Tidewater Review - September 2009
Good Guys vs. The Baddest Since Hannibal Lector
It’s a rare pleasure to encounter books by an author so talented and enticing that a critic’s enthusiasm screeches to a halt until he/she is lured into reading the writer’s complete oeuvre. Ever since Jane Austen captured this critic’s exclusive attention, the sheer volume of published work has put a cap on that diversion. Recently, Grand Central Publishing seduced me to put all else aside until I swallowed whole a trio of New York Time’s bestseller list entries, the work of George Dawes Green.
The first in order of appearance is The Caveman’s Valentine, (1994) just reissued in paperback. Next came The Juror, (1995), also in paperback this summer. And now, hallelujah!, there’s his latest book, Ravens, out in hardcover with the tease on the book jacket, “The Boatwrights just won $318 million in the Georgia State Lottery. It’s going to be the worst day of their lives.”
The laundry can wait. The vacuum cleaner is on holiday. The phone is off the hook and the TV remote can gather dust. A grand feast is prepared and the critic is a glutton for vicarious excitement. Pull up a bib and dig in.
The Caveman’s Valentine
Romulus Ledbetter, known as Rom by his closest friends and Caveman by everyone else, is one of New York’s homeless people. He doesn’t consider himself homeless, of course. He lives in a cave in a hilly city park at the top end of Manhattan. He has a mattress, a TV with wires that are connected to nothing and a pile of blankets for bitterly cold weather. He wears three ragged coats on top of his sweater, refuses to sleep in a shelter and keeps a wary eye on the top of the Chrysler Building that he can see from his “front door,” a plastic shower curtain nailed up to keep the wind from blowing out his campfire at the cave entrance. The iconic Chrysler building has a tower at its peak, and Rom knows damn well that’s the office of Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, the demon who is ruining America.
Rom is not your run-of-the-mill homeless person. He’s black, a graduate of Juilliard and had a promising career as a talented and exciting pianist and composer. Sad to say, all that vanished when his affliction with clinical paranoia took over his link with reality. He was kicked out by his wife 17 years earlier but has a loving daughter who keeps in touch. She’s a cop.
Rom subsists by raiding garbage cans and the occasional handout from a late-night cook who gives him leftovers to get him off the premises. If it weren’t for the incessant Y-rays that bombard him from the evil Stuyvesant, Rom would be content with his cave and his life.
That is, until a frozen corpse is dumped just below his cave in the middle of a frigid February night. The victim is another homeless man, a young, handsome out-of-work artists’ model with HIV. Rom knows immediately who killed the youth. He heard footsteps crunching frozen snow in the middle of the night and “turned on” his defunct TV. He “saw” the white limo owned by Stuyvesant as it drove away.
Rom zeroes in on his suspect, David Leppenraub, a gay photographer and music lover in rural Connecticut who had kept the beautiful young fellow as his live-in model until the boy fled to the city streets. There is no doubt in Rom’s mind. David is clearly Stuyvesant’s toady.
Rom’s pursuit of the killer takes him to David’s farm, aided by old friends and strangers. He uses the excursion to snoop for evidence.
Green’s tale is rich in characters who help or hinder the search for what the dead youth’s life was like here. Shocking photographs suggest there may have been real or posed sadistic torture. Among the motley group that Rom encounters are David’s sister with whom he has an unexpected tumble, his homeless friends who knew the victim, a disgruntled tavern keeper, a southern lady with power issues behind her drawl, an investment banker intrigued by Rom’s reading discarded music scores on a street curb...Green’s imagination knows no bounds.
The plot enrols the underworld of abject losers who sleep on hot air grates, in flophouses and abandoned buildings. Cyclops, a one-eyed woman, sometimes wheels her grocery cart to his cave and shares his blankets on cold nights. Rom has never forgotten the practice of hospitality to the needy.
His paranoia is a constant companion. Stuyvesant is his real focus. As the actual killer is near exposure, the action crackles as fast as Rom’s addled mind veers from the real to the surreal. A gun battle on an East Side bridge erupts in a blazing unraveling of the mystery. Having escaped death, Rom is still convinced that Stuyvesant is holed up atop the tower, altering his wicked plot with a new assault - Z-rays.
