Tuesday, March 27, 2012

20. Loan Shark by J.W. O'Dell

Phew!  Well this turned out to be an excellent antidote to that terrible Butcher novel I read before.  Right from the beginning, I could tell we were in a different level of quality with Loan Shark.  The writing is taut and the setting's grime, squalor and desperation of 1970s Times Square feels very real.

The story starts in medias res as deadbeat gambler and alcoholic Joey Casey loses all his bets in his last big play.  He is in deep to a shylock and not just any shylock, but one of the meanest and least compromising, Macaluso.  Worse, he drunkenly talked shit about Macaluso and even mocked his retarded daughter.  So Macaluso's two top goons, old pros Fine and Demera, are after him and it's quite possible that this time they'll take his life.

The other important character is Frank Cassidy, Joey's older, smarter and more responsible brother.  He is in his own bad place, but it is more psychological. He's a cop who never tried for promotion because that would have revealed how he lied about his identity to hide the existence of his brother with a record.  Furthermore, his wife had died.  Totally estranged from Joey, he spends his days working in a dull daze and his nights being depressed.

The whole book takes place in about a day and a half, with Casey on the run, swinging between despair, fear, anger, hopelessness, a lot of it related to whatever stage of drinking he is in.  Finally, he turns to his last option, his brother.  And that's what Loan Shark is about, the relationship between these two brothers and the choice Frank decides to make.

It's a quick, absorbing and intense read.  All the characters are richly portrayed with an efficiency of text and a realness that makes it effective.  The portrayal of Joey's alcoholism is extremely believable.  You hate the guy for his selfishness, his lying, his manipulation, but you also can't help but sympathize with his inevitable downward spiral.  Excellent book.  I can't find very much else about this author.  Anybody out there know anything about J.W. O'Dell?


Ed Gorman said...

I read this when it first appeared and I've read it a few times since. It has a crude compelling power and, as you say, realism that more acclaimed and refined novels don't. I wish I knew something about J.W. O'Dell, too. He wrote a fine little novel. I'm going to link to your review tomorrow night on my blog. Nice wok.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks for the comment! Your point about its "crude, compelling power" does remind me that I didn't fully emphasize that this book has some sleaze in it. Lots of racist talk, almost all the women in it are prostitutes. But most of this is in the dialogue of the characters or in their actions. The author doesn't force any gratuitous sex or violence into the book for its own sake. When it does happen, its perfunctory, not glamourized at all and written in the same terse style as the rest of the book. It's a great example of how you can write about the dark side of the world without exploiting it.