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THE $22.50 MAN by Richard Voorhees Kirkus Star

THE $22.50 MAN

by Richard Voorhees illustrated by Richard Voorhees

Pub Date: May 6th, 2020

In this comic Depression-era sequel, two newlyweds flee underworld connections to start a new life.

Jean-Yves LeFouet has a way of getting into trouble not of his own making. Having left New York City in 1929 for California to avoid repercussions from his shady boss’s downfall, he must make a return trip. Apparently, the copies of The Tale of Genji, a 1,000-year-old Japanese novel that he was ferrying to actors he thought would be auditioning for a film version, actually contained heroin, and the law got after him. It’s now 1935, and Jean-Yves wants to go straight; he’s newly married to Ariane (part Japanese, part French), his perfect match: “We’re made for each other. We love poetry and film and theater and one another.” When the cops come knocking, the couple (and their cat, Vince) manage to escape to the Big Apple. Ariane finds work in a bookstore while Jean-Yves, who has exceptionally sharp hearing, is offered an informant job with the New York City Police Department for which he’ll drive a taxi, eavesdrop on fares, and collect $22.50 a week. Typically, Jean-Yves—now calling himself John Still—nabs customs scofflaws, but soon he has a bigger target in Jacob Racker, a tannery owner and supplier of shoe leather to the NYPD. When Asian rubber-sole makers threaten to undercut him, Racker is willing to bribe political bigwigs. Meanwhile, John writes a story based on his life, and Ariane translates a Japanese woman’s ancient scroll of poetry (found in a cocktail shaker), then writes and films a play based on it. After losing his $22.50 a week job, John is hired to drive a truck for Racker’s tannery, where he becomes involved in solving a crime—and gets back into trouble.

As the author did in the first book of this trilogy, Shooting Genji(2014), Voorhees conjures up his historical period with slangy high spirits appropriate to the Jazz Age setting. The fast-moving plot packs a lot of action and well-honed characterizations into these pages, as when Otis— Racker’s nephew with a goldbricking, low-level job at the tannery—defends his status: “We’re like chemists.” But the author is a storytelling master who has many registers available to him, from a cat’s point of view (“Hide hide. Under the room-that-goes. I’m big. Don’t come. I’m big”) to the scroll’s heartbroken poet, whose work is extremely touching in Ariane’s translations: “If you pick up a faded bouquet gently, / And try to toss it away, / The petals will fall off / on the floor / at your feet. / It’s the same with you and me.” A subplot involving Racker’s maid and a poker-playing fellow taxi driver hooks up with the main story nicely in ways both amusing and tender. It’s a short book and over all too quickly; fans will be eager for the trilogy’s final volume. Voorhees’ monochrome watercolor illustrations deftly accompany the text, recalling Japanese ink-brush paintings with an extra splash-dab of verve.

A wonderfully appealing, literate, compassionate, and funny Jazz Age tale; a home run.