lands him in the hospital. Protesting his shabby treatment seems to be the motif of Terry's life. In the hands of a less talented author, such protestations might be hard to take, but Fusilli makes it work.
On top of everything else, Orr is trying to stay abreast of his daughter's basketball games and teenage angst, and he's miffed because he hasn't yet caught a glimpse of her mysterious new boyfriend, Marcus. He's also having to deal with his hapless friend Diddio's failing tea bar ("D was a rock critic by profession, a pothead by choice, and he had no idea how to run a street-corner lemonade stand, never mind a business that required a monthly intake of $12,200 just to make the bills. ... Through lunch and at night, the place was dead, and the colorful furniture, which matched D's unbridled optimism, seemed to mock his dreams"). But Terry perseveres. It's what he does best -- probably because if he's moving forward, he can't slip backwards. He wrestles with his private demons, remembering his past and constantly reliving it as he knocks about the city looking for the elusive answers to questions better left unasked.