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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Monday, January 19, 2015

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Uncle Dust

Uncle Dust
By Rob Pierce
314 pages
All Due Respect Books; Jan. 15, 2015)
ISBN-10: 1507503962
ISBN-13: 978-1507503966

Uncle Dust – short for Dustin -- is nobody’s uncle. That’s just what he’s called by Jeremy, his girlfriend Theresa’s kid.

Dustin could be a house painter or a drywall nailer or a paper-hanger or a mechanic. He’s a ham-and-egger: a lunch bucket kind of guy who drinks too much and gets along poorly with the women in his life – when he gets along with them at all.

On the surface, Dust is just your average blue collar worker who enjoys kicking back with a beer and a shot of scotch when he’s not on the job.

But underneath the working class façade, Dustin’s lifestyle isn’t that straightforward. As he tells Theresa, the woman he’s living with, “You and me, we ain’t even complicated and we’re complicated.”

You see, Uncle Dust, the remarkable character that Swill magazine editor Rob Pierce has used as the lynchpin of his excellent first novel, is a bank robber.

Rob Pierce: His novel Uncle Dust is reminiscent
of the work of David Goodis or Cornell Woolrich

Unlike Donald Westlake’s fictional heist specialist, Parker, Dust doesn’t do complicated robberies. He doesn’t need a crew that includes a specialist in disconnecting alarms, an expert in blowing vaults or a brace of heavily armed "hooligans" to hold a roomful of victims at gunpoint while the stick-up goes down. 

Dust works solo. He is less likely to get double-crossed or ratted out that way.

His technique for sticking up a bank is simplicity itself: he walks in, hands a note to a teller ordering her to empty the till into his carryall, and then exits with the swag. No muss, no fuss, no bother.

While Dustin’s crimes may be simple, his home life is as twisted as cheap garden hose. At the beginning of the book, he is shacked up with Theresa, a woman he describes as having “gorgeous green eyes and a sense of humor and a mid-length skirt showing off legs that looked like they’d kill me if I went any higher. And man, I was ready to die.” Theresa is in love with him, but love is a complication Dust doesn’t want or need.

Another complication is Jeremy, Theresa’s ten-year-old son. Jeremy is a gamer and nerd who is easy pickings for the bullies at his school. Dustin teaches the boy how to defend himself from the older kids in ways the Marquess of Queensbury never dreamed. He takes a liking to the kid, which puts him at odds with Theresa’s ex, a guy named Davis who has some sort of link to a gaming parlor Jeremy frequents.

Because Dust checks out banks very carefully before he pulls a job, he runs out of cash from his last robbery and is forced to break legs for a loan shark who runs a local sports book.  This throws him back together with his old partner Rico, and raises his stress level until it’s hard to think clearly about bank heists, let alone plan one.

Meanwhile Dust is diddling Olivia, a cocktail waitress at a local gin mill where he hangs out between assignments.

As if two women aren’t enough, Dust has an ex-girlfriend, Val, whose life has taken a tragic turn: she was brutally raped by a petty criminal who killed her children. While Dustin’s relationship with Val is not romantic, it is deep – when Dustin was doing time at the state pen, he killed the man who raped her and murdered her kids. Since he was released he keeps an eye on her and helps her out any way he can.

The connection is part pity, part regret, part guilt. As he says to her at one point, “You’re strong, Val. But how you carry this… it’s gonna kill you one way or the other.”

She wearily replies, “Sometimes I wish it would. I wish I could pick the way.”

No -- the crimes are simple. It’s Dustin’s life that’s all fucked up. What makes things worse is the fact that he can’t talk honestly with any of the women in his life about what he does for a living. They know he’s in the life, but none are sure exactly how.  It’s tough to build a relationship with a woman when you can’t even tell her how you earn your cash.

Dustin is on the road to disaster. One of his heists goes disastrously sour. He finds himself dreaming of doing a major crime to get out from under his loan shark boss. Meanwhile, his relationship with all three women goes steadily downhill. The frosting on the cake? He becomes involved in a death that could put him behind bars again for keeps.

Things get bad and things get worse and Dustin begins making poor choices that look like they may end up being lethal. He spends an increasing amount of time drunk, which makes it even harder for him to make the clear-headed decisions he needs to stay alive.

As Theresa tells him at one point, “You’re always halfway out the door or halfway in the bag. Some part of you’s never here.”

