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  The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


William Boyle
No Exit Press, U.K.  2018

Set in Gravesend, a neighborhood in south-central Brooklyn, author Boyle sets his sights on a community, predominately Italian, which does not offer up one likable character. Gravesend itself is bleak and in decline; the homes are shabby, the bars are shabby, even the old Nellie Bly amusement park is now so run-down it makes “Coney Island look like Disney World.” As Conway D’Innocenzio says, “Everything’s some kind of sad.”

Conway is especially sad because sixteen years ago his brother Duncan was murdered in Gravesend. Not exactly in the conventional sense, but after being cornered and horribly bullied for being gay, Duncan jumped over a guard rail into traffic and was hit and killed. The gang of bullies got sent to prison, but the ringleader, Ray Boy Calabrese, is now out—and Conway aims to kill him. Conway has been living with his Pop, to whom he pays little attention, and working a dead-end job at a local Rite Aide. Only the thought of revenge has kept him going.

Stories of Ray Boy from before his prison stint have gone down in local history:  how he’d “fucked a girl on the hood of his car at a red light on Eighty-Sixth Street”; how he’d “punched out Wajahat Hussein outside Loew’s just for being a goddamn Paki”; how he’d “run around the neighborhood waving an American flag when the Gulf War started and thrown eggs at an Optimo owned by some Arab.” He’d also had his pick of the girls with his bad boy good looks.  But now that he is out of prison, he appears to have changed. When Conway catches up with him, gun in hand, and lets Ray Boy know he intends to kill him, Ray Boy says fine, says that’s what he’s been waiting for. Conway is pulled up short; he’d prepared for a night, not a cold execution.

We meet some girls of the neighborhood as well. There is Alessandra, recently returned from L.A. where she had hoped to be an actress. She is living with her father as well, but, like Conway and his Pop, too self-obsessed to listen much.. She does befriend an old schoolmate, Stephanie, who is as homely as Alessandra is attractive. And she somehow ends up having volatile run-ins with two other old classmates: Conway and Ray Boy.

One of the novel’s strongest points is the description of the people of Gravesend, generally as unbecoming as the neighborhood itself. There is Stephanie’s slitty-eyed mother, who “was always wearing a housecoat and had liver spots on her arms and all of these little brown moles that drooped from her skin like withered worms”; and Alessandra’s father who “smelled like a dirty sponge.” The idiomatic dialogue lends spice to the speech, with people getting “skeeved out,” men called “chooch,” and old Italian women yelling “PuttanaDisgraziata!” 

Throw in Roy Boy’s dim nephew Eugene, the gimp, and his fat buddy Sweat, along with a Russian mob running numbers that Eugene begins running errands for and we have a hefty line-up of some seriously unpleasant characters.

Boyle drives the novel with much local color and energy. It may be bleak, the characters may be beaten, but he delivers a gripping good story that has you eagerly turning the pages to see how the “showdown” between Conway and Ray Boy will play out as the subplots interlink with the whole to bring it all home. J.A.

© 2018 tbr

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