Ever find yourself asking where just enough turns into way too much? I know I wonder where the line falls between an extra hour's sleep on Saturday and pure laziness, between adding an interesting side project and falling into scattered slothfulness. Usually, this behavioral platting occurs when I'm trying to rationalize something away, to say that, hey, no one can really tell when an action moves from mildly indulgent to flat-out grotesque. (Logicians call this the Fallacy of the Beard, but I prefer to call it the Fallacy of Utterly Consuming an Entire Tin of Christmas Toffee Piece by Tiny Piece, which I know nothing about personally.) Such suppositions aren't entirely indulgent. In fact, questions about when violence changes from intense to exploitative spring up quite naturally while reading Charlie Huston's Caught Stealing.
Hank Thompson hasn't led a successful life. As an athletic high schooler, he seemed destined for the pro-baseball diamond. But a (literal) bad break destroyed his athletic hopes and a freak car crash robbed him of both his best friend and sense of purpose. Now an amiable alcoholic with chronically aching feet and always teetering on the edge of insolvency, he tends bar in New York. That is until two Russian guys with tiny hands show up and completely spoil his day. Funny, with small hands like that you wouldn't think they could do much damage, but they beat Hank, beat him without a reason, beat him until his kidney ruptured. Now minus an internal organ, he's trying to figure what he could've possibly done. The only thing out of the ordinary is his friend Russ asking him to watch his cat. Russ, who was nervous and agitated when he banged on his door. Russ, who didn't seem to know when he'd be returning to town ...
You don't need clairvoyance to foresee that Caught Stealing will plunge Hank in over his head very quickly. What may surprise you, though, is the brutality of his travails. This isn't a book to read before bed or at mealtimes. It's a thriller with a noir heart and ice water sluicing through its veins. It reads like the lovechild of Adrian McKinty's stream-of-consciousness hardboiled and Scott Sigler's tartare-raw horror. It's the sort of book where needle-nosed pliers come none-too-gently in contact with surgical staples, where a friendly feline gets roughed up in ways I'm unwilling to commit to print.
So if the novel's that intense, why bother reading? Good question. Fortunately, Huston intersperses the explosions of violence with long periods of character-building detail, which are immensely effective at making you care for Hank and friends long before the baseball bats and brass knuckles come out. Also, the gritty bits are largely free of explicit detail, allowing your imagination to fill in the worst parts. No doubt Caught Stealing will make many squirm. But even though its starkness scuffs at the line of appropriateness here and there, its engaging narrative manages to make the violence secondary, which is right where it belongs.
(Picture: CC 2010 by TaranRampersad; Hat Tip: @DBeyondBorders)