Any time a book can make me feel physically ill from the first few pages, I know it must be doing something right. Charlie Huston’s 2004 debut novel, Caught Stealing, opens with protagonist Hank Thompson pissing blood following a savage beating leading to catastrophic kidney failure. I’d say that qualifies.
“This is how life changes,” explains Hank, as he breathlessly launches into the second-person story about how his promising high school baseball career was ruined when he broke a leg trying to steal third base. “The bone sticks straight out from your calf, and you just stare at it.” Along with the traumatic car-crash death of his childhood friend, this leads to Hank moving from California to New York where, apart from the alcoholism and the sore feet from tending bar, he seems pretty content. “You’re a good guy, you’re tough and you have a reputation in your neighborhood for helping people out. It’s nice. It’s not the life you expected, but it’s nice enough for you.”
And that’s when this new pulp-crime classic really gets going with a deceptively simple Mcguffin of a plot: Hank is asked to watch his friend Russ’ cat while he’s away. There’s something else in the cat carrier, though: A key. And some very scary people are out to get it. The kind of people that will threaten to “Kill your ass an’ your family an’ your ancestors, kill your fucking house plants an’ all that shit.” People like Detective Lieutenant Roman, the corrupt Robbery/Homicide cop, Red, the fashionable Chinese kid with a real knack for inflicting pain, and bank-robbing brothers Ed and Paris DuRante. “I have to hand it to these guys,” Hank muses in a moment of self-reflexivity, “They all have great names.” Huston’s sharp, screenplay-style dialogue and profanely poetic prose put us right there with Hank as he runs all over Manhattan looking for safe haven, stopping periodically to check up on how the Mets are doing and trying to resist having the drink that could push his one remaining kidney over the edge.
Hank quips, “As alcoholics go, I’m really more of a dedicated amateur than a true professional. I tend to be more of a bingeing, life-of-my-own-party kind of drinker rather than a steady, dying-an-inch-at-a-time kind of drinker.” Huston pays special attention to Hank’s alcoholism, with his protagonist unable to stop thinking about all the drinks he can’t have even as he’s being pursued across the city by police and thieves. “Let’s face it,” he says, “everyone has to figure out a way to get through the day and booze is a very popular strategy.” His friends are no help either. He can’t even tell his former boss Edwin about the armed thugs gathered outside his bar without being forced to drink a shot of Wild Turkey with him first.
Huston also crafts Hank into such a likeable, genuinely nice character – a stark departure from your average ‘noir’ tough guy – that the things that happen to him seem all the more horrible. And believe me, things do get very horrible. The book pulls absolutely no punches with the violence, but it doesn’t try to be glib about it either. As Hank points out, “I have fought very little in my life, but what I have noticed is that even when you win, you get hurt.” Violence has real consequences in this book. That being said, if you’re faint of heart or weak of stomach, this book is absolutely not for you. You should know whether you’re planning on sticking with it by the time you get to the almost unbearable scene about 50 pages in where Hank is tortured to the soothing sounds of the Beach Boys. “I have a secret. The secret is, I don’t know where the key is. So these guys can do whatever they want and I just won’t talk. […] Lucky me.” Watching Hank slip from his decent, normal life into a life of violence and crime is pretty disturbing as well. Even as he keeps his mordant sense of humor about him, it’s clear from early on in the book that there’s no going back.
Huston makes New York a real character too, with his transplanted-from-California protagonist offering all sorts of nifty cultural insights, such as Hank Thompson on the East Village: “Condos, boutiques, and bistros are popping up like fungus. But murders, muggings, and rapes are way down, so when people bitch about gentrification I usually tell them to fuck off.” Baseball, Hank’s favorite pastime, has a definite presence as well, and Huston gets a lot of humor out of Hank trying to take time out of being pursued by killers to see how his beloved San Francisco Giants are doing. “Now the Mets and the Giants are all tied up for the wild card with one game each left. Tonight. And I’m gonna miss those too. Because I’m gonna be at a fucking showdown.”
With his deft ear for dialogue and his breathlessly page-turning sense of pacing, Charlie Huston has firmly placed himself as one of the best new crime writers of the decade. Not only is Caught Stealing one of the best crime novels of the past ten years, it’s one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read. The misadventures of Hank Thompson would continue into the sequels Six Bad Things and A Dangerous Man, both of which are also great reads, and several of the pet themes that pop up in this book would come up again in some of his later novels. Hank’s childhood hobby of breaking-and-entering would become the focus of The Shotgun Rule, and another protagonist with fear of motor vehicles going back to a prior tragedy would appear in his latest novel, The Mystic Art of Erasing All Signs of Death. But for the sheer exuberance that only comes from a first-time novelist with a lot to say, Caught Stealing is where it’s at. Huston’s new novel My Dead Body, the fifth and final book in his horror-noir Joe Pitt series, came out Tuesday, October 13th, and should be available at cool bookstores everywhere.