Friday, August 21, 2020

The Book You Have to Read: “East of A,”
by Russell Atwood

(Editor’s note: This is the 165th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
It wouldn’t be a stretch to mistake private eye Payton Sherwood for a doormat in some Raymond Chandler novel, at least as we observe him at the beginning of Russell Atwood’s neo-noir, East of A (1999). Having returned to New York City after losing a child-custody suit upstate, Sherwood is nearly destitute, totally debt-ridden, and pining for a lost love. When he attempts to rescue a damsel in distress in his East Village neighborhood, her attackers give him a thorough beating. To add insult to injury, the elfin victim steals his Rolex before escaping into the night.

Lucky for readers that Sherwood’s sense of humor wasn’t taken as well. With few prospects and feeling like “a million bucks. In small, crumpled bills,” he decides to hire himself to recover that wristwatch—and perhaps also his dignity. One would think he’d had enough (even getting tossed in front of a speeding subway train later on can’t dissuade him), but like a dedicated P.I. with time on his hands and an insistent curiosity, Sherwood wants to find out what it is the young street girl has taken that three burly thugs so violently wish to retrieve. Sherwood returns to the crime scene the next day, and the payback begins immediately.

A telephone pager found in the gutter reveals a trove of information. The resourceful Sherwood discovers it belongs to Gloria “Glo” Manlow, a homeless, 16-year-old runaway, whom Sherwood learns is alleged to have stolen a small fortune in designer dope from a nightclub promoter. In the meantime, the chase is on as Sherwood works his way through names and telephone numbers, hoping to find her.

As the gumshoe begins his investigation, he lures two colorfully dressed club kids named Seth and Droopy into the daylight with the promise of a duffel belonging to Glo. Sherwood pumps the self-absorbed duo for information, and through them begins to make contact with promoters, activists, artists, hipsters, the homeless and others on the skids—all the extreme individuals who give Manhattan’s East Village, and this book, its color and edgy bonhomie.

Sherwood finally catches up to the elusive Glo. She turns out to be a world-weary Holly Golightly with spiky hair, tons of attitude and a selfish nonchalance, whose “nothings turn out to be other people’s somethings”—as is made clear by the escalating body count among people she knows, the fresh corpses including those of her abusive ex-boyfriend and a disgruntled former employee of a downtown rave club called the Hellhole. “Big as the city is,” Seth presciently opines at one point, “its strands converge like a spider’s web,” and the Hellhole is the place where the spider lives in this tale.

The goons who assaulted Glo are bouncers at the club, and Seth and Droopy are part of that establishment’s louche scenery and drugs-fueled vibrancy. The place is owned by a promoter named Ellis Dee, and it’s apparently his dope that was taken. The only problem is that Glo firmly denies committing the theft, and no one but Sherwood is willing to buy her story. Sherwood soon learns that when the going gets tough, even the tough get their butts kicked, as when he and Glo watch both one of her friends and one of her attackers being pushed from a window several stories too high for their health.

It’s not necessary for Sherwood to subject himself to the threat of such violence. After he gets his watch back (albeit broken), he has no further stake in this case. In addition, his self-indulgent curiosity is careening him towards poverty. Repeated entreaties from his former boss to provide security at an upcoming wedding fall on deaf ears, revealing that Sherwood’s idea of distracting busy-work is quite busy indeed. He has no interest, either, in easily available but tedious divorce-related investigations. Instead, Sherwood continues to pursue Glo’s case, gladly willing to “walk barefoot in murder”—which he encounters up to the very last page of this book.

It’s mostly the bad guys who perish in East of A. But it takes the death of an innocent—a squatter and recovering junky named Jimmy, who makes his home in a vacant lot where he tends a vegetable garden—to finally provide the pieces essential to solving this yarn’s puzzles. East of A (which led to a 2009 sequel, Atwood’s Losers Live Longer), is a noir with a cheerful yet world-weary tone and an arty renegade zeitgeist (it takes place in New York’s East Village, after all). Don’t let those elements fool you, though: Into Jimmy’s garden paradise may slither serpents, freighting the plot circumstances with universal meaning, which a skillful writer (Atwood was once a managing editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine) can hide in plain sight.


Cullen Gallagher said...

One of my favorite New York noir novels, love both this and Losers Live Longer. Been too long since I last re-read them both.

col2910 said...

I'll have to get back to this one. I have it on the Kindle and read the opening chapter before moving on.