In this debut novel, a professional fighter tries to escape his inauspicious origins, but keeps getting yanked back in.
Mickey Watts grew up in a tough section of Brooklyn, and leaned on his cousin, Clean, when his mother suffered through a long battle with breast cancer, and his father spent all his time dealing with a deluge of medical bills. Mickey follows in his ancestors’ footsteps—he hails from a proud lineage of prizefighters—and becomes a mixed martial arts fighter. He’s hoping the next bout brings him a big contract—he’s been all but promised one if he wins by promoter Mikhailis Morganstern—and a new life with his girlfriend, Anne. But Mickey intervenes when two thugs are poised to rough up Clean, and ends up seriously hurting Tony, the son of mob boss Bruno Battaglia. To pay off the debt he owes for the protection extended him by Gino Stillitano, another mobster, Mickey works as a bouncer at the Grind Joint in Queens, an underground gambling parlor. He makes a powerful enemy of Dago Red—another gangster, who sends him to the hospital with nearly fatal injuries. Mickey kills Red one evening in a fit of rage, and is persuaded afterward by Clean to buy into the Grind Joint, cementing his role in the underworld he so desperately wants to escape. Frustrated with Mickey’s setbacks, Anne leaves him; unable to focus on his next fight, he tanks. He experiences a change of heart, and decides to leave Stillitano’s crew, but will only be permitted to walk away if he can raise more than $200,000. The catch is that the price of his exit from the criminal world requires that—at least temporarily—he enter it more deeply than before. Watson’s book is built around the personal tug of war between one’s origins and aspirations—Mickey needs to deny a part of himself on the path to self-improvement. The fight scenes—in and out of the professional cage—are stirringly described, cataclysms of feral but controlled aggression. But the dialogue reads like an imitation of old pulp fiction noir, the snappy repartee of hard-boiled crime writing of yesteryear. Furthermore, it’s difficult to feel deep sympathy for Mickey, whose judgment is almost comically self-destructive. The reader in search of a Mafia thriller, though, will still find lots of action, vividly rendered.
Pulsing with violence, this mob tale provides plenty of excitement, despite its literary flaws.