Dirty Work in N.Y.C.
Monday, April 7, 2008
By Colin Harrison
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux.
322 pp. $25
As I plan an upcoming trip to New York, thinking of the show I want to see, the museum I hope to visit, the jazz club I'd like to drop by, I am inhabiting a fantasy world that has nothing at all to do with the profoundly corrupt, endlessly dangerous New York of Colin Harrison's brilliant, deeply cynical new literary thriller. "The Finder" is a panoramic look at the linked lives of perhaps a dozen characters, from billionaire financiers to Mafia thugs, from Mexican teenagers with forged green cards to society matrons who gossip about a "wheelchair gigolo." ("Yes, he only -- you know -- does it with women in wheelchairs.") As a study of a decadent, rapidly declining New York, "The Finder" somewhat recalls Tom Wolfe's 1987 bestseller "The Bonfire of the Vanities," but this is a far darker story and, to my mind, a far more interesting one. Harrison's Big Apple is rotten to the core.
We start with an attractive Chinese woman named Jin Li. She's a supervisor for a company that picks up wastepaper from Manhattan offices in the middle of the night and shreds and disposes of it. After work one night, she and two young Mexican women climb into an old Toyota for a pre-dawn drive to a beach in Brooklyn. But they've been followed. While Jin Li wanders off to relieve herself, a huge truck pulls up beside the Toyota. Two men block its doors and force a hose through its sunroof. Within minutes, raw sewage fills the car and suffocates the other women. Jin Li, realizing that the killers were actually after her, flees.
We move to the seats directly behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. The people there are hugely smug about their little world. ("You are here, you are in the game.") A man named Tom Reilly, kingpin of a drug company called Good Pharma, is wooing a potential investor. Then someone hands him a threatening note, and he, too, flees. We meet the novel's hero, Ray Grant, a New York firefighter who was almost killed in the collapse of the twin towers. He has taken leave and traveled the world but returned to Brooklyn to care for his father, a retired detective, who's dying of cancer. Grant, we learn, had an affair with Jin Li. We also learn that she's no innocent. She's been running the wastepaper business for her brother, Chen, a Shanghai financier. She goes through the waste and pulls out financial documents that have enabled him to make millions. In fact, documents she's stolen have sent Good Pharma's stock into a tailspin, much to the annoyance of Bill Martz, a billionaire investor. Martz in time will kidnap Chen as part of a "lift" -- a complex scheme to force Good Pharma's stock back up.
Martz, who's 70 and has both a young wife and an inflamed prostate, no longer cares about sex: "Only with money were his instincts perfect, his reflexes untouched by age, his passions endless." A whole other level of criminality exists in the person of mob-connected Victor Rigetti, who owns Victorious Sewerage and was a middleman in the killing of the Mexican women. At other times Vic beats a man to death with a golf club, slips a Mafia colleague a fatal cocktail in a Broadway strip joint, plots the death of an immigrant who owns a gas station he covets, and terrorizes Jin Li. Let us note that the Mexicans were killed with raw sewage; that Ray Grant, in his search for Jin Li, is forced to crawl through a horrid sewer to find evidence; and that Rigetti's criminal operations are built on the sewage business. The symbolism is not subtle: New York, for all its glories, is at bottom a cesspool.
Yes, this is a dark, violent, sometimes odoriferous novel, but it is also a delightful one because Harrison knows so much and writes so well. He takes us not only to the best seats in Yankee Stadium, but to midtown Manhattan's finest hamburger joint and to an 80-acre wonderland of ornamental trees ("The power of time, expressed as a small tree"). At a party at Martz's penthouse, a doctor reflects on the surgically enhanced breasts she sees around her and the way that intelligent men -- even doctors! -- are "so often rendered helpless before these unnatural yet unarguably beautifully executed falsies."
The flashback in which Grant and a fellow firefighter, who is dying, are trapped under tons of concrete when one of the towers comes down is powerful, and exchanges between Grant and his dying father remind us that decency still exists in certain corners of Brooklyn. The novel builds to a climax that's also a comedy of errors. The financiers are trying to artificially and illegally lift Good Pharma's stock. Meanwhile, Vic, the sewerage king, seeks to blackmail several higher-ups involved in the Mexican women's deaths. The various crimes are in fact connected, and the plotters -- billionaires and thugs alike -- become entangled in a series of bewildering phone calls. The confusion is entirely over the top, but it also underscores Harrison's point that, in his New York, the evil that men do is indivisible.