Book World: ‘Buried on Avenue B’
By Patrick Anderson,
New York Police Detective Darlene O’Hara starts most workdays with an 8 a.m. vodka and grapefruit juice in a dive called Milano’s that’s not far from the Homicide South headquarters in the Lower East Side. O’Hara admires the view from Milano’s — “the delicacy of the light and the lovely sense of remove, both from pedestrians hustling by on Houston and from time” — and, more to the point, she believes that “a generous pour on an empty stomach provides a measure of perspective.”
When first glimpsed at Milano’s, O’Hara is in urgent need of an enhanced perspective because her 21-year-old son, Axl Rose O’Hara, who was born when she was 15 and named for her favorite rock star, has dropped out of college to start a band. A few nights later, she journeys to a Ukrainian community center to hear Axl fronting his new group, Flat Screen, and bellowing his own composition, “Let’s Get the [Expletive] Out of Dodge!” O’Hara remains a loving mother, but she can’t help wondering “if it’s her destiny to spend both her days and her nights with the mentally challenged.”
Her days are spent at the precinct house, where soon a home health aide reports that her elderly charge — a one-time junkie and petty thief — claims to have murdered a large black man and buried him under a willow tree in a community garden. O’Hara’s lieutenant grants her permission to investigate, since winding up this apparently open-and-shut case will raise the mostly nonviolent precinct’s homicide closure rate to a heroic 92 percent. But when the police dig up the grave, they find not the remains of a large black man but those of a small white boy, age 9 or so. The rest of the book relates O’Hara’s efforts to find out who the boy was and how he wound up buried on Avenue B.
This is Peter de Jonge’s second novel — after “Shadows Still Remain” — starring the lovable if somewhat muddled O’Hara, and again he tells his story with style, a generous helping of whimsy and a sharp eye for the odd corners and myriad eccentricities of Manhattan. It’s hardly a profound novel, but de Jonge is a first-rate entertainer. Although the mystery of the boy’s death is interesting enough, what you’ll most likely remember are the book’s one-liners and strange characters, such as a bearded lady who works in a sideshow, a woman of 90 whose bawdy bedroom proclivities shock O’Hara, and an 87-year-old ex-boxer who punches out another senior for cutting in line at the early-bird special.
O’Hara even meets a clean-cut young doctor, blessed with “the kind of open boyish face rarely seen on a native New Yorker,” who has kind words for Adderall, the reportedly dangerous prescription drug that young people are said to be using to stay awake while studying. It was, he says, the “thing that got me out of Davenport, Iowa, and into Harvard. Makes me feel young. . . . Best thing I ever did.”
O’Hara’s investigation takes her to Florida, where she confronts a gang that specializes in swindling the elderly. This is serious business, as is her search for the child-killer, but mostly de Jonge’s caustic tale suggests a mix of an Ed McBain procedural and one of Donald Westlake’s crime romps.
Among the characters we meet is a Mets fan who declares that “pulling for Steinbrenner’s Yankees would be like going to Vegas and rooting for the house.”When the fearless O’Hara takes a hit off a joint to win the trust of some skateboarders, “the sky sparkles in a way it hasn’t for 15 years.” When the aging junkie pats the bottom of his younger health aide, O’Hara reflects on “the audacity of hope. . . . Or is it the audacity of grope?”
Have I no criticism of this easy-going novel? Only one: De Jonge endlessly — at least 20 times — uses the formulation “a couple dollars,” “a couple days,” “a couple phone calls,” et cetera, ad nauseam. Soon, each new affront had me crying aloud, “For God’s sake, man, where’s the ‘of?’ ” He is, of course, younger and hipper than I, and not alone in embracing this stylistic misdemeanor. That aside, “Buried on Avenue B” is a pleasing blend of comedy and crime, clearly suitable for the beach and probably good company well into autumn as well.
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for Book World.
BURIED ON AVENUE B By Peter de Jonge Harper. 308 pp. $25.99