by Jason Starr
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
320 pages, 2006
Little Big Man
Reviewed by David Thayer
Jason Starr's Lights Out is the kind of cautionary tale young people should read before they set off in quest of fame and fortune. Leaving the nest, striking out on the road -- these are essential to the rite of passage, to growing up. The Canarsie section of Brooklyn is one of those places where the streets have a way of equalizing things. You're only as good as the guy next to you, and if he's got a gun, or an attitude, or is having a bad day, the odds are that his problem will soon be yours. That's what Jason Starr's latest novel is about, a lot of people having bad days. Thrown together by chance, geography or misfortune, the characters in this novel are dedicated to living lives of very noisy desperation.
Jake Thomas is a star baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Life is sweet. Jake is having a breakout year in the majors, the season of his dreams. Engaged to his high-school sweetheart, Christina Mercado, and surrounded by handlers, Jake is insulated from the real world, the world where actions have consequences.
This excerpt provides some insight into Jake's state of mind:
Although Jake had been engaged to Christina for six years, nowadays they barely spoke. It was weird, because when he started going out with her the summer before sophomore year, he didn't think he'd ever want to date another girl. She was beautiful, without a doubt the best looking girl in Canarsie, maybe in all of Brooklyn, and he was positive he was going to marry her someday.
As Starr's novel begins, Jake is coming home to the old neighborhood. The only cloud on his horizon is a statutory rape charge. Sleeping with a 14-year-old Mexican girl, Marianna Fernandez, has heightened Jake's belief that everyone is on the hustle. He feels like the victim when Marianna's parents seek monetary compensation from him, even though their daughter lied about her age, said she was 20. Meanwhile, Jake's devotion to Christina has waned over the years. There are women everywhere, drawn to the big-money game Jake plays so well, drawn to the glamour of his limousine-and-penthouse-suite existence.
Welcome home, Jake, the neighborhood hero.
After Jake got out of the Town Car, he grabbed the pen and baseball that one of the fans was thrusting in his face, and signed the ball, continuing to smile widely with his thirty-five-thousand-dollar choppers. As he made his way slowly toward the stoop leading to his parents' house, the crowd kept cheering and chanting his name and he tried to keep up the charm. This shit always looked great in newspapers -- the superstar baseball player who loved his mother. It would really kick up his heart-of-gold image.
Ryan Rossetti was also a star ballplayer, at least at the high-school level. But an injury to his pitching arm finished his career in the minors, and Ryan now scuffles through life painting houses. He harbors a hate for his former sports rival, Jake, and has been dating the much-neglected Christina, without Jake's knowledge. The news that "Brooklyn's favorite son" is returning to Canarsie fires Ryan's bleak desire to even the score with his nemesis by making his engagement to Christina official. Ryan is everything Jake Thomas might have been -- a sad sack whose best days were over before high school ended. While Jake collects millions, Ryan draws an hourly wage, bitter with disappointment.
Ryan remembered Christina in the car, suggesting that she should sell her engagement ring so that Ryan could use the money to start his painting business. Christina always seemed concerned about Ryan's future, and didn't seem to believe in him. If she married Jake, she'd have millions of dollars, fancy houses, cars, expensive clothes, jewelry, and everything else she wanted.
Christina is not the most reliable girlfriend in the world. She says she loves Ryan. Her situation at home is dire. She lives with an alcoholic father in the same house she grew up in, and now works as a dental assistant. Her relationship with Jake is an illusion; yet when Jake presses her to finally marry him, he finds that Christina is still seduced by the prospect of life in the big leagues.
Lights Out is a character study that draws power largely from Jake's manifest arrogance. The action in these pages is confined to a single weekend. The story's pacing is fast, the prose tough without feeling forced. New Yorker Jason Starr (Bust, Nothing Personal) knows from the jump where his story is going, how he wants it to look and feel, and the emotional response he intends to evoke in readers.
Among this book's most powerful scenes is one involving Saiquan Harrington, an ex-con who's trying to take care of his family, stay away from crack, and find himself a decent job. One day, he takes the subway in to Manhattan for an encounter with a human resources drone, who is slow to understand that Saiquan cannot complete his job application form, that he doesn't understand what she wants from him. Saiquan might just as well have crashed down to earth yesterday in a space capsule. His foray into the world of respectable employment ends swiftly, and he heads back to Brooklyn to the destiny awaiting him there.
Saiquan is on the verge of encountering Ryan, on the cusp of making a bad situation far worse. Saiquan recruits a member of the Crips gang to avenge the shooting of a friend, setting off a chain reaction that brings this novel's three principal characters into dangerous proximity. Saiquan becomes the catalyst for the climactic scenes, the volatile element in a series of unpredictable encounters that include the most violent moments in the book. The internal monologues, one of Jason Starr's great strengths, provide a framework of desperation and bad judgment, a twisted logic for the mayhem.
Throughout Lights Out there is a sense that the rage simmering within Ryan Rossetti will engulf everyone, and without revealing too much about the plot, it's safe to say that author Starr delivers on his promise of a noirish, out-of-control ride through Canarsie. He gives his secondary players their moments, sketching their places in the neighborhood's arcane hierarchy. The reader meets a lot of people in this novel -- Jake's block party is rife with in-laws, schoolmates, friends and friends of friends. Beyond that, there's a more distant circle of players, neighborhood types who lack distinction, but are familiar and essential faces in the background. Urban settings come equipped with such characters. Always. They inhabit the twilight beyond high school, their lives stalled in the row houses and tenements of their unremarkable youth. Like bit players from Shakespeare, they speak a few lines and then vanish, but they at least contribute to this tale's atmosphere, suggesting that danger lurks around every corner. While this deluge of names and faces feels real, some readers will struggle to differentiate between those who stick around, and those who are passing through Jake's narrow field of vision.
Lights Out has several stories to tell. Its multiple-points-of-view structure provides the reader with a global perspective, while affording the author the opportunity to display his considerable ear for dialogue and internal monologue. The trade-off is that readers might feel at times as if the author is more interesting than his characters. We get the sense that we're observing a skilled writer maneuver through his scenes like a detail-driven film director. None of the people we observe here are capable of rising above their circumstances. Some of the suspense generated by the set-up of Jake's homecoming is diluted by the novel's tone. Forget about character arc; this is about the old neighborhood as a labyrinth, intractable and weird, all the more so for its grinding familiarity.
The balance between realism and drama is an aspect of the noir dilemma; it is the battle between hope and despair. If you're hoping that Jake or Ryan or Saiquan will salvage something from the wreckage they create, Lights Out may disappoint you. On the other hand, Jason Starr is carving out a place in the realist tradition that says happy endings don't fly in places such as Brooklyn. The limo ride into Carnarsie is easy enough; getting out, though, is a different ballgame. | September 2006
David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He's also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.