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Business as Usual on the Streets of Boston: Hard Knocks by Howie Carr

From conservative Boston Herald columnist and radio personality Howie Carr, this novel of intrigue and corruption in the cramped underworld of Boston crime, politics, and law enforcement – where the three groups frequently bump up against each other or even overlap – isn’t going to win any awards from the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, but it should appeal to fans of the author’s recent nonfiction books, The Brothers Bulger and Hitman, and to readers looking for local color that has nothing to do with foliage or baseball.
Appropriately enough, the book starts off with a local, low-level gangster getting bumped off, right after involving Jack Reilly in his problem – which then becomes Jack’s problem. Jack Reilly is a disgraced ex-Boston cop and former political bag man (But don’t call him that; he prefers the term “fixer.”) turned shady private investigator, who, though down on his luck, hasn’t yet lost all his connections or used up all of his political capital (i.e. “dirt,”), but with this little problem he’s had dumped in his lap, he’ll be lucky to be alive to worry about being able to pay next month’s rent, alimony, and cable bill.
I kept thinking Howie Carr had to be writing tongue in cheek when he created the character of Jack – the corrupt ex-cop with a warped, but still present code of honor – and the many other characters who continually mourn the passing of the formerly all-white neighborhoods of Boston and spout other bigoted, provincial, and self-serving cliches about the “good old days” that you might hear on Howie Carr’s talk radio show. By the end of the book, though, I decided he probably wasn’t writing tongue in cheek, so that made the book a little less enjoyable and a lot more offensive, given that I’m not a Herald subscriber for a reason.
There is plenty of humor in the other wry asides from Jack Reilly to make any reader or listener chuckle, however, especially jaded readers who think politics and ethics don’t have much in common except their last four letters. Being a Herald columnist, the author gets in quite a few jabs at the competition, The Boston Globe, and also gives Jack an attractive female crime reporter from the Herald to spar with and trade favors with. The book is loaded with references to local landmarks, mostly of the non-tourist variety, and even has a long drive through the South Shore and down Route 18 to Brockton, my current home city!
The audiobook narration is really well done; Peter Berkrot seemed to relish the variety of Boston accents and the mob-inflected growling dialogue, and even throws in an authentic-sounding Irish brogue for Jack’s rosy-cheeked, red-nosed, and faithful politician friend, Slip. I would recommend this book/audiobook to readers/listeners with a tolerance for intolerant characters  looking for a contemporary take on The Friends of Eddie Coyle (by Brockton-born George V. Higgins) or for more crime fiction with Boston settings, like Dennis Lehane‘s Kenzie and Gennaro books. Another recent entry in this field, The Charlestown Connection, by Massachusetts author Tom MacDonald (nominated for a Massachusetts Book Award) has a nicer main character, Dermot Sparhawk, who works in a parish’s food pantry, which I don’t think you would catch Jack Reilly doing!

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“Reilly Associates,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
“Is this Jack Reilly?”
“This is Bucky Bennett.” It didn’t ring a bell. “I know your brother.” The bell was ringing now. It was an alarm. “I knew him down in Otisville.” Another federal pen, in upstate New York, inhabited by a lot of Northeast organized-crime types, among them, at one point, my brother.
Marty’s friend spoke softly, but he might have been trying to lull me. “He told me to give you a call sometime.” That was mighty white of good old Martin T. Reilly. “I got a big, big problem, Jack.” Ex-cons often do. “Hello? Are you there?”
“Yes,” I said with a sigh. “I’m here.”
“Jack, you don’t know me, but I heard a lot about you. I heard you used to handle a lot of work for the mayor, the old one, and I know you were a cop, and now you’re on your own.”
That certainly was the CliffsNotes version of the life of Jack Reilly, a man teetering on that fine line between has-been and never-was. I sensed a pitch was imminent.
“I gotta talk to you. They’re looking for me. I gotta screw before they find me.”
“Who’s they?”
A hollow chuckle. “Can I meet you somewhere?”
Some people claim they can smell money. Me, I can smell no money, and I can smell it a mile away. “Pro bono” is just Latin for “deadbeat.” I decided to try to lose the guy.
I asked him, “Have you thought about calling the police?”
Another nervous laugh. “Marty told me you were a funny guy.”
“Look,” I said, staring at the two piles of unpaid bills in front of me. “I’m kinda busy right now.”
“Please, man, I’m desperate. I know what I must sound like, but I got some stuff, I gotta make sure it gets into the hands of the right people or I’m dead. You’re on Shawmut Ave., right? How far are you from Foley’s?”
Oh great. Not only was I not going to get paid, now I was going to have to buy him a drink, in my own place on top of everything else. James Michael Curley used to say that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. That’s excellent advice, I suppose, if you’re running for office, but who exactly was I trying to impress? Still, Bucky wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

Hard Knocks (Audiobook)
Carr, Howie
Berkrot, Peter (Narrator)
AudioGo, 2012
9 hrs., 56 min.
8 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook from AudioGO. Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.

Waiting on Wednesday — The New Republic

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

The New Republic

Lionel Shriver

Publication Date: March 27, 2012

The New Republic is an earlier-written book seeing the light of day now that the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin is a publishing success, according to The Book Case. It’s a humorous book about terrorists in an imaginary place in Portugal. Lionel Shriver, a woman, is an American author living in London. She writes really good novels (although We Need to Talk About Kevin is my least favorite.) Developing realistic characters and showing how they react under stress takes talent, and tackling taboo subjects takes courage, and she seems to have both.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld


I liked Curtis Sittenfeld’s first two novels, Prep and The Man of My Dreams, but I put off reading American Wife, which came out in 2008, because it was based on the life of Laura Bush. Advance notices made the novel sound like a politically motivated invasion of privacy that created a scandalous life for Laura Bush whom I believe — famous or not — has a right to her privacy. Plus, gossip is unpleasant when it’s about someone who seems genuinely nice, as Laura Bush seemed to be. Some critics of the novel also griped that the author was taking advantage of Laura Bush’s celebrity to sell books, the book’s release was timed for the Republican National Convention, etc.
But the Random House audiobook narrator, Kimberly Farr, makes the voice of First Lady Alice Blackwell so compelling that I forgot much of the time that the character was based on Curtis Sittenfeld’s imagining what it might be like to go — like Laura Bush — from a 31-year-old unmarried, school librarian to governor’s wife and then president’s wife. If I were Laura Bush, I would be very angry about an author appropriating my life, even just the skeletal outline of it. If I were the Alice Blackwell of the book, a thoughtful, smart, self-relective, and unassuming reader of fiction, I would still be angry, but also pleased that — instead of a cardboard cutout of a celebrity in a political novel — I am represented by a complex, nuanced portrait of a woman who loves her husband (though not his politics) who keeps her ambivalence mainly to herself. (To my knowledge, Laura Bush has never made a public statement about the novel, nor does she mention it in her memoir, Spoken from the Heart, published last May.
Written in the voice of Alice Blackwell, American Wife (as the author points out in a Salon interview) has a main character whose personality is very different from the sarcastic, judgmental narrators of Prep and The Man of My Dreams (both of whom are practically crippled from self-conscious anxiety) but Alice Blackwell does consider many of her actions and non-actions, her decisions and emotions, long and hard in the novel (Good? Bad? Forgivable? Unforgivable?), never coming down fully on one side or the other.

Read a Joyce Carol Oates’ essay on Curtis Sittenfeld’s work from The New York Times
Read a review from the “Everyday I Write the Book” blogger, who liked the book, but not the audio version.
Check the Old Colony Library Network catalog for availability of American Wife.

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