Friday, December 23, 2011

Book Review: Crumbtown by Joe Connelly

This ended up being a good palate cleanser after two really heavy books.  Something short and light-hearted and comical.  Another find on the library stacks, this one jumped at me but had its warning signs, too.  On the book jacket there were a ton of positive reviews for the author's first book, and none for this one.  Highly suspicious.  So let's jump right in and see what I thought about it.

The concept of the book at least in terms of plot is brilliant.  A serial criminal spends multiple stints in prison, the last of which is for a Robin Hood-style bank robbery where he throws cash to people on the street.  But he lives in a town so desolate and run-down that television studios have made it a habit of filming their crime shows there ("It looks more like New York than New York does, they say").  This leads to the prison creating a program where prisoners can receive early parole if they take on jobs on movie sets as crime consultants.  Our main character, Don, becomes a consultant for a show romanticizing his own crime spree.

I misjudged the direction of the book at first.  I thought it was going to be a story of redemption slowly played out through the making of the show.  As it turned out, it was actually a comedy of errors.  Within an hour Don goes back to his thieving ways and unleashes a string of chaotic events - including an attempt at robbing the scene of the reenactment of his bank robbery, which for some inexplicable reason is using real money. 

In a lot of ways this was a good thing.  The story plays out like a modern day Ulysses (which I haven't read and therefore will make no deeper comparisons).  It's fascinating to see how one day in one town can change so many lives irreparably.  At least it would be fascinating if the whole situation weren't so contrived and impossible.

The style of the book is very punk rock.  Things move quickly.  People make rash decisions.  The chapters fly by in a blur of noise and music.  More noise than music.  You'll find it almost a chore to keep track of which characters are which, not just because there are so many of them in such a rapid succession.  The real reason is because there is so little discerning them.  Everyone's a drunk or a junkie with a regrettable past, and it tends to be that the only thing that separates characters are their afflictions.  It's not until the final act (the story is divided into acts, like Shakespeare I guess?) that you start to get a feel for any of the individual character's souls.  There are some beautiful moments then, but for the most point the train has already come off the tracks and you're left wondering why Connelly didn't build them up when he still had the reader on his side.

This even extends to the main character, who should at least be a little more defined.  His first day out of prison, his first hour out of prison, he's immediately into trouble.  He's required by law to keep in touch with his parole officer by phone and always answer when she calls.  But when he can't figure out how to answer his cell phone (it's 2003 and he's been in prison for 15 years) he panics, runs out of his hotel room and then goes on a crime spree.  Now I understand the idea that criminal behavior can be a disease that one never recovers from; I'm sympathetic to that.  But after 260 pages I still have absolutely no idea what caused Don to make every possible mistake a person can make.

If I had to go back through and count how many times someone was bit by a car in this book, I don't think I could.  Same thing with people getting shot.  And people falling in love.  There is a woman in the book, Rita.  She is the muse of the man writing the TV show that sets everything into motion.  She is also the muse of every criminal in the story.  And just about everyone who meets here.  Yet we know absolutely nothing about her as a person except that she's beautiful, has a Russian accent and is constantly bored/annoyed.  Nothing to inspire the reader to love her.  I got the feeling that Connelly based her on someone he knows in life, someone he felt deeply in love with.  And in the way that a man falls for a woman suddenly and inexplicably, he thought by just writing about her it would make perfect sense to the reader the way it makes perfect sense to him.  That or he just writes very one-dimensional female characters.

Reading this far you would think I found nothing positive about this book, but I did.  There was a lot of good happening too.  There is one fascinating character who is such an obsessive method actor that when asked to play the role of a criminal he becomes a criminal.  There's a beautiful moment where a man is reading his list of demands to police and it quickly morphs from a humorous list of things the police could never provide (I want Ted Williams to play baseball again) to a heartbreaking list of things the police could never provide (I want my mother to understand me).  There is a man who even as he lies dying from being shot by his wife still tries everything in his power to make her happy.

These moments are powerful but are few and far between.  The rest of the book plays out too quickly with too little substance.  In a lot of ways it's paced like a TV show.  Being a book about a TV show, that could possibly be seen as an interesting commentary.  I just felt like my time would have been better spent actually watching TV.

No comments:

Post a Comment