Written by Angel Luis Colón — Just when avid crime fiction readers might be tiring of the low-life protagonists with unsavoury companions, seedy surroundings, and expletive-inducing situations, which so many crime writers have paraded before their readers of late, along comes a novel that upends expectations.
Angel Luis Colón’s new thriller certainly is filled with reprehensible characters and deeds, but he has made it so interesting that it rises far above the genre. As Dennis Lehane has said: “In Greek tragedy, they fall from a great height. In noir, they fall from the curb.”
Colón’s protagonist, Bryan Walsh, has teetered on the curb for some time. He was raised Irish Catholic in the Bronx, with his grandfather Mairsial, his mother – “an awful, manipulative monster” – and his younger brother Liam. Bryan fled these unpromising surroundings at 18, joining the US Marines soon after his grandfather was killed in a hit and run. Serving in Kuwait, then Iraq, he led a mistimed assault on a house that killed a child, and he can’t shake the memory.
He deserts the Marines, bolting to Ireland, to the only family member who may be able to protect him, his uncle Sean. Sean Shea is the son of one of the original members of the Irish Republican Army, a hard bastard whom Sean seems determined to outdo. Bryan works his way up in Sean’s loose organisation, learning to make bombs, killing people Sean has fingered.
When Bryan learns some of the IRA fellows doubt his loyalty – a situation unlikely to promote longevity – again he splits, returning to the US illegally a year before 9/11. He doesn’t even reach out to his family. Told in quick backstory, you learn that when he finally reconnects, Liam has just enlisted in the Army, but receives a dishonorable discharge after attacking a superior officer. Back home, Liam has a diabetic stroke that leaves him in permanent intensive care. “All vegetable,” as Bryan’s boss, a gangster middleman named Paulie Gigante, puts it. The work he does for Paulie is mostly as a hitman, killing people Bryan considers losers and nobodies.
But Paulie keeps cutting back on Bryan’s take, and Bryan needs the money to pay Liam’s hospital bills. He thinks, “This is the sum of the Walsh brothers. One is an aging, cold-blooded bastard who kills to keep the other one barely alive.”
Desperate for cash, Bryan takes on a job he’d rather turn down, murdering a prostitute. A stranger walks in on the scene, and Bryan kills him too. Paulie reveals the dead man was the son of the big boss, who’s determined to get revenge. The hunt for Bryan is on, and blood in great quantities begins to be spilled.
Several aspects of this story make it really stand out. First is Colón’s wonderful use of language. It’s elegant, evocative, and economical, starting with his descriptions of Jimmy’s Bar and Grill in the Bronx: “All bar and no grill.” Some of the flashback scenes take place in a violent Ireland, but most are compacted into the Bronx and then, finally, the East Village.
Most distinctive, however, is the indelible way he meticulously describes what’s going on in Bryan’s head. He’s a killer haunted by the ghosts of his victims. They hang around for a few days after death, dissolving, reassembling, their margins fluid. Their wounds open to blackness, they bleed again, chunks of their flesh fall off, disintegrate, reappear. They repeat the words and pleas they uttered just before he shot them. They follow him in a growing train, and he can’t escape them. They form a macabre Greek chorus to the novel’s events and, inarticulate though they are, they enrich it. Bryan’s living, breathing companions doubt his sanity.
While the question of whom the protagonist can trust dogs much thriller fiction, here the layers of deception and betrayal expand geometrically, and Bryan’s final action seems his inevitable and only choice.
Though just under 200 pages, this book packs a wallop and is one you will have a hard time forgetting.
Down & Out Books
CFL Rating: 5 Stars