PROVIDENCE by Geoffrey Wolff


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Wolff's non-fiction (The Duke of Deception, Black Sun) has proven more compelling than his fiction (The Sightseer, Inklings); now, journalistically, he seems to have gone off in what seem like two or three borrowed directions, using a number of similar-sounding, hard-boiled, and synoptic voices to tell a tale of urban corruption in Providence, Rhode Island. The result has moments of gritty verisimilitude--when it's not being all but swamped by the rinky-dink styles of the prose. Adam Dwyer is a mandarin Providence defense lawyer, a crackerjack in his field, who's dying of leukemia and who suffers the added and temporal injury of having his house broken into, and his wife terrorized, by a punk burglar. This burglar, a failed Mafioso named Skippy Carbone, is eventually nailed by a Providence cop who has himself been sleeping with (and stealing police-evidence cocaine for) Lisa, a casual girlfriend of Skippy's. When the girl dumps the cop, he retaliates by hunting the punk: there is an eventual murder charge that finds Adam Dwyer as defense counsel (but hoping to do his worst in order to send Skippy to his penitentiary comeuppance). Everywhere, things are funky: Wolff narrates each character's misery in an appropriately down-and-dirty vernacular. But sometimes they bleed and overlap, these narrative piths--much weakening the book's believability. Only Skippy's haplessness as a mobster seems to come from the center of his character; everyone else is a tad too synthetically, laminatedly hip. It all feels studied and the net effect of this much jive prose is not felicitous. This is Lisa, the cop's and Sonny's girl: ""Shitski, pressure, what a bummer! So before she hit the on-ramp for the bridge to Jamestown she sparked this monster bone, a Cheech & Chonger of Maui Wowie stuffed in a Tampax wrapper."" Dwyer, reviewing his family's slave-owning pedigree: ""It was a pain to have blacks around, and a nuisance to have to remove their freedoms. The Dwyers felt pretty bad about all this, especially since they had lost their shirts bringing from Zanzibar two shiploads of pricey East Africans. . ."" And Tom the cop: ""First, Tom ran him down the road, pulling his string, said Skippy had no options, he was walking around dead."" Finally, it all seems like an exercise, a strenuous one, in literary slumming--the book of a writer so anxious to be genre-cool that he becomes frozen into that genre's worst postures.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Viking