At first off-putting, then tautly involving, this debut novel centers on an almost breathtakingly screwed up yet ultimately (and bloodily) successful big-time drug deal in Key West. The brains (if they can be called that) behind the deal belong to a polymath named Becker, who concocts a cocaine-smuggling scheme and enlists the aid of: two local friends, Richard and Michael; crooked, flashy young banker Lee; and long-time companion Annie. Smart as Becker and friends are, however, they idiotically believe that they'll be able to do this independent drug action without incurring the wrath of Key West's drug king R.J.: they figure that they'll just have dinner with him, explain, and that everything will then be fine. They're wrong, of course: R.J. is murderously, vengefully angry. And so, though the drugs are eventually secured at sea (from a Colombian ship), the cost is high: Lee is killed, Richard and Michael are wounded, and Becker is scheduled for death--unless he can knock off R.J. before R.J. kills him. True, Merkin writes this whole grisly, low-life, fouled-up story in archly hip prose. (""We were just going to have to trust one another, Annie and me. Sucky as it sounded. We were just going to have to grow old and gray and not freak out three or four times a week that our old pal might get cold feet and reach for the Princess phone and its accompanying fast relief and perked-up ear."") And one or two scenes seem perilously similar to ones in Robert Stone's fuller, more striking Dog Soldiers. Nonetheless, the mix of malpractice and relentless foulness here is eventually addictive: it's a grim piece of business, as ugly (and linear) as sin--and horrifically compelling once it gets going.