This Desperate City is very proud to welcome Derrick Horodyski to the family. Derrick comes to us from the clutches of the great folks over at Into the Gutter/FFO, where he penned too many reviews to count. He has been gracious enough to adopt the TDC style of reviews which include a slightly deeper dive into character and motivations, and we could not be happier with this first glimpse into the new partnership. We are looking forward to great things in the future as TDC steps into its second incarnation. Welcome Derrick, and now onto the good stuff!
by Daniel Vlasaty
Review by Derrick Horodyski
Despite his best intentions to stay clear of the life that has given him nothing but heartbreak, jail time, and lost opportunities, Ugly is sucked back into the dark grime of the criminal underbelly when his drug addicted brother is accused of ripping off a local drug dealer with big connections. With one foot in the life he desires and one in the life he can’t seem to escape, Ugly is on the verge of being pulled apart.
Ugly/Eric: Known as Ugly in his more reckless days, he now wants to be known by Eric, the name he was given when his life had the possibility of happiness. Ugly’s past shadow casts a pall over every aspect of his current existence.
“A legacy is something that follows you around like a fucking shadow. Especially in Rogers Park. Because people on these streets like to talk and gossip like schoolyard bitches”
Joe: Ugly’s younger brother who has chosen his drug addiction over his safety by deciding to rob the local drug dealer of 100G worth of product. He is the albatross which keeps Ugly anchored to the old life he desperately wants to rid himself of.
“People (are) looking for Joe but right now he’s a ghost…They out for some motherfucking blood.”
Acevado: A local drug dealer who has made his bones to rise to the top of the local syndicate. He shares an upbringing with Ugly, so he can use their shared past to play to Ugly’s sensibility to help him find Joe, the drugs, and/or the money which was stolen from him.
“Acevado’s a little guy. But he could always scrap with the best of them. Dude was a brawler back in the day. Looks different now….He’s cleaned up nice. Got more of a sophisticated and mature thing going on than I remember from the last time I saw him, years ago”
Nicky: Ugly’s old running mate from his past. Nicky accepts Ugly for who he wants to become, but questions his ability to leave “the life” behind. Nicky provides Ugly with an ally in a world where an ally can be as powerful as a gun.
“Like everyone else he’s offered me all the work I could ever need, but we’re tight enough for him to respect my decision to stay away without any kind of hostility or distance between us.”
Ugly is trying his hardest to leave his past behind. He has recently gotten out of yet another extended stay in prison and this time, he wants to make changes in his life to ensure he stays out. He has his eye on working a 40+ hour a week job, starting an honest life with his girlfriend, Kelley, and leaving his street reputation behind. But he is finding out his past has claws which refuse to let him go so easily.
“But what Kelley doesn’t understand in all this is that it’s easy enough to want to do better. Actually getting there is a whole other thing”
Ugly’s hope for a peaceful exit to the hard life is seemingly dashed when he discovers his younger brother, Joe, has made a major mistake. Joe has ripped off Acevado, a local drug dealer who has ties to very powerful men who won’t let this crime go without deadly retribution. Acevado insists Ugly either locates Joe and the stolen goods, or he may just as well have done the crime himself and is now on the hook for it. Realizing Joe is a walking dead man without his help, Ugly must decide between sacrificing his dreams or sacrificing his brother.
In a moral clash between staying loyal to his family and staying loyal to himself, his dreams, and his new responsibilities, Ugly sets out to find Joe, the stolen stash, and answers to questions he doesn’t know if he can ever answer. Can a man live down his past, or is the past something that defines your present and your future?
“You can’t leave the past in the past if it’s constantly thrown in your face every time anyone talks to you”.
Told in the fast pace of a single night, Ugly has to not just find answers to his current problems, but also to problems which have haunted him over the course of his life
Vlasaty writes like a noir master. He captures the essence of a character who starts at rock bottom and seems to have little chance of raising himself any higher. His setting is bleak and characters are flawed and damaged. Stay Ugly unfolds at a perfect pace, adding layers of plot and characters with every page.
