Review of Kerry Dunn’s JOE PEACE

published by Shelfstealers, Inc.
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I read contemporary fiction very rarely these days, so I’d better be damned impressed when I do.  As a sucker for titles, I was curious about Kerry Dunn’s Joe Peace right off the bat.  Wary after seeing that the book was a crime story told in first-person narrative, I started reading, hoping not to have to endure half-baked (half-boiled?) Nicholas Pileggi or Chandler/Hammett fare.  My fears faded after only the first couple pages.  First of all, I’m much more partial to Mickey Spillane than Raymond and Dashiell, so Dunn’s quick-witted but rough-edged style for the narrating protagonist felt like home – without being annoyingly derivative.  Instead, the lingo (clever similes and street-/pop-culture-wise metaphorizing) is respectfully emulous of the hardboiled tradition, showing off Dunn’s good ear for inner and outer speech.

The author also has balls, because Kingpin in Decline is about as threadbare as Cop Gets Into Deep Investigation or A Deadly Mess Right Before Retirement.  The cloth holds together, however.  Plots are secondary to me.  It’s the presentation that impresses, and Dunn does that with skill. But don’t fret, plot people.  You’ll enjoy a tragic love story that’s revealed gradually in tastefully paced flashbacks and made relevant by a certain special someone who shows up in the first third of the novel.  (Attention: no spoilers!)  How Peace and this certain special someone interact, and who she is, rocks his already well-rocked world, reminding me of vintage Spillane: “This girl was twenty and threw daggers.  I felt sorry for the poor bastard, somewhere down the road, who fell in love with her.  He’d have to learn to love the cuts, along with the woman who provided them.”  Also, just the right helping of sentimentalism satisfied this old softie’s heartstring-pulling quota.  Publishers Weekly is right on by describing the book as “an exciting gang story and heartbreaking tale of relationships.”

Joe Peace used to be a cop.  A lousy cop.  A drug-addicted cop trying to maintain a relationship with an upstanding woman who sometimes worked Narcotics Division.  Who makes a better criminal than a former man of the law?  Whether one is a police officer or an attorney, the fall from grace can be that much more intense and deep, thanks to close proximity to the dark side.  Isn’t it obvious that lawmakers are a hair’s breadth away from being lawbreakers – and more primed than laymen to make the easy but drastic transition?  When do-gooders realize that reward comes more quickly and abundantly to do-badders (at least at first), temptation pulls ferociously.  As the narration goes in Joe Peace: “It’s easy to turn to a life of crime.  You just roll over.”

I can’t help but think of the Kleinfeld character in Brian de Palma’s underrated film, Carlito’s Way: a lawyer who has defended and cavorted with high-level criminals so much that he becomes like them.  The film is De Palma’s “answer” to his earlier Scarface, whose lead character, Tony Montana, is a brazen, hasty, vain, coked-out creep.  Carlito is the older, wiser, penitent possible future of the roughshod Montana.  I mention these films because Dunn’s protagonist seems to be on the same trajectory (from Montana’s recklessness to Carlito’s remorse): doing his desperate best to atone for and clear the future path of his degradation, drug abuse and brutal sins – the greatest of which was sacrificing the love of his life to a lucrative and debauched death-culture: “To get what I wanted, I had to give up what I loved.”

Though Peace can be a real scumbag, and not every aspect of the character impresses me, there’s enough introspection, eclectic knowledge, sense of humor and irony to make him charming without risking incredulity (though his mindrobatics could be considered too slick by some readers).  His desire to balance out the stupid and ruthless decisions he’s made in his hollow life, his intense reverence for his lost love, and his pursuit of atonement and redemption are the stuff of heroes.

Not that his redemptive methods are those of a Joe Friday or a white-hatted Ranger.  “To get away clean, you have to play dirty” goes the cheesy-but-true tagline for the action flick Parker (yet another movie in which Jason Statham plays Jason Statham).  Sometimes rules need to be bent to get things straight.  For you sticklers of just deserts, Dunn provides his conflicted character with an indirect, rather banal comeuppance (which underscores Peace’s progressive shedding of blinding, selfish pride), but I won’t reveal what that is.

I think Dunn’s novel essentially illustrates the doom referred to in the New Testament spiel about gaining the whole world at the expense of one’s soul.  After one of the flashbacks about the love of his life, Peace admits: “I’d give everything up, my house, my cars, my money, if I could rewrite history.  But I guess the only reason people want things to be different is because they aren’t.”  The truth is that he never really bought his kingpin role:

I was always aware of the tectonic plates in my head, shifting around…[S]ometimes huge fissures would erupt, and echoes like buildings collapsing to rubble shook my foundation.

Every good rags-to-riches-to-roaches story illustrates the futility of grasping the Real object of Joy and the inevitable failure to obtain utopia, even a criminal one.  Not so deep down we know that we’re on a dead-end road when all we desire is desire itself.  There’s always a sense of loss and unrest.  Even Joe Peace’s surname hints at this (with all the subtlety of a grand piano), evoking the Jewish-bible line about saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.

The ultimate lesson after a life of crime and self-destructiveness?  Hell is not necessarily other people.  It’s often yourself. And home may be where the hurt is, but it’s also where the heart is.  As the final line in the book goes: “It’s where the people you love reside.”  To continue my lousy punning, I say give Joe Peace a chance.

review by David Herrle, December 2013

Some of my favorite lines in the book follow.

“We were dining at Mogini’s, an Italian place known for its veal and six-month waiting list, even though the place has been only been open two months.”

“And if motherhood is a fact, fatherhood, when you get right down to it, is a hypothesis.  Now, I ask you, who the fuck wants to be a fucking hypothesis?”

“His dark coat…swallowed him like a great sin.”

“He was one of those dudes who, if you were in a good mood, brought out compassion.  In a bad mood, you could kill the bastard.”

“Nothing put me in a dim frame of mind faster than effluvia all over me.”

On the band R.E.M.: “I liked those guys better when I couldn’t understand a goddamn word they said.”

“Her strawberry-blond hair framed a serene face in a way that suggested she worked on it…But nothing about her was soft.”

“I glanced at my watch, thinking, I just had sex with my watch on.”

“He patted my knee like a psychotic grandmother.”