Mostly fleet, mostly bitter portraits of working-class men and women in the New York City area, compiled from the author’s reporting for the New York Times metro section.
“The dandies I know say I write about dives and losers, but they are wrong.” Readers may challenge LeDuff on that point. The joints he typically writes about are dives, and the people mostly in gray, rough patches of their lives: employed, unemployed, or in between. That’s where LeDuff wants to be, among the ruck, where the stories have an everyday, mortal bite. Though he can sound like a bad Philip Marlowe imitation (“When the cocktail set tells me they enjoy the cast of losers, I never mind them. I smile and drink their liquor. They don't know what work is”), he usually approaches his subjects from an angle that catches the odd, genuine glint of their lives: the sidewalk Santa who “arrives home to a single room with a sink, well past dusk. He puts on the Drifters and takes off his boots. He empties the ashtray and lights himself a cigarette.” LeDuff is very much the reader’s eyes, and the images he presents, for all their brevity, have depth and heft, a strong, voyeuristic, out-of-body impact. His protagonists include shysters and gamblers, an arm wrestling impresario, a professional punching bag, men with soft hands, an upended cardboard box, and a deck of cards. There are also a few longer profiles—one was part of the Pulitzer-winning “How Race Is Lived in America” series—that allow LeDuff to sit awhile and wait for most all defenses to be dropped so he can show us the dark sides of work in a slaughterhouse, or as a day laborer, or as a harbor man.
LeDuff lets the characters speak for their sad lives as he sets the surrounding atmospheric pressure just right.