Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Review: South by South Bronx.

Michael Sedano

Abraham Rodriguez.
NY: Akashic Books, 2008.
ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-56-9

What do you do when a barefoot woman in a wet minidress sneaks up the fire escape? If you’re a male writer with writer’s block, you start writing inspired prose. If you’re a male painter with painter’s block, you start painting superb new work. If you’re a burned-out ladies man and you wake up with that woman naked in your bed, you wonder if she’s an alcohol-induced hallucination, roll over and go back to sleep.

Until you wake up and she’s still there, her minidress drip-drying in the shower, and you still can’t remember where she came from.

That’s the basic set-up and some of the outcome of Abraham Rodriguez’ unlikely detective story, South by South Bronx. The woman is real. She’s fled a mysteriously powerful operative-- maybe he’s CIA? At any rate, he’s a killer who’s just slaughtered the woman’s lover and wants to capture millions of dollars the dead lover consigned to the woman. That the killer planted the woman in the lover’s business only to have the woman double cross the killer instead, adds exciting complication to the story of the artists helping this lady in distress.

Add into this mix of characters a disaffected cop, good friends with the dead guy, the dead guy’s brother, and their crime family, and Serpico-like alienated from other cops. When the powerful killer drafts the detective to track down the woman and the money, you have a convoluted and parallel chase, one that couples a reader to another question--with an easy answer: what do you do when a great new noir mystery novel falls into your hands?

Read it voraciously. Turn every page anxious to learn the next complication and plot twist. Odd stuff. Humor. Paranoia. A great "summer read" any time of the year.

Although presented as a sex object to open the story, this woman’s no fool. There’s that pistol in her purse, for example. She’s fully aware of the killer’s power and manages to play the artists against the killer against the cop. The cop, meanwhile, distrusts his own motives only a little less than he mistrusts the powerful outsider’s motives. Moreover, the cop is busy playing his own game against the killer, against his dead friend’s family, and is after the money for himself. Or is he? Much of the pleasure of noir fiction comes from conflicting expectations like those played out here, and the fact something is happening every minute to keep the story advancing.

If you, as am I, are not a New Yorker and don’t know what “Bronx” refers to, Rodriguez does the favor of drawing out the exposition with language, characterization and setting. In West Coast terms, this part of New York City is what East L.A. is to El Lay. Except substitute Puerto Ricans for Chicanos, and give characters public transportation instead of cars. And fire escapes.

Rodriguez provides ample local color to make the novel a treat for the ears as well as the imagination. Rodriguez constructs a grammatical style built on sentence fragments and mid-thought irruptions that suggest the jumpiness of various characters’ moods and intentions. The author peppers the earlier pages that way, then as the story matures, uses the style sparingly for good effect. More obvious is his typographical convention, a serif font for the story of the woman and the artists, a sans serif for the detective’s side of the chase. Rodriguez trusts his characters and uses “he said, she said” tags sparingly, interchanging conversation to narration, from third to first person, keeping the reader oriented and on edge. It all works to propel the story to a satisfyingly tidy finish. It’s a good mystery, so enough said.

Publisher Akashic Books opened the 2008 book with an April through May splash, so hopefully your local bookstore has copies in hand for you. Visit the publisher’s webpage for purchase information if your local independent bookseller somehow is out of the loop or uninterested in your money. I like how Akashic defines itself on its webpage, “reverse-gentrification of the literary world.” Abraham Rodriguez’ third novel certainly offers proof of the sincerity of Akashic’s claim.

Note. A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Roberto Bolaños' The Savage Detectives. Several writers expressed perplexity that I seem not to have revered the writer his due. Asi son las cosas, but maybe I'm the only one impatient with the late writer's work. For instance, I came across the following in an email from Media Bistro:

MONDAY JUN 09, 2008
OMG, I Forgot to Write a "Hot Galleys of BookExpo" Post!
I knew there was something I forgot to include in last week's BookExpo America coverage...

So, yeah, everybody wanted to get their hands on FSG's thick galleys for 2666, the posthumous novel from Roberto Bolaño—in fact, I heard rumors that every single mockup of the three-volume slipcase edition of the 900-page novel that went on display in the FSG booth was swiped by eager readers (who would eventually discover that their ill-gotten gains were filled with blank pages).

Nine hundred pages, three volumes? Uau, talk about magnum opus. At any rate, here we are, the second Tuesday of June 2008. Until next Tuesday, thanks for visiting La Bloga.


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