This character study is a riveting story of how bad choices can sometimes lead to good results.
Piacenza’s stirring debut novel focuses on the longtime relationship between Salvador “Sonny Boy” Boylan and his mentor, Al Lombino. Sonny, a one-time college football player, turned into a mixed martial artist; he became a Las Vegas card dealer, but now, after a scandal, he deals at a small Arizona Indian casino—“Bad judgment, quick temper and misfortune had demanded compensation, and he’d paid a heavy price.” Sonny is a contradiction, a man of violence who wants to live a quiet life and has become a fledgling chess master. Al, who offered Sonny his old trailer to live in after his escape from Vegas, is a man of mystery to all, despite having lived in the area for years. Life starts to improve for Sonny after he falls for Jen Kitcheyan, a headstrong local college instructor with her own rocky past. But Sonny’s chivalrous streak gets him in trouble when he cold-cocks Coot, a meth dealer who had been abusing his teen son, Sonny’s friend Sam, who lives next door with his fragile mother, Sheila. That earns Sonny a psychotic enemy for life. But he isn’t one to harbor regrets, even for those decisions that come back to haunt him. Still, despite the bursts of violence, action isn’t what drives Piacenza’s skillfully developed narrative. Instead, it’s his colorfully portrayed characters—from a wayward poker player to a famous elderly photographer to Jen’s knockout mother—interacting in this rural Southwestern region. His descriptions bring these people to life, such as Sonny’s first impression of Jen: “He could easily imagine her, in animal skins and snow shoes, leading a tribe of vagrant Mongolians across the Bering icecap, kicking walruses and polar bears out of her way.” Eventually, everyone’s secrets come to the surface, but as this novel reaches satisfying closure, that only adds spice to life in this intriguing small corner of Arizona.
An artful gathering of enjoyable characters.