By Matthew E. Milliken
June 30, 2016
More than 16 years ago, novelist Colin Harrison published a gritty crime thriller called Afterburn. I read it not long after its release, and while a lot of the details have faded with time, I remember its brutality. One of the main characters is tortured by mobsters eager to recover some missing money; although at least one character in the book arrives at a happy ending of sorts, most of the others experience grievous and permanent harm along the way.
I thought of Afterburn recently while reading Caught Stealing, a 2004 Charlie Huston novel that shares part of the earlier book’s premise, along with its penchant for putting characters through the grinder. Moreover, the volumes have almost the same setting — Manhattan at the close of the 20th century, although Harrison’s book takes place in 1999 while Huston’s spans Sept. 22 through Oct. 1, 2000.
Huston’s protagonist is Hank Thompson, a 30-something (or nearly so) alcoholic bartender. He inadvertently gets caught up in a vicious caper when his neighbor asks him to take care of his cat, Bud, while he goes to visit his terminally ill father.
The neighbor is named Russ Miner, and he’s got a secret: Although his father is dying, he’s actually skipping town in an attempt to avoid cutting his partners-in-crime in on the $4.5 million dollars taken in a string of small-town bank robberies around the country — money which they trusted him to store until the heat had cooled a bit.
Somehow — I can’t remember how one of the connections was made — two rival factions who are hunting down the money converge on Thompson and Bud. At the same time, Miner returns to town hoping to retrieve the key from Bud’s carrying case that will allow him to claim the duffel bag full of cash, which is stashed in a storage unit at a location that only he knows.
Thompson is beaten up and shot at repeatedly over something that he initially knows nothing about. As the narrator attempts to evade the attentions of the criminals and of a corrupt cop who’s working with one of the gangs, an animal is tortured. What’s more, several people — some of them completely innocent, others not so blameless — wind up taking dirt naps.
As Thompson travels around Manhattan, negotiating tenuous agreements with various enemies and allies, he also tracks the progress of his beloved San Francisco Giants, who are purportedly locked in a heated battle with the New York Mets for a playoff spot. (After poking around the excellent Baseball Reference website, I determined that Caught Stealing’s account of National League postseason positioning in 2000 was fictitious. Incidentally, in real life, the Mets lost to the New York Yankees in that year’s World Series.) The way Thompson indulges his fandom seems strangely anachronistic. He reads daily newspapers to get accounts of the previous night’s games, and he turns on a TV or a radio to check the scores of ongoing games — something that most people can do through their smartphones today.
In a lot of ways, Thompson is hard to like. An ex-jock whose dream of becoming a baseball player was derailed by a high-school injury, he is callow toward the woman who loves him. He also becomes increasingly ruthless as his entanglement with Miner and the other crooks deepens. I was torn as to how I felt about him; many readers, I think, will find him to be unsympathetic.
As was the case with Afterburn, I was somewhat ambivalent about Caught Stealing. I like that Huston tries to dabble in moral ambiguity — Thompson is hardly a goody two-shoes, after all — and grapples with the very real consequences of criminal violence. But I felt rather uneasy about the book, and I think its violence is grim enough that many readers will find themselves unable to enjoy the story.