Despite his daughter’s pleas, he returns to his cave and puts on his tin cap lined with roadkill squirrel hides to keep the moths and restless seraphs from being too distracting in his brain.
He’s unforgettable. He’s a character that lives in the reader’s brain as vividly as it formed in the author’s. Green has delivered a remarkable first novel.
Not to rest on his laurels, Green followed this blockbuster with another tale of an innocent person caught up in the tangle of evil.
In this thriller, Annie Laird is picked for jury duty in the trial of a mobster. She’s the single mother of an adored 12 year old son. She has a crappy job and works nights on her sculptures which so far have not found any buyers. Out of the blue, a collector wants to purchase three large pieces.
She meets for lunch with the prospective buyer, a handsome, erudite man who charms her socks off and concludes the flirtatious afternoon with a quiet warning, “Your child will be safe, your career will flourish, and your friends will remain alive - if you say two words - not guilty.”
Annie is terrified. How could he possibly know she’s going to be a juror? Publicly, she’s merely identified as Juror 244. She’s already committed to serve her civic duty and she’ll be facing Louie Buffano. He’s Capo of a crime family identified as a drug connected Mafia clan. The charge is murder. The District Attorney has what he thinks is an open and shut case - credible witnesses and a taped conversation of the defendant authorizing the hit.
It’s a high-profile case, a sensational news story. The jurors are instructed not to read the newspapers, watch television or speak to anyone, family or friends, about the trial as it unfolds.
Annie, still unnerved by the warning, tells her son to monitor the newspapers and clip out and destroy any trial-related stories and use the TV only for video games.
Her nemesis learns her address and has a flunky sneak in and wire her whole house. He also installs a camera in a tree above her front door to monitor her visitors. He contacts her so often she thinks of him as her stalker, letting her know that he knows where her son goes to school, plays lacrosse, who her friends are and where they live and work. He arranges rendezvous for their meetings, so she’s constantly on edge.
His total knowledge of everything but her thoughts forces Annie to keep her phone talks brief and to pretend anger with her best friend Juliet whom she asks not to call her any more. Her son Oliver notices how abrupt she is with him unless they’re outside on a walk. When Juliet’s calls aren’t returned, she confronts Annie who swears her to secrecy and unloads the threats. She also tells Oliver not to talk to her in their car, because it’s probably wired, too. He’s a good kid. He’s worried, but obeys.
The trial groans on with a litany of damning evidence. When the jury is finally sequestered, only Annie and two other jurors vote for acquittal. Deliberations resume and the The Teacher, as the mob calls him, steps up his threats.
During one meeting with Annie, he drugs a drunken man, puts on the doped man’s jacket and glasses and purloins his car, forcing Annie into it. They race erratically down a road at dusk, speeding toward Oliver on his bike as he returns from lacrosse practice. Swerving at the last minute to avoid the boy, The Teacher deliberately crashes the car into a tree, pulls the unconscious drunk from the back seat and shoots him.
The demonstration of Oliver’s vulnerability is searing. Annie must use her strength and intelligence to persuade her fellow jurors to acquit, he demands.
Annie has had enough. Juliet encourages her to meet privately with the judge to report jury tampering. Not unless the D.A. and defendant’s counsel are present, says the judge.
When Juliet dates The Teacher, unaware of his identity, he treats her to a fabulous day on a yacht and a seduction at a luxury hotel, then forces her to write a suicide note and take her life to protect Oliver, whom she also adores.
Now Annie’s on the hot spot. She know’s Juliet’s death was murder and the threat to Oliver is very real. After the acquittal, she plots revenge, hiding Oliver, cooperating with law enforcement and taping a damning conversation with The Teacher. She delivers the tape to Buffono and his family in a chilling scene in a graveyard.
She is forced to watch as The Teacher wipes them out en route to killing her. As she flees from the explosion, she hears her tormenter shout that he’ll get both her and Oliver.
The climax is classic Green, set in the mountains of Guatemala, a bloody confrontation while a village festival is loud with mariachi bands and drunken riotous celebration.
Next month, your critic will write about Ravens, the most recent piece of intelligent fiction by this masterful writer. In the meantime, join the hordes who revel in his first two must-reads.