What sets this book above a lot of books I have recently read, is the authenticity to Vlasaty’s voice. His prose is on point and packs a hell of a punch. Like a renowned artist, he paints the heartbreak of the human condition, each brush stroke revealing a new dimension and different details which draw in the eye and the heart. The true measure of his genius is when the reader takes a step back and can fully appreciate the scope of the world he has created.
This is yet another Vlasaty masterpiece. His body of work is very respectable and all noir lovers should get acquainted with his body of work. His books continue to show his evolution as an author to watch and savor. His masterpiece memoir Amphetamine Psychosis is still the yardstick for every book I will ever read. If this is your first taste of Vlasaty, I envy you because you are about to be exposed to a true literary treasure. This book is highly recommended.
By Tom Pitts
Pot is on the verge of becoming legal, but the shady grower business is tighter than ever on the Hill in Humboldt. When dirty cash goes missing, an explosion ignites between a wronged biker gang, a young couple on the run, one old lady grittier than a mouth full of sand, and her long lost friend Vic, the man who knows where the bodies are buried because he’s the one who put them there.
Vic – Everyone’s got that one friend, the guy you call who won’t ask questions because he knows the answers won’t be legal. Vic’s life on the street, his years on the run, have hardened his hide into a shell of unforgiving fortitude.
“I been around these people. They don’t play games, and neither do I.” Vic looked directly at Piper. “I am a very serious man.”
Barbara Bertram – At once both a suburban homebody and a force of nature, Barbara spent the first half of her life stumbling through the unforgiving drug addiction, and the second as a devoted mother to an ungrateful boy. But her past serves her well, as she becomes an willing prisoner in her son’s ill-thought machinations.
Barbara came into the room at full speed, tackling the man who held the child. She ignored the SFPD uniform the man wore and took him down from the midsection.
Jerry & Piper – Jerry spent his childhood under the overprotective care of his mother, but never absorbed her ruthless life lessons. Piper is the surrogate daughter of a gangland leader. The pair of lovers hatch a scheme that leads to a pile of bodies, missing cash, and one hell of a ride.
Jerry reached in his pocket, shook out a Marlboro, stuck it in his mouth, and lit it. He blew smoke in the kid’s face.
"That ain’t cool.”
Humboldt County & The Hill – While illegal pot is nearly gone, on The Hill, the old way still rules: force, guns, and attitude. Stealing water is a mortal sin, and the different growers still preside over their fiefdoms like medieval kings.
The fireroad led nowhere, the path covered with thorny raspberry bramble and blocked with a fallen tree. Vic killed the motor and listened to the approaching car … He lifted the Glock 19 from the seat beside him and racked one into the chamber.
It only took a few minutes to make it around the long city block, and when they got to the spot Vlad thought he’d seen the Crown Vic, there was only an empty parking spot.
“See?” Dimitri said. “No cops. Only us gangsters.”
My last foray into Tom Pitts' dark imagination took us through the last vestige of San Francisco’s hard underbelly in Hustle. He’s written quite a bit since then, and his newest book 101 puts on display both how far he's come, and also, how much more there still is to see with this author.
There is no doubt; Pitts’ ability to create colorful, if briefly alive, characters helps him accelerate his plot to breakneck pacing. We quickly get imaginative visuals of minor players that give empathy and depth regardless of their time on the page, be it Mr. Clean the bald and giant pot grower in love with a junkie, or Ripper, the loyal farm hand with double the guts filling out his thick belly. Pitts' Humboldt County is filled with these folks, most of which are just meat for this grinder of a noir tale.
Nestled here, either lost in the brambles of Northern California, or blasting through a biker’s hideout, we find, as we always do, this author’s strengths. Never dipping below a sprint, the sleek, straightforward plot gets out of Pitts' way so he can throw us through the ringer. What this allows too, is for his readers not to question otherwise puzzling gaps (How did Barbara, a weakened, late fifties mom wrestle a baseball bat away from her assailant off-screen?). Since it’s in service of forward momentum, we not only don’t question it, we relish in the damage she’s able to commit with her attitude and weapon.
