I originally reviewed A Dangerous man by Charlie Huston on October 18th, 2006
One of the qualities that make Hank a compelling, likable and unique character in noir is that he is not a “bad” guy. Noir has a tendency to deal in absolutes, though the great modern noir stories are resolutely grey, and Hank is grey. He is just a guy who has made some wrong choices over the years and is now caught up in events that he has no control over. He is at heart a good guy. Hank is acutely aware of the bad things that he has done and the sins that he has committed. He is ever searching for redemption. In one final act of contrition he doesn’t secure his own salvation but more tellingly tries to secure the safety of those that are closest to him, those that he has hurt and those that he has come to care for.
Two characters become the catalyst for the books action. Miguel and Ana. Miguel is young baseball player whose star is on the rise. He has been drafted by the Mets and will put in some time in their farm system before moving to the Bigs. Miguel has a bad gambling problem and Dolokov has bought all of the outstanding debts and now holds the paper. Knowing that the kid is going to go far in Major League Baseball, Miguel is still allowed to bet heavily, banking against his future earnings. Hank becomes Miguel’s bodyguard thus ultimately providing the impetus for Hanks fateful return to New York, where this whole saga originally started. Ana is Dolokov’s sister in law and it was her nephew Mikhail that Hank killed in Six Bad Things. Ever since her son’s death she has been after Dolokov to find and kill Hank, Dolokov swears to her that he is dead and Ana doesn’t believe him. Through a chance meeting she discovers the identity of Dolokov’s “ghost” and sends her military trained nephews after Hank. Ana informs Hank that he is going to kill Dolokov for her. Meanwhile Dolokov has instructed Hank to kill Ana and that this will be last job.
My biggest complaint that I find in Houston’s work is more general in nature then specific, and is probably my fault more then his, but it bears mentioning. I sometimes find that there were missed opportunities. There is a foot chase sequence in A Dangerous man that in summary goes down the boardwalk, through a flea market and winds up in a huge parking lot packed tight with empty school buses. This scene ended far too quickly and could have been fleshed out more; it seemed like a missed opportunity. There was a lot of potential material in that scene that Huston skirted the edges of but ultimately was left untouched.
A Dangerous Man was the first book that Huston wrote as a full time writer and it shows. Houston seems to hold a self deprecating opinion of his skills as a writer. But I don’t buy into his bullshit. He is in fact a skilled writer and a natural storyteller; these traits have been evident from the beginning and extend into all of his outlets.
I want to take a closer look at one scene that I think shows why Huston is one of the best and quickly becoming a modern master.
The linear summary of the scene starts with the very first meeting of Hank and Miguel. After many hours of gambling and partying in Vegas there is an altercation in a strip club where Miguel comes to the aid of a dancer causing another party of three men to be ejected from the club. This other group meets them in the parking lot where they start a fight with Hank, Miguel and his friend. Hank, as he is want to do when confronted with unexpected violence, spins into action and violently ends the situation leaving one of the men bleeding from his rectum. They then have some down time and Hank sees the other two to their plane. Over the course of the evening the three men start to connect and bond a little with Hank having to admit to himself that he likes Miguel, who seems like a genuinely good guy but is in over his head.
On its own it is a quality section of the book that highlights: the friendship between Miguel and his friend; the hanger-on quality of his friend, and others; a snapshot of Sin City; the general likeability of Miguel, to name but a few moments. All of these climax in a bar fight with a brief respite before he leaves. In and of itself it is complete; it could almost stand on its own as a piece of short fiction. But it’s not a stand alone story, its one part of a larger narrative. So we are well aware of the weight that hangs heavy on Hanks heart as he sees some of his younger self in Miguel and how far down the toilet his life has come. Miguel, whether he realizes it or not, is standing at the crossroads of his life. He is on the cusp of achieving great success that is also intertwined with great failure. He has the potential to lose control of his blessed life or pull himself out of his downward spiral and ultimately through Hank’s actions that choice will be his to make. In fact we meet him at the beginning of his realization that things are about to go bad.
But Huston being the irreverent stylist that he is decided to present it in a different light. He starts off the sequence in medias res, at the beginning of the parking lot fight, before we know any of the five other participants. The immediate effect is that of confusion, but this quickly turns into tension and suspense. Our mind is filled with questions that Huston isn’t providing the answers for. When these emotions quickly arrive at their peak he changes gears and takes us back to the beginning of the evening, when Hank and the two men meet for the first time. Over the course of the lengthy descriptions of their drunken, bacchanalian revels, which includes losing $100,000 gambling, we are treated to intermittent continuations of the fight that takes increasingly greater importance as we become better acquainted with the primary characters.
When we finally arrive at the moment that starts the fight the already frenetic pace becomes impossibly faster as all of the information about the immediate events snaps into place like a taut rubber band being let go. As the tensions escalate we prepare ourselves for the fight that we know is about to happen, but it never does, because it already did. Our emotions have been masterfully manipulated to heighten the scene to its utmost capacity but since the release of the contained energy was already given to us in the beginning, before we knew that we needed the release, Huston leaves us to carry that tension in our gut, where it stays throughout the duration of the novel.
Houston plays it fast and loose in all of his stories, that’s his style and quickly becoming his trademark. It’s a credit to his skill as a writer that he hits the mark most of the time. Even if he does miss the mark occasionally he is never dull or boring. If I were forced to point out a crutch of his it would be that he sometimes has a tendency to have one character (not the protagonist) provide a lengthy discourse that explains everything to the protagonist. One imagines a “bad guy” monologuing or even Columbo in his trench coat walking around the table explaining it all. His occasional reliance on this tactic may be his most obvious shortcoming but it’s a forgivable one.