Thursday Reviews: Onion Street by Reed Farrel Coleman

Onion Street

Reed Farrel Coleman

At what may be the end of Moe Prager’s life, he recounts for his daughter an incident from the beginning of his adult life. Onion Street is framed by Moe and daughter Sarah attending the funeral of Bobby Friedman, one of Moe’s oldest friends. Moe is surprised Bobby had died, since he’s just finished killing a tumor in his gut with several rounds of chemo. But Moe is amused when he leaves the cemetery. Sarah wants to know why. So Moe tells her, and that is the entree into the very moment Moe Prager became a man.

It’s 1967, and Moses Prager is an aimless Brooklyn College kid happy to bang his girlfriend, drift from class to class, and occasionally smoke the odd joint. Hey, it’s the sixties, and Moe’s sticking it to the man the way boys of my generation raised to an art form: By slacking.

But Mindy is upset about something and warns Moe to stay away from Bobby, his best friend, for a couple of days. This after Moe bails Bobby out. Bobby has been jailed during a radical demonstration, one over the bombing death of his girlfriend some months earlier. Moe can hardly stay away. He spots him at the Burgundy House, what passes for a fraternity at Brooklyn College, and stops him from being killed. When Moe decides he needs to know why, he shadows Bobby and discovers a body. While that happens, Mindy is rushed to the hospital in a coma. Soon, Moe finds himself in over his head, entangled with the mob, communist radicals, and possibly drug smugglers. He also seems to have a talent for finding things out that law enforcement struggles with. More than one person, including a detective, points this out to him.

In the end, Moe realizes he never knew the people around him (besides his parents, brother Aaron, and little sister Miriam). He also realizes where his purpose lies – on the NYPD.

In all the other Pragers, Moe is a responsible businessman who misses his police days. He has been married twice, once widowed and once divorced, and is still reeling from the events of his debut (Walk a Perfect Square) and of the murder that came back to haunt him later (The James Deans). This is a bit different because we see a child named Moe Prager who has to grow up very fast as people around him start dying, and in some cases, a few try to kill him.

Thursday Reviews: Gun Church by Reed Farrel Coleman

Gun Church

Reed Farrel Coleman

Once upon a time, you had a series of writers who were the hot ticket in New York City, the very essence of the kind of people Tom Wolfe wrote about in Bonfire of the Vanities. They became enamored with their own talent and pissed it away in a blizzard of cocaine and an orgy of willing female playmates. Truman Capote comes to mind. So does Norman Mailer. Crime writer Reed Farrel Coleman steps out of his comfort zone to create just such a writer, 80’s wunderkind Kip Weiler.

When we meet Weiler, it’s been years since he’s written anything worthwhile. He is languishing in an eastern coal mining town, Brixton, teaching community college to writing students who are barely literate. Brixton itself makes the rough section of London look like Times Square during New Year’s Eve. The town and the college are a dead end. And that suits Weiler just fine.

Until a student pulls out a gun. Remember how he researched handling a Colt Python, the gun now held on him, Weiler manages to stop the kid from shooting, talking to him until he can grab the cylinder, which stops the revolver dead. Speaking of dead, in a sheer bit of luck, Weiler disarms the kid in time to watch him die in a hail of SWAT team bullets. Suddenly, he’s a hero. And he is recruited by two students: Renee and Jim, to join a special group. It’s called the Chapel, where members go to shoot each other (in protective gear no less). Weiler suddenly feels more alive than ever, even when he was “The Kipster,” the enfant terrible of literary circles. Soon he is writing again. Renee has crawled into his bed and becomes his muse. But just a little disturbing is Jim, who has an intense fanboy obsession with Kip. Jim loves everything Kip has ever written and can’t wait to read the new book.

But to Kip, it’s a chance to bury The Kipster once and for all and get on with the business of living.

The bones of this story is your typical noir, though Coleman, the master of the twist, never lets the story stray into formula. In the beginning, this story has a natural parallel to Fight Club, another tale of modern male ennui going violently wrong. But whereas Palahniuk’s Jack is ultimately fighting a split personality, Kip Weiler is trying to escape an old persona only to wonder if he’s fallen into a new trap. Eventually, the Fight Club parallel disappears.

This story is very organic, and several details resonated with me. Weiler spends most of the book, even when things start turning around for him, wondering where he went wrong and if it ever will be right again. And there is the fear all writers have, the fear that their talent will abandon them. Freed from the constraints of a series, Coleman has written what is probably his best novel yet.

Thursday Reviews: The Hurt Machine by Reed Farrel Coleman

The Hurt Machine

Reed Farrel Coleman

Death is very much on the mind of Moe Prager. As we meet him at the beginning of The Hurt Machine, he has just learned that he has a golf ball-sized tumor in his stomach. He refuses to begin treatment until his daughter Sarah is married. But Moe can’t stop thinking about the end. He feels an enormous amount of guilt over the death of his first wife, Katy, who was murdered by a man he fingered as the killer of a young girl twenty years earlier. He feels the weight of the lies he told about Katy’s brother, whose disappearance marked the beginning of his career as a private investigator. And he feels a debt to ex-wife Carmella.

This last one has Moe looking into the recent murder of Carmella’s sister, Alta. Alta is one of two EMT’s who watched a man die with the excuse that they were off-duty. As with any Moe Prager novel, there’s more here than meets the eye. Alta and her partner are pariahs in the FDNY. A few really angry hardcases are openly thrilled Alta is dead after making the department look bad. A lead that points to a recent fallen hero in the department triggers violent reprisals. But it also uncovers much more than a screw-up by two paramedics. Moe uncovers a web of blackmail, bigotry, and hypocrisy that leads him to discover that no one is what they seem to be.

As disgusted as he gets with the case, Moe can’t let it drop. It soon becomes more than tying up loose ends with Carmella. As with all his cases, Moe is unable to let it go well past the point other PI’s would have dropped it. Cancer, however, adds a new dimension to it. When Moe is wrapped up in the case, he’s not thinking about his possibly imminent demise. Even without the cancer, Moe has a sudden realization that he is sixty, and he is not going to be around forever.

Fortunately, Coleman assures us that he is around for two more books.

Review: Tower By Ken Bruen & Reed Farrel Coleman

Nick and Todd grew up together in Brooklyn, working for an Irish thug named Boyle.  Nick can’t believe how ruthless Todd has become.  Todd tries to reign in Nick’s blind rage.  Most shocking of all, Todd’s actually a cop.  And Boyle wants Nick to kill him.

Does it happen?

The opening scene depicting Todd dumping Boyle’s right-hand man, an ex-IRA shooter named Griffin, into the East River, suggests no.  What happens leading up to that final confrontation is pure Bruen-driven rage laced with Coleman’s poetic lines about sorrow and loss.

The tower in the title is the North Tower of the World Trade Center, where Nick’s father is a security guard.  The tower looms over the story the way it once loomed over Manhattan, its end marking the end of the story as well.  The climax is a classic Bruen punch in the gut rivaling the ending to The Dramatist.  The denouement echoes Coleman’s reflections on loss and carrying on after the fact.