Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Casino Moon" by Peter Blauner & "Fake I.D." by Jason Starr

I think it no coincidence that Hard Case Crime published Casino Moon and Fake I.D. back to back. Both novels star protagonists named Russo and basically tell the same story - Russo is a down on his luck loser stuck in a dead-end life. He wiles away his time dreaming of a way out. An opportunity presents itself. Seems too good to be true at first, but the idea is soon embraced and pursued with unerring zeal. Russo soon finds himself taking small steps in the wrong direction, making small compromises in the name of attaining his goal. Eventually, of course, Russo ends up in uncontrollable downward spiral.

Casino Moon stars Anthony Russo, the adopted son of an Atlantic City mobster. Anthony’s father is constantly hounding him to follow in his footsteps and fully embrace a role in the outfit, while constantly trying to convince the local boss to “make” Anthony, even though he doesn’t have the requisite Sicilian blood. Anthony is not enchanted with mob life. He deplores the crime, the cheap clothes, and perhaps most of all, the company. A life in the mob is the last thing Anthony wants. At the same time he finds failure around every corner. His business ventures fail and he has to rely upon his mob connections to stay afloat. As the pressure mounts, Anthony sees salvation when he meets an ex-boxing champion looking to make a comeback and convinces him to let Anthony be his manager. As Anthony tries to get the champ on the card of the next big fight, he finds himself heading down the very path he so desperately wanted to avoid.

“With each thing I’d done in the last few weeks, I was taking a step away from the person I wanted to be. It was as if by breaking faith with Carla, I’d broken through my own skin. Killing Nicky, borrowing money from Danny Klein, and pimping my girlfriend were the secondary infections. Now I was sick and I didn’t know how to get better.”

Eventually Anthony seems to realize the truth of his situation. He recognizes it, but doesn’t understand it:

"But pride and ambition were no match for seven hundred years of tradition and the lessons Vin had drummed into me. If you’re brought up a certain way, you can spend your whole life denying it, but eventually some part of it’s going to come out. All the houses seemed low, gray, and falling apart. No matter how much I’d struggled and hustled, it seemed I hadn’t really gone anywhere."

Casino Moon is rich in detail and dramatically invokes the seedy world of Atlantic City and the rather pathetic mobsters that inhabit it. You find yourself pulling for Anthony, though you know he is doomed.

Where Casino Moon is rich and involved, Fake I.D. is brutal and direct. Tommy Russo is a gambling addict, nurturing a dying dream to be an actor. He keeps himself in business by working as a bouncer in a New York City bar. While sitting in his car waiting for the track to open, Tommy is presented with the opportunity to join a horse-owning syndicate. Although skeptical at first, Tommy soon becomes obsessed with the idea and begins a quest to put together the 10 grand he needs to join the syndicate. Of course, Tommy finds himself going further and further in the wrong direction as he tries to put together the cash. When he does get the money, he has sown the seeds of his destruction. All Tommy can see, however, is how is going to be a big-shot horse owner.

“Walking slowing so I wouldn’t sweat up my suit, I headed toward the entrance of the clubhouse. The old guy at the admission window didn’t even look at me as he took my three bucks. When I was a famous horse owner I knew things would be a lot different. I’d probably have a pass, go through a special entrance, and the guy at the door would say, “Good Morning Mr. Russo,” and if he was lucky, I’d look at him and say good morning back. Going to the track, I felt like I was stepping into my new life. Outside was the old Tommy Russo, and I wasn’t sad to see him go.”

While Anthony Russo is sympathetic, Tommy Russo is not. Anthony seemed to have no way out, like he was a victim of unavoidable destiny. Tommy, on the other hand, seems to ignore possible sources of salvation in favor of a runaway freight train of self-destruction. You are left wondering whether Tommy started out good, or whether he was rotten to the core all along. Reading Fake I.D. is like watching a building fall down or a spectacular crash, you just can't turn away.

Casino Moon and Fake I.D. provide a wonderful example of two very distinct ways to build a story from a common plot. I would imagine that Charles Ardai picked these two novels for back to back publication by HCC for that very reason. Ultimately, I preferred Fake I.D.’s punch to the face directness over Casino Moon’s detailed dramatic arc. That said, Casino Moon is very well done and provides a gritty alternative to the all-to-common glamorized mobster stories, without losing the rich detail any good mobster story needs.

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