In classic noir fashion, Dustin has become snared in his own trap and there are no good ways out.

Uncle Dust is something of a throwback – a straightforward tale in which the criminals are portrayed as working stiffs whose only saleable skills are robbing banks or collecting on usurious loans.  It reminds me of the work of Cornell Woolrich or David Goodis. Pierce’s characters are fully realized and entirely believable. His dialog is tight and remarkably straightforward for noir, a genre in which duplicity is normal and characters often lie – even to themselves – or speak at cross purposes.

If you are looking for maximum body count, this is probably not the book for you: there are only two deaths in the entire 372 page novel. Mostly what Pierce gives you is a clean, simple tale told in language as terse as a rap sheet about a tough guy in a situation where being tough not only doesn’t help, but actually makes things worse.

The book is full of sharp observation served up in laconic prose. Unlike some hardboiled writers, Pierce doesn’t overdo the criminal argot or wise-ass gibes. The words he puts into his characters’ mouths ring with authenticity and have that twist of graveyard humor you often encounter in men who find themselves living just this side of desperation.

For example, Dust tells us his long-time friend and “business” associate Rico avoids classy watering holes because “the drinks cost more, and the women all say no.”

At one dive, Dust says, “the bartender was a surly old guy with a pocked face, blond hair, and a Hawaiian shirt. I guess the surfing career didn’t pan out.”

He describes that bar, Sparks, as the kind of place frequented by serious drinkers who don’t waste their time picking tunes off the jukebox or tossing darts at a target while their Guinness goes flat: “I hadn’t been to Sparks in months, but it was exactly how I remembered it. Grunt workers straight off eight- or ten-hour shifts sitting near the door, like they couldn’t make it any farther, putting down everything they could as fast as they could and if a fight came their way they wouldn’t mind it.”

“I’d never seen a fight in Sparks, though,” he continues. “Unless you wanted one there was no reason to talk to those guys, and they only talked to each other. I was looking down the bar at the grunts, and I turned back to look at Rico and he must have been looking down there too. We both grinned. If we wanted we could clear that end of the room in a couple of seconds. So dumb, thinking about shit we didn’t even want to do. We both laughed, and I waved to the surly surfer for another round.”

For criminals of this class, alcohol is a staple and bars like Sparks are a place to hatch schemes, split the swag and shoot the shit. The problem for careerist drinkers, Dust notes, is the price they pay the following day. But, he goes on, “A man who can’t work with a hangover shouldn’t have a job.”

Pierce’s protagonist is even able to find a sepulchral laugh in the face of disaster. During one bank job, Dust gets shot and barely escapes. As he is leaving, a peevish customer who was behind him in line when he grabbed the cash says, “What is this, hurry up and wait? Hurry up and wait? I’ve been here all day and he’s taking all the money!”

At the beginning of the novel, it seems that Dust knows what he’s about. But as the book continues, the reader begins to realize Dust is out of control

“I’m just a man with work to do.” He tells Rico toward the denouement.

“And pussy to fuck.” Rico sat back laughing. “Don’t forget that part. That’s what you’re working for.”

I laughed with him but he had it wrong. Pussy was pussy. I worked for something else, and I wasn’t even sure what that was.

Around 300 pages in, after Dust gets mugged like any other square, the reader realizes that the central character in this story is in way over his head.

Olivia asks him, “They get a lotta money?”

“‘That doesn’t matter. I got beat. That’s all,’ ” Dust replies. “I tried to say it like I was shrugging it off, like it was a little thing. But when I said it was all, I meant it was everything. This whole damn game is king of the hill.”

Another clue is offered the reader when Dust is reminiscing about the abrasive relationship between his father and mother.

He recalls his father telling him, “You couldn’t get her to say yes to anything. I take her to the market, she says maybe someone wants some apricots. I say you want apricots, we get apricots. She says well maybe someone would like them. I say, you want them? And it goes in circles. Then she leaves me because I don’t give her what she wants. Jesus. Fucking apricots.”

It’s a telling moment because this short anecdote tells you succinctly why Dustin’s relationships go awry and his life is a mess. He may be as brutal as his father was, but in other ways he’s a lot like his mother, arguing aimlessly over apricots.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you liked the apricots bit. Its connection to the action in the story was so indirect that I thought it might get cut, but I always liked that section myself.