Written by Andrew Cotto – Outerborough Blues is a mystery embedded in a lyrical tale of urban loss. Despite being billed as ‘a Brooklyn mystery’ and ‘urban noir’, the mystery is only one aspect of Andrew Cotto’s novel. This isn’t a whodunit. Instead, the author uses the central plot to explore themes of loss and change. Readers may find that Outerborough Blues does not belong to any genre. It contains mystery, fictional memoir and street-level anthropology.
The protagonist and narrator is Caesar Stiles, a drifter who settled in Brooklyn at the outset of its gentrification. Caesar grew up in New Jersey, and his home there set the tone for most of his life – it was dysfunctional. The narrative is interspersed with anecdotes from Caesar’s travels. He never had much. He had a few women along the way, but none of them stayed for very long. Neither did Caesar. But he gained culinary expertise. So he works at The Notch, a restaurant and bar where he serves up Italian food, soul food, Creole food. His cooking skills earn him a place in the black Brooklyn neighborhood where he otherwise wouldn’t belong, and he gains a measure of stability for the first time in his life.
Loss and pain are nothing new to Caesar. He grew up with both. Now his vicious older brother is out of prison. Caesar is also being shadowed by someone, and a mysterious ‘orange man’ bears an old grudge. Caesar worries about all of these things. But he walks into his biggest problems when a cute French girl walks into The Notch. She’s looking for her brother, and Caesar agrees to help her. The brother is ostensibly in art school, but is nowhere to be found. Like early Easy Rawlins, Caesar works as an unlicensed private investigator.
Unfortunately, his tumultuous past won’t leave him alone. Finding the French girl’s brother is only one of the mysteries that confounds Caesar Stiles. He must survive the encounters with his brother. He needs to figure out what the orange man wants. Caesar also wants to find out who is behind the Montclair Corporation that owns most of the property in the neighborhood. He might find the answers, but the truth may not set him free.
Caesar finds himself thrown into a host of machinations in Outerborough Blues. The central mystery – finding the French art student – is sometimes submerged in the other subplots. This doesn’t make the novel any less readable or compelling, but it does shift the book’s focus. With Cotto writing in a more literary style, we are primarily concerned with Caesar’s development; the plot resolution vis-à-vis the French siblings is underwhelming.
While the prose is occasionally overwritten and purplish, this is a haunting and doleful novel. Outerborough Blues is not likely to overawe readers as a mystery, but the briskly-moving plot and vividly-drawn characters will keep them turning the pages. Andrew Cotto intimately links white Caesar Stiles to the African American Brooklyn milieu, setting up the tragic noir ending.
“In Shakespeare, tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs,” says Dennis Lehane. In Andrew Cotto’s Outerborough Blues, that is exactly what we have: a gritty, bumpy fall. Caesar does not fall from grace, but from stasis. Cotto’s incisive prose depicts a worn Brooklyn and an even warier protagonist. Amidst the vibrant Brooklyn characters, this is a novel of subtleties. Cotto deftly handles the complex Caesar Stiles. In Caesar’s misfortunes, readers will find a mournful – and irresistible – beauty.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars