A debut novel delivers a journey through poverty and the heroin trade.
Leo Stegner is no stranger to illegal activities. Not only is his father involved with the Mafia through his gambling habit and efforts to pay his debts, but Leo has had a great deal of success as part of an auto-theft ring as well. But when his father and the head of the gang of robbers die in rapid succession, Leo resolves to alter his destructive course even as he vows revenge for his father’s murder. But despite going legit as a courier and later joining the military, Leo ends up deeper in the underworld than when he started; he’s now part of the international heroin market. Traveling throughout the world, running up against danger at every turn, Leo considers himself adaptable: “He would turn into a Goddamn Chameleon if it was a question of surviving.” But when he’s finally caught and convicted, turning his life around once and for all from the inside of a cell is the greatest—and most permanent—transformation he could ever imagine. McCarthy’s tale manages to paint an optimistic picture of what is possible when someone truly decides to change. The novel’s matter-of-fact prose style and fast pace serve the story well, giving a broad perspective on significant events in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century as well as the more personal circumstances that make Leo the man he is. Even so, the book is not without its emotional moments, as when Leo faces trial or when his dreams of retribution come to a head in the prison yard. The senses of anger and despair are palpable and should resonate with readers who’ve been down on their luck, especially any who are familiar with stories of inmates and rehabilitation. That said, as Leo’s life connects him with the space race, the Vietnam War, the introduction of Chinese heroin on American soil, and the war on drugs, even readers uninterested in prison stories will likely find plenty to recommend in this complex narrative.
A rare, hopeful crime story that also manages to be deeply honest.