THE DEUCE by Robert Olen Butler


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An Amerasian runaway hangs out on New York's Forty-second Street--in a hard-to-believe sixth novel from Butler that does nothing to halt the long decline since his Alleys of Eden debut (1981). For his first six years, Vo Dinh Tranh lived with his mother Nghi in Saigon; Nghi was a drug-addicted bar-girl/whore, and Vo roamed the alleys. But in 1974 Vo's GI father Kenneth, now an ambitious New Jersey attorney, returns to Saigon to buy Vo, rename him Tony Hatcher, and install him in his comfortable Jersey Shore home. Ten years slip by almost unexamined until Tony, still feeling distinctly Vietnamese though smothered by suburbia, lights out for Montreal and its rumored Vietnamese community; he has to settle for New York when he loses his money in a bus terminal mugging. After some rough nights, he hooks up with Joey Cipriani, a bus-station panhandler and Vietnam vet still dreaming of his own Vietnamese whore. The Alcoholic Joey shelters Tony in an abandoned building, gives him his third name (The Deuce), and warns him about the baddest dude in the terminal, the honey-tongued Mr. Treen, who preys on and kills young male runaways. Tony also meets (and is smitten by) Norma, another runaway and soon-to-be whore. Then Joey is killed by Mr. Treen, and Tony avenges his erstwhile protector by luring Mr. Treen to his death (a nasty fall off a deserted highway). By now he has allowed Kenneth to retrieve him, and made his peace with the burbs. Much of this first-person novel is Tony's monologue; Butler has tried for a raw, edgy voice--the foulmouthed defiance masking a desperate identity crisis--but achieved only the monotonous yapping of a young punk. But more is wrong here than the voice: the characters are hopeless stereotypes; Butler's refusal to account for Tony's ten years of American socialization is an obvious cheat; and though Forty-second Street is known worldwide for its funky energy, you won't find it here.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Simon & Schuster