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26 December 2004
Charlie Huston's Caught Stealing combines several motifs familiar from crime fiction and film: the wrong-man motif, the heist-gone-wrong motif, the life's-loser motif, the contrast between the innocence of baseball and the knowledge of adulthood. The novel generates some suspense and some edgy humor before dissolving into a hail of gunfire.
Narrator Hank Thompson, an ex-baseball-player, has hit bottom. Because of chronic foot pain, he can't even keep his job as bartender at a rundown Lower East Side pub . Seared by the memory of having killed a teenage friend in a fiery drunken car crash (no baseball fiction is complete without one), Hank is emotionally numb. Then two things happen: his neighbor asks him to take care of his cat for a few days, and two Russian gangsters beat the crap out of him in the pub.
Before long, rival gangs are combing downtown looking for Hank and something to do with the neighbor's cat, and he is pitched into toubles that make his foregoing life look rosy. Huston writes with a sharp sense of New York City; many of the plot directions involve one-way streets and winding subways.
And baseball. The novel is set in late September, as a pennant race comes to its close. Hank Thompson is a Giants fan (even his name is a Giants allusion). As murderous events unfold around him, Hank is distracted by one thought: can his Giants beat out the Mets for the National League wild card spot?
You would think that if you were being chased by Russian gangsters who had cost you one kidney and wanted the other, not to mention rogue cops, non-rogue cops, and sadistic cowboy thieves, you would have more pressing things to worry about than the late boxscores from the Coast. But baseball fans know better. There is never anything so traumatic in your life that reading a boxscore can't help soothe it.
Caught Stealing has many original moves (even the title has been used only sparingly by past writers). Huston's use of language is taut and his dialogue notably good. Perhaps the only flaw in the book is the Grand-Theft-Auto-like quality of its world. Like a video-game hero, Hank Thompson bounces around only slightly scathed while the streets of New York run with blood and the bystanders either ignore the action or (if they're cops) seem uninterested in stopping it. You can't have a wrong-man failed-heist novel without suspending some plausibility, but Caught Stealing ultimately suspends pretty much all.
Huston, Charlie. Caught Stealing. New York: Ballantine, 2004.