Most interesting, and for my tastes welcomed, is Barbara’s role as prisoner, murderer, and otherwise bad-ass. Pitts sets us up with a typical hardboiled story: a biker gang is missing cash, a punk couple on the run, a mother kidnapped and in peril, the hard-nosed male protagonist that will save everyone’s hides. But as we run through his imagination, the kids become more useless, and the biker gang less capable, and finally, we find out the kicker, how our older mom is actually the truest, and meanest of them all. I applauded this turn in the book, and reveled in the blood she wrought, both in the climax, and in her long ago past.
My regard for Pitts' storytelling is only inhibited by, what I’ll call, less than diligent self-editing. The same author writes this concise polished line:
“Jer-ree.” She said it like she was considering its fit, whether he should keep on using it or upgrade to another name.
Also creates this somewhat flat explanative paragraph:
He knew bureaucracy demanded as much, but he couldn’t help but believe these ideas boxed in their thinking. Where it was the criminal’s job to think as far outside the box as possible, law enforcement had trained themselves to sit squarely and comfortably inside said box.
Pitts is creative, smart, and gritty as hell. His characters tell us this throughout his many stories, especially this one. For his next work, I hope he slims down his writing as much as his plotlines. Let the action roll, we already understand these mean men and women by their actions; we need less of their inner dialogue. In his next novel, I’m confident Pitts goes from good to great, and that he’ll trust himself as much as we already trust him.
101 is nasty little ride, and one that reads as quickly as the action firing between its covers. We recommend it.
*** Full Disclosure, This Desperate City was sent a reviewers copy of this book. However, we do not post reviews of books we do not enjoy ***
Two junkie hookers with nothing left to lose attempt to frame their biggest client. Unfortunately for them, someone’s already beat them to it and he’s not ready to share.
“Donny and Rich’s lives ground on in a short cycle of copping, getting high, turning tricks, hiding from the world, then getting sick. Their time was marked by hours, not days.”
It’s not that this book is grimy, though it is. It’s not that its violent, or endearing, or bloody, or wrought with the painful reality of the streets, though it is all of these things.
What Hustle has that a lot in the genre don’t is urgency.
And not the noir urgency of a missing character struggling to stay alive in the hands of a speed-freak killer, or the desperate need to obtain that one last treasure that’ll get a man off the streets for good, (although you guessed it, Hustle has these in spades as well).
The urgency in this tale bubbles from the streets itself, and the addictions buried in the people there. At no point in Pitt’s yarn are we more than a few moments away from the desperate and oppressive need of the next hit, just to get us right, just to get us through the next two hours.
That’s reality on the streets and that’s what makes this novel so compelling. Noir/Crime pieces will always (although don’t have to) spin around the dirty folks skirting the fringes of the law. And some have dark histories and others are getting their hands bloody for the first time, but rarely do we see them so pre-occupied with one singular thought, and even more rarely is this thought a true reflection of reality.
Addiction strangles us at every turn, pressing on our windpipe as Big Rich and Donny turn their tricks with dark men in nice cars just to score some cigarette money, as Bear tries to figure out his next move and how far he should go to save the life of a man who saved his, as Dustin tweaks his way through existence.
It never leaves and just when the countdown hits zero, shakes start, the vomiting and the cramps and the pain, so much pain. It’s not hard to get lost in Hustle’s reverence to addiction, and it’s the book’s most endearing quality. Because in the end, we want Big Rich to be reunited with his chick and their kid, we want Donnie to smarten up and stop getting raped. And most of all, we want Bear to relax on the beers and just settle down with a broad who gets him. But we also know that’s not going to happen. The pull is too strong, the claws too deep. It was always going to end this way, we just needed to see it happen to know for sure.
Tom Pitt’s Hustle gets the reader dirty, sure, but it’s the pain of that dirt, that grit, that makes this small slice of street life so real.
Review by JJS
Blog Author Bios:
J. J. Sinisi started TDC and is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating and reviewing crime fiction. His work has appeared at Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler Mag, Near to the Knuckle, Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive and others.