Risky Business

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Sunday, February 3, 2008


By Joe McGinniss Jr.

Black Cat. 276 pp. Paperback, $14

Las Vegas seems the perfect setting for Joe McGinniss Jr.'s first novel: a portrait of teens and 20-somethings who value sheen over substance, sell out long-term potential for short-term perks, and gamble with their lives on hopes that are unlikely to materialize.

An art school drop-out, 25-year-old Chase is biding time as a high school teacher until he can meet up in California with girlfriend Julia, who is completing her MBA and already on the fast-track to success. But Chase is also hung-up on his childhood crush, Michele, now a Vegas call girl. When she and another childhood pal, Bailey, organize a teen prostitution ring in a Vegas suite, Chase finds himself the "delivery man," running girls to and from appointments -- some of them the girls he's taught in art class.

Though banally depraved, Chase's world isn't too far from everyday American culture, where sex and youth are major marketing commodities. These girls aspire to the glitz and glamour around them -- Audi convertibles and bigger breasts. If sex sells, why not just sell it? In one scene, teens giving each other manicures discuss how one girl "did it around the holidays so she could buy people really good presents."

But nothing is easy -- and not just because of the bleak amorality of teens selling themselves. Michele is running tricks off the books, courting serious payback. Chase is dodging one hooker's ill-tempered boyfriend and also trying to outrun an anguished past -- "eight years ago, the gray early morning, July, Bailey's bedroom, the body on the lawn." And his girlfriend choices carry high stakes. As a ubiquitous billboard reminds him: "What Kind of Man Are You?"

Remarkably, amid the schoolgirl sex and looming violence, the double-crossing and life-changing decisions, The Delivery Man often feels static. McGinnis, who inherited not just the name but the skill of his father, a bestselling true crime writer, keeps tensions mounting in small ways: Julia and Michele squaring off on first meeting, Michele fumbling through business talk with the MBA crowd, and those heartbreaking flashbacks. But Chase is just going around in circles -- his Mustang ferrying teens back and forth, his mind returning to that painful past and unpromising future -- and it's sometimes hard to separate his inertia from the story's. Still, the novel is, after all, about a group of people destined to go nowhere. And McGinnis charts that aimlessness with insight and dexterity. Dare I say it? The Delivery Man really delivers: grim, convincing and compelling.

-- Art Taylor is a mystery writer whose work has appeared in many publications.

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