Among the many civic vices and precious few virtues that Geoffrey Wolff ascribes to Providence, Rhode Island (in this good and gamey novel that bears the city's name) is the claim that the whole New England mob is run out of a laundry on Atwells Avenue, and that, furthermore, Providence leads the nation in car thefts.
When Skippy, a small time thief, first learns of this latter statistic, civic pride inspires him to shout at his usually zonked-out girl friend, "Hey, go for it! We're Number One!"
Skippy is something of a sociopath who occasionally teams up with Baby, a registered psychopath and apprentice hit man for the aforementioned mob, whose Boss directs operations out of the Brite-Matic on Atwells Avenue where "strangers didn't get ther shirts washed."
We are assured that Skippy has a philosophy of life, albeit a simple one: "He wanted what he wanted, and wanted it for free." Since stealing is the most obvious route to fortune, if not fame, Skippy and Baby one night burgle the 15-room house of Adam and Clara Dwyer.
At 46, Adam Dwyer is a scion of sorts, educated at Exeter and Columbia Law School. A former civil rights lawyer who practiced in the South during the troubles, he now has returned to his native Providence, where he devotes himself largely to criminal law while trying to figure out how to die reasonably well of leukemia -- which, as he loses weight, friends and colleagues mistake for a new and healthful regime of jogging.
Skippy the thief's girl friend, Lisa, is a walking pharmacopeia. If a controlled substance will turn her on, up, down or sideways, Lisa has already tried it and is more than anxious to try it again. Her source becomes Lt. Tom Corcoran of the Providence police, who steals drugs for Lisa that other cops have seized as evidence. Lt. Corcoran, we find, is as hooked on Lisa as she is on dope.
After Skippy and Baby burgle the mob boss' house by mistake, Skippy and Lisa skip town. When Skippy eventually returns, he again burgles Adam Dwyer's house, this time finds Mrs. Dwyer alone, and leaves her a mental and emotional wreck.
Meanwhile, poor Baby, the psychopathic killer, has himself been murdered in a particularly innovative fashion. Skippy is charged with the crime and draws as his defense lawyer none other than the dying Adam Dwyer. Knowing that Skippy is the burglar who virtually destroyed his wife, Dwyer must decide whether to throw the case and let Skippy be convicted of a crime he did not commit.
Providence is essentially a tale of corruption: civic, moral, mental and even, I suppose, spiritual. To tell it, Wolff has deliberately employed a wacky, loose and often wonderful style that breaks most of the rules of grammar known to man. Yet the style serves the story well, for Wolff is writing largely about civic rot and decay and the various maggots that dwell therein. A cooler, less vernacular style might not have served as well -- and the horrible, after all, deserves a bit of hyperbole.
Not only does Wolff manage to crawl far inside his characters' minds, but their dialogue is often a treat. When the psychopathic Baby asks the mob Boss for steady employment by asserting, "I'll do anything," the Boss flips through a mental card file, classifies Baby, and replies: "You're a junkie. Be a man; rob a bank. Then talk to me on the street, if I look like I feel like talking to you. Now get out of my way. Oh yeah: throw away those suede shoes on you."
Leukemia is often such a convenient way for a fictional character to die slowly and not too messily, chapter after chapter, that it's something of a pleasure, or at least a relief, to find Adam Dwyer doing it as well as could be expected: "When he returned from the hospital that Monday . . . he poured himself a beer. Then he loosened his tie, and didn't lose himself in the front-page story about some erstwhile mobster called the Moron. Then he . . . told her he was going to die, soon, and Clara listened . . . Clara thought she had waited a long time for something consequential to happen to her, and now it had, and it was the wrong thing . . ."
Cities are only very large communities where people band together for mutual security, services, social contact and commerce, including crime. Some writers have taken real cities and left their own fictional stamp on them. Chandler forever marked Los Angeles. George V. Higgins has branded Boston. Ambler gave us as much as many of us will ever know about the Balkans. And now Wolff has left his own imprint on Providence, a city that has shrunk from a population of 250,000 to approximately 150,000 -- a "jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod."
After reading Providence I had the feeling that I had spent two weeks too long there and got to know its citizens just a shade too well. If the mark of a good novel is that it leaves you with a lingering aftertaste, pleasant or unpleasant, then Geoffrey Wolff has written a very good and witty novel indeed.