This was unexpected.
No, really, it was. I expected a Mafia thriller/farce–perhaps along the lines of ‘Get Shorty’–what I found was a rather interesting story of a man and his girlfriend moving to Key West and reinventing themselves in the Floridian tradition. A few reviews mention ‘zany,’ but I didn’t really get wild, as much as idiosyncratic.
The story opens with low-level wiseguy, Joey, talking to his bestie, Sal, before he leaves for Key West: “Fuck is down there for you?’ They were sitting in a green vinyl booth in Perretti’s luncheonette on Astoria Boulevard in Queens. It was January. Outside, torn newspapers were stuck in dirty ice at the bottom of dented wire garbage cans. People walked past holding their hats, their coat collars pulled up to their ears. Skinny dogs squatted on the pavement and steam came out from under them. Joey turned the question around. ‘Fuck is for me up here?'”
I can relate. There’s nothing to love about the north in January, and honestly, I’d really rather be away from my family too, although they aren’t exactly Mafia. At any rate, he convinces his reluctant girlfriend and off they go.
It takes a little more work to convince his girlfriend, Sandra, that it’s worth leaving her job as a bank teller:
“There was a certain expression, not severe, exactly, but immovable, that came onto Sandra’s face at moments when she realized that a double helping of practicality was required of her.”
But by Chapter 3, they’re headed out of town in the ’73 Eldorado convertible. Here’s where one expects the plot to pick up–a missing something, a McGuffin quest, perhaps some sort of caper–but there really isn’t. There’s Joey, looking for a job down in Key West, but the only thing he’s known is the hustle. So he tries to find the locals, who object to this. His girlfriend finally suggests he tries going legit, and in one of the most delicious ironies of the book, realizes that getting people to attend timeshare presentations is just a legit con, but it’s going to require developing some new skills.
“‘You’re a little scared, Joey. That’s O.K.’
The word was like a lance, and after the flash of pain and the squelched rage of denying it was so, there was relief. Joey stared out across the flat and moon-shot water of the Florida Straits and let out a long breath that whistled slightly between his teeth.”
I liked the writing quite a bit. Shames has a nice way of description that doesn’t overpower the scene, but still makes it quite vivid and occasionally chuckle-worthy (see Sandra’s expression above). I actually grew to like these and maybe even believe these two characters’ journeys that had lives nothing like my own.
The plot does kick into gear in Part II, but it’s a slow burn–perfect for old-school Key West, honestly–and does have it’s Mafia moments. The finish was solid and everything I would have expected going in.
It actually became a cool little character development story, a kind of How Joey the Ex-Mobster Forges a New Identity and Grows Some Cajones (there’s a reason they don’t have me write titles) story that ended up being even more enjoyable than any crime/caper aspect. Will Joey and Sandra stick together? Will Joey leave the Mafia behind? Oh sure, the Mafia intrudes, as it is wont to do, but all’s well that ends well. I’m a little nervous about the next book, based on friend Tony’s reviews (not a Mafia Tony), but I’ll still give it a shot, because he said the third is ripping. (Ok, the exact words were “an outstanding follow up,” but I felt the need to British it).