Accomplished novelist and crotchety literary critic Frank Lentricchia’s new mystery series features a PI who’s part Mike Hammer and part William S. Burroughs. He’s an interesting mix of violent moralism and lit-major depravity, and it all sort of works. What’s certain is that Utica, New York’s Eliot Conte is an instant original.
Age 55 and worn down by his own recklessness — he once dangled a California university provost out a window in a dispute over a woman — Conte gets by on an investigative practice that “consists mainly of repetitively sordid cases of adultery. Of background checks that rarely turn up anything surprising. Of runaway kids he sometimes locates and retrieves, but mostly doesn’t.” Conte’s diet consists partly of good southern Italian red sauce dishes he cooks for himself and sometimes for his adoptive brother, Antonio Robinson, Utica’s black chief of police. Conte takes in large quantities of whiskey — after a while, the Johnny Walker references feel like a product placement — as well as on-the-go snacks such as peach jelly on Ritz crackers.
An ugly divorce 20 years earlier left Conte relieved to be rid of the shrewish Nancy, a woman whose original appeal goes unrecorded by Lentricchia. Conte is still sick with guilt over his abandonment of his two daughters. Soon after “The Accidental Pallbearer” gets going, he learns that out in California his now-grown daughters have been murdered and Nancy has been charged in their deaths.
Conte does not head west, however, because things begin to fall apart in Utica, too. For starters, Robinson pleads with Conte to discreetly neutralize “with prejudice” his assistant chief, who Robinson claims is raping police officers’ wives. This all sounds implausible to Conte, and rightly so — his best friend has lied to him, and he can’t figure out why. Almost as disturbing is a character Conte encounters on a train. When a fellow passenger starts beating his wife and baby, Conte intervenes, only to realize later that by humiliating the husband he may have left the woman and child in even greater jeopardy. Conte’s impulses are usually humane, but his methods for righting wrongs have a way of backfiring.
Much of Conte’s seething resentment is toward his aged father, Silvio, “the Lyndon Johnson of New York politics,” who was busy being a Democratic bigfoot while Eliot was growing up and who preferred the jock-hero Antonio over the pol’s bookish biological son. (Lentricchia seems unaware of an actual Silvio Conte, now deceased, who was a long-time liberal Republican congressman from western Massachusetts.) When the younger Conte starts to sniff out connections between a long-ago mob-boss major hit in Utica and a present-day homicide, mildly alert readers will begin to suspect that as the bloody corpses pile up, Dad is somehow involved. Given Eliot’s low opinion of his father, how could he not be?
A lot of “The Accidental Pallbearer” is predictable, and some of it is downright klutzy, especially the way Lentricchia offers up throwaway explanations for a couple of the murders. You get the idea that the author got confused trying to sort it all out, and at some point he just closed his eyes and thought of Utica.
Which is understandable because down-and-out, rust-belt, Italian American working-class Utica is Eliot Conte’s co-star in this flawed but vivid and unnerving crime novel. It’s an often poignant and sometimes devastating portrait of a nearly ruined small American city where people end up doing bad things to survive or to keep a way of life alive. Lentricchia writes that Conte “is a tribalist of southern Italian background for whom loyalty to one’s family and friends trumps morality and (goes without saying) the law.” There are echoes of Mario Puzo in “The Accidental Pallbearer” and of Vittorio de Sica’s film “The Bicycle Thief,” too.
Lentricchia has been called “the Dirty Harry of literary criticism,” mainly for his ridicule of the Southern regionalist writers he’s gotten to know while teaching at Duke. Now that he has carved out his own literary territory, the Southerners may have a few barbs of their own to zing back.
Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.
THE ACCIDENTAL PALLBEARER
By Frank Lentricchia
Melville House. 197 pp. Paperback, $14.95