Oh Scudder novels, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1) Period New York. This time it’s a walk down memory lane to 1975. While Scudder remembers more about the sports scene than national politics, he also recalls that it was a big year for Black Russians and tequila sunrises. It’s also a time of Irish dominance in Hell’s Kitchen (anecdotal origin quote: “Hell’s a mild climate. This is Hell’s Kitchen”), a small rough, industrial down-and-out section of New York. Irish toughs with connections to the IRA have a strong influence in the area, not the least of which are the owners of Morrissey’s after-hours club. Then there are the timeless city people: “I generally bought the paper there, unless I bought it from the shopping-bag lady who hawked them on the sidewalk in from of the 400 Deli. She bought them for a quarter each from the newsstand–and she sold them for the same price, which is a tough way to make a living.”
2) Characterization that makes me feel like I was there. These are Scudder’s bar-crawling days, and he has some good-time relationships with his bar tenders and fellow drinkers. There’s Buddy, the actor; Skip, bartender and co-owner of Miss Kitty’s; Billie Keegan, who tends bar at Armstrong’s; Telephone Tommy, the salesman with the small, calculating eyes; Caroline, “with a soft you-all accent that, like certain culinary herbs, became stronger when you steeped it in alcohol.” Dialogue is spot-on, that clever good-time mix of stories, social commentary, and good-natured mocking that a group of congenials have.
3) The emotional punch of a likeable lead struggling with alcohol and past demons. Scudder’s a little edgier in this one, walking a thin line between anger and depression. Alcohol threads through all the scenes, the backdrop and motivation to most of his routine, the siren that draws him from bar to bar. There is one very ironic scene where Skip tells Scudder that “But even so [alcohol’s] a choice for us. That’s the difference between you and me and a guy like Billie Keegan.” Though Scudder of the past sounds skeptical, the discussion impacts even more strongly knowing the Scudder ten years forward and the extent to which he was deluding himself.
4) Oh-so-subtle foreshadowing and the resolution of three clever little mysteries: a hold-up at Morrissey’s, Tommy’s marital troubles and Skip’s financial troubles. There are hints of trouble from the start, but it isn’t until the end that you realize how nicely they all blended in. Nothing is wasted here. The book comes full circle, making the ending even more poignant.
5) The bitter flavor of justice. I read the book again just so I could re-read the ending. Stunning.
I had to request this one from my library’s “lower stacks.” I wonder if they would notice if I never returned it?