HEADLOCK by Adam Berlin


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Berlin debuts with a deft but conventional tale of youth and anger, in a fictional house of toughness resting on a thin psychological foundation.

Dess (short for Odessa) Rose went to college on a wrestling scholarship but blew everything when, after losing a match, he attacked his opponent with a chair. Trigger-tempered Dess got his diploma, but only cloaked in shame, and when we meet him he’s living in Manhattan, parking cars in a garage, and picking barfights—in which he brutalizes, throws, tromps, and smashes his victims, then runs hard through the night until he gets “it” out of him. The “it” is apparently rage he’s stored up from a life of triple woe: having academic parents who think he should do more with himself than wrestle; having a nerdy kid brother praised for straight A’s; and having had a Russian immigrant grandfather who was also a fighter and, via fist and brawn, did legendary good deeds for his grateful family. Sensing no such gratitude now, the strong, angry, wound-licking Dess is the perfect sidekick needed by cousin Gary Rose, the 400-pounder, professional gambler, and other family failure who stops by the garage and talks Dess into heading for Vegas, that very night, via Jaguar. As the two drive cross-country day and night, they reminisce about family and childhood, while gradually the deep trouble Gary’s in comes clear: guaranteed special treatment by thugs if, at the blackjack tables, he can’t earn back a huge debt very fast. Dess is a quick learner at counting cards, a code is agreed on, and the two work the tables, waiting—and waiting—for the “streak” Gary is sure will come. There will be fear, sex, suspense—and mountains of food eaten by Gary at the free buffets—before an ending that will doubtless rivet some while sweeping others back to the popcorn palaces of their youth.

Easy entertainment, from a still-imitative writer who may grow.

Pub Date: May 12th, 2000
ISBN: 1-56512-266-6
Page count: 276pp
Publisher: Algonquin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2000