BOOK WORLD

A crooked path to the straight and narrow

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By Daniel Stashower
Monday, December 27, 2010

Along the back roads and waterways of Belize, Riley James has spent 20 years doing the bidding of a pair of criminal heavyweights, Carlo and Israel Monsanto, working his way up from errand boy to full-fledged drug runner. The Monsanto brothers have Riley in an iron grip, having kept him out of jail when an early job went horribly wrong.

Over the years, however, Riley has nourished the dream of going straight, parlaying his part-ownership of a local bar into a "normal, one might say, boring existence" and perhaps even marrying his American girlfriend. The very notion of a street kid making a fresh start strikes many of his friends as absurd: "Ahh, this idea - the New Beginning," says one. "Such a common delusion."

But first Riley must strike a risky deal with the Monsantos. He approaches the brothers with a plan to square his debt with a final high-stakes drug run. In a few lines of dialogue, author Ian Vasquez captures the sheer audacity of Riley's proposal, as well as the devastating consequences if he should fail: "You're asking me for plenty, son," Israel Monsanto tells him. "But you know something? I'm gonna go along with it. Only this one time, and only because it's you, Riley. Because you won't last long without me. You're going to come back to me one day after your business fails and you need some fast cash, you're going to come back and beg for a job. Because this work we do, that's what you do best, so don't fool yourself. And if I hire you again, I want you to know: It'll be on my terms."

For all his determination, Riley's drug-running plan quickly unravels as he falls afoul of corrupt government officials, forcing him to improvise a set of dangerous feints and dodges if he's to keep his vow to the Monsantos. Soon, amid escalating violence and betrayals, Riley sees his hopes fading. "He needed to feel, and soon, that he was through with the Life, but the Life was like swimming across the Sibun River," Vasquez writes. "As soon as he reached within a few feet of the grassy bank, stroking hard, exhausted, a cold, swift current would turn him slantways . . . tugging him back to the deep spot he'd started from."

"Mr. Hooligan" is the third book from Shamus Award winner Vasquez, who was raised in Belize but now lives in Florida. Vasquez has a bone-deep connection with his setting that transforms an otherwise conventional story line into a dark modern-day morality play, complete with a pot-smoking ex-nun, Sister Pat, who comments on the action from the sidelines. "I know this story by heart," she declares at one stage. "I wish when I come to this part I could change it, say something else, change the ending." The author's crisp dialogue and low-life atmospherics have drawn comparisons to Elmore Leonard, with whom he shares an abiding respect for the cruel loyalties that can lead decent men astray. When Riley's girlfriend urges him to walk away, telling him he owes nothing to the Monsantos, a lifetime of resentment boils to the surface:

" 'Don't owe - ' He shook his head and looked away. 'Yeah, you don't know what you're talking about. You come here, you think you know these people because of what they do, they're criminals, that's all you see, so you've got them figured out, right? Nah, that's not how it works, though. The thing you don't know is they're the ones, the Monsantos, that fed me many evenings when my mother was so drunk off her ass she could barely stand up, much less cook a little dinner for her son. Israel Monsanto's the one took me in after my old man passed and I had no house to go to. . . . And now you're saying, after all these years I worked with them, all they did for me in my desperate days, I just drop them and move on, no worries?"

This is a sharp, gritty novel of redemption and its costs. At the same time, as Sister Pat might say, it's "a crackling good story."

Stashower's most recent book is "The Beautiful Cigar Girl."

MR. HOOLIGAN

By Ian Vasquez

Minotaur. 342 pp. $25.99


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