Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: "Gutshot Straight" by Lou Berney

Every now and again, I love finding a good crime novel. And while I love reading books by my favorite mainstays—Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Steve Hamilton, Barry Eisler, etc.—I love discovering a new author writing their first book, or stumbling upon an author I've never heard of before and being wowed by them. So I was tremendously pleased to find Gutshot Straight, the debut novel from Lou Berney, whose most recent book, the exquisite The Long and Faraway Gone, was among my favorite books of 2015.

Charles Samuel "Shake" Bouchon has been living a life of petty crimes since his first arrest for grand theft auto when he was 19. Now 42, he's just been released from prison again, and he's trying to figure out what to do with his life. Is it time to settle down and finally fulfill his dream of opening a restaurant?

"He wondered where exactly in his life his shit had gone sideways, and why. It was hard to say. It hadn't been a couple of momentous decisions that had determined the course of his life. No volcanic eruptions that altered and fixed his personal topography. Instead what had happened were all the decisions along the way, most of which he didn't even realize at the time were decisions, the bits of coincidence and circumstance, good luck and bad, the steady, slow accretion of rock and soil and sediment. He needed a volcanic eruption. He needed to make a move."

But when Alexandra Ilandryan, a powerful Armenian crime boss, asks him to do one more easy job for her, he is tantalized—and not just because Alexandra may be the most beautiful woman he's ever known. All he needs to do is drive a car into Las Vegas, pick up a suitcase, and bring it back to her. Sounds pretty easy. So what could go wrong?

Well, as you can imagine, a lot of things can and do go wrong. Because although he's done his share of time, often it's been out of loyalty to others and not his stupidity. So Shake has brains and a conscience, and pretty strong beliefs about what he'll do and what he won't. These aren't traits that guarantee success in the crime world—they're actually fairly dangerous. So needless to say, it isn't long before everything goes awry for Shake, in more ways than he was expecting.

In Gutshot Straight, Berney takes us on an Elmore Leonard-esque jaunt, replete with double and triple crosses, eccentric criminals, one beautiful and utterly untrustworthy woman, and lots of quirky characters and situations. This is a lot of fun, but Berney never lets the fun and the zaniness overtake his storytelling. Even though you may know where the plot will ultimately end, it's such an enjoyable journey, and Shake, in particular, is such an appealing character, that you want to know what happens to him. I've said before it's the mark of a talented writer if they can get you to care deeply about criminals, despite their actions.

This book isn't perfect, but it is a quick, compelling read that I practically devoured. I'm glad to see Berney wrote one more book in this series before moving to a standalone novel. If you enjoy crime novels that hearken back to Elmore Leonard's early days, pick this one up. If not, I'd encourage you to pick up The Long and Faraway Gone, because you need to experience just a little of Lou Berney's talent. (You'll thank me.)

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