Thursday, April 30, 2009
Harper's Bizzare St. Louis
Patricia Abbott asked me to contribute to her blog’s Friday’s Forgotten Books which I was honored to do and you can read my entry over here. I thought it would be appealingly symmetrical to post at HBW not about a book that has had its time and undeservedly fallen out of the public consciousness, but rather about a worthy read that has not yet found an avenue to enter the public consciousness.
Jordan Harper has been turning out slick, sick, tough stories with the steady, confident voice of an old hand for a couple of years now. Though he’s calling Los Angeles home these days, he grew up in Missouri and his work has almost exclusively dealt with the criminal element in St. Louis with occasional side trips into the hills to the south and west. His first novel, Dirtnap Avenue mines the same rich ground. Harper draws upon the sensationalized and mythologized elements of Missouri’s outlaw tradition and crime history from the James Younger Gang to Tom Egan and up to the Chain of Rocks Bridge murders and so does his protagonist, Jesse Priest, who sees himself as belonging to that tradition as a singular unfolding narrative and is seeking his place in it.
Jesse is a professional thief with a few problems. Two are his family: his father, Bennie, The Pope of St. Louis, who was an abusive SOB, pitting his two sons against each other in backyard fights when they were children, (he even christened them Frank and Jesse for crying out loud) just wont stop even though his kids are grown and he’s finally dying of everything he’s had coming after a lifetime of murder, thieving and extortion. And his brother Frank may live out in the county and play soccer dad on the weekends, but he’s stepped up his ruthless shit to the point that he’s offing citizens over small time debts.
Another problem is Deaner Gant’s daughter. Deaner is his father’s incarcerated enforcer who helped drive the Chicago mob out of St. Louis in one mythical bloody day during Jesse’s childhood and still has enough juice from the inside to protect or destroy your ass wherever it may be. As long as he’s a crook, Jesse is simply not good enough for Veronica Gant, but he’s got it in a big way for the unpredictable bad man’s girl. All that aside, Jesse’s problems don’t really begin until his crew is hired by Emil Kovics and the Bosnians of south St. Louis to retrieve a steel case currently handcuffed to the wrist of a redneck pimp across the river.
Turns out it’s not just the Bosnians interested in it.
Turns out bloody.
After the cork is popped the guttings, shootings and corpse disposals roll, and in my favorite bit of mayhem somebody is barbecued inside a car. Harper shifts the point of view frequently between supporting characters, each with their own code and agenda and we explore the city along the racial lines separating north from south, the class lines separating the new and the generations-deep immigrant minorities in the city, as well as the mind sets separating gangsters and professional thieves.
Our little city is as sleazy and classy as anybody else out there and in my humble opinion, this is the crime novel St. Louis deserves and Harper is a writer who’s time is nigh. Reading Dirtnap Avenue, I was reminded of the experience of taking a chance on the book with the strange cover and great title Rilke on Black by Ken Bruen some ten years ago – it was a voice steeped in the familiar traditions of hardboiled and noir fiction, but with its own accent and cadence – self assured and smart assed without ever becoming self conscious or showing off. It’s a helluva fun read and hard to imagine publishers aren’t beating down his door to get it.
With the big boys licking their wounds and praying that they can sell a gillion copies of their go-to crime guys and gals just so they can break even, it seems like a real opportunity for some ballsy press to snatch this one up and invest in the future of the genre, (I’m talking to you Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, Bleak House, Busted Flush, Akashic etc.)
For a sample of Harper’s style check out his Spinetingler Award nominee Red Hair and Black Leather. For more on St. Louis crime, check out Egan’s Rats by Daniel Waugh and regarding the Chain of Rocks Bridge murders, A Rip in Heaven by Jeanine Cummins.
Photo credit: Travis Hartman