SIX BAD THINGS
By Charlie Huston
Ballantine. 305 pp. Paperback, $12.95
In a recent review I wrote of a new generation of crime writers that includes Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. A reader pointed out that those estimable gentlemen have been around for a decade or more and asked if there wasn't a newer new generation coming along. Of course there is. With regard to fiction, the difficulty is figuring out which young writers, having produced impressive early novels, will go on to create an important body of work.
Four years ago, I praised Karin Slaughter's first novel, "Blindsighted," and its successors have confirmed her talent. For a truly quirky novel try Philip Baruth's "The X President" (Bill Clinton glimpsed at age 109), Peter Craig's "Hot Plastic" (father and son con artists), or Dylan Schaffer's "Misdemeanor Man" (public defender's passion for Barry Manilow).
In a darker vein, Adrian McKinty's "Dead I Well May Be" and David Corbett's "Done for a Dime" are terrific noir. Chuck Hogan's "Prince of Thieves" was a tough look at crime in Boston. Notable novels by lawyers include Robert Reuland's "Semiautomatic" and Kermit Roosevelt's "In the Shadow of the Law." Of course, it's hard to predict whether these authors will burn out early, whether the lawyers will decide to focus solely on the law, whether the quirky ones will find an audience, or which of them, if any, might seem important in 10 or 20 years.
But add 37-year-old Charlie Huston to that list of authors to watch. I enjoyed his new "Six Bad Things" as much as any novel I've read this year. This is his second book, following last year's "Caught Stealing." Both relate the adventures of a trouble-prone young man named Henry (Hank) Thompson. "Six Bad Things" is so good, in part, because Huston manages to make it horrific, hilarious and hip. If Huston's literary godfathers include Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, they also include Hunter S. Thompson, who would have appreciated the speed freaks, crank heads, gun nuts, Russian mobsters, greedy federales, and assorted geeks and psychos who populate these pages.
Hank was once a high-school baseball star in a little California town. An injury ended his big-league ball prospects, but soon enough he found himself in big-league trouble, holding $4.5 million stolen by the Russian mafia in New York. The "Six Bad Things" of the title refer to the six gangsters Hank admits killing -- "two by accidents of a sort and four in cold blood" -- back in the first book.
This new novel picks up the story three years later with Hank living quietly as a beach bum south of Cancun. Then a young Russian turns up and starts asking questions. Hank disposes of the Russian, but two federales start hounding him, blood is shed, and he decides it's time to go home. The problem is that load of stolen money, which weighs 60 kilos -- not easy to give away or dump, particularly as more vultures start circling. But even as he tries to hide and run, Hank learns that he has become a folk hero. He's been featured on "America's Most Wanted," and some hack has written a book about him called "The Man Who Got Away."
Huston mingles violence with slapstick through all of this. For a time, Hank is the prisoner/partner of two psychos, Sid and Rolf. Sid, the crazier of the two, is Hank's biggest fan: "You're this totally famous dude! You've done so much with your life." During one showdown, a drug dealer's killer mastiff (called Hitler) attacks a cowboy armed with a crossbow while Sid is fumbling for the .45 that has slipped down his pants and Rolf and another cowboy fight over a shotgun. Meanwhile, a stripper jumps out the window with Hank close behind. Funny stuff, but the body count keeps rising. Eventually, there is a resolution of sorts, but Huston isn't done with Hank; a third and final installment is promised, and it appears that Hank is headed back to the belly of the beast, New York.
If you agree that the art of killing can encompass comedy as well as tragedy, "Six Bad Things" is state of the art. This crazed, wildly readable adventure works because Huston writes with such delicious, deadpan verve and because Hank, his self-described mad-dog killer, is such an appealing, totally cool dude.