Hard, Hard City

by Jim Fusilli

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons

278 pages, 2004

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The Kids Aren’t Alright

Reviewed by Yvette Banek


New York City never appears quite as noirish as it does in Jim Fusilli's unique vision. This is the author's dark take on the Big Apple, made clear in his intimate, biting style. Fusilli didn't invent "Manhattan Noir," but he has certainly appropriated it for his own uses and, in the process, raised that subgenre to art. Think Woody Allen's Manhattan, punctuated with ghastly murder.

As usual, Fusilli's protagonist in his fourth novel, Hard, Hard City, is the cynically inclined Terry Orr, a man so bedeviled by his past that he's compelled to dwell there in his dreams. And awful dreams they are, too: his artist wife, Marina, and their infant son, Davy, being crushed to death beneath the unforgiving wheels of a New York subway train -- a tragedy that has cast a terrible pall over Orr's life ever since. This writer-turned-private eye spent several years searching for the man he held responsible for his family's destruction, and when he finally found him (see Tribeca Blues, one of January's favorite books of 2003), the truth revealed was almost too dreadful to be borne.

Yet Fusilli refuses to protect us from the depths of Orr's painful recognition and remorse. Secret by gut-wrenching secret, through Closing Time (2001), A Well-Known Secret (2002) and the shattering Tribeca Blues, we have learned how and why Terry Orr refuses to let go of his past. Hard, Hard City delivers another wallop to the reader's emotions. Although the author insists that his Orr books can work as standalones, and that they need not be read in order, I respectfully disagree. The entries in this series deserve to be enjoyed in their sequence of publication. To do otherwise would be to cheat yourself of a distinctive literary experience. The trials and travails of Terry Orr read almost like an epic poem filled with the dashed hopes and dreams of a man and his city.

In these turbulent modern times, New York as a fictional setting needs to be handled with special care. The affinity that Jim Fusilli, a music critic for both The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, feels for his town is evident in every line of flawless prose he sets before us. That wounded metropolis is the obvious co-star of his novels, and the events of September 11, 2001, are never far from our thoughts as we are ushered down Manhattan's shadowy, glistening side streets in company with the enigmatic, heartsick Orr. The reader begins each of Fusilli's books with a slight twinge of fear, as we're aware that this author never does the expected. We never know how far he will take Orr. This protagonist is about as far from cookie-cutter as a genre character can be.

Just listen to him for a moment:

I take it whenever I can find it. Time, I mean; specifically, time in the present, the now. This moment, before it dies. I take it and I hold on to it, I try to hold on to it; try, but it's a slinky thing, an ethereal thing. Here, gone. Now. You know, now, as opposed to then, the past. Stay here, be now. Be here now. Be here now so I no longer daydream of the past, about what was. Fantasize about what I wish had been. Living now is the antidote for fantasy and, sometimes, for fear.

(Oh. You knew that already? Sorry.)

Anyway, anyway, I try to live now, not then, not whenever else. I fail often ...

If not for his precocious teenage daughter, Bella ("who dressed as if she had raced through a thrift shop and wore whatever stuck") -- a brilliantly written character who every now and then overshadows her father -- Orr would probably not have earned our sympathy, and little might have been made of his continued reliance on history as constant metaphor. In fact, reading the first book in the series, it was difficult to like or even to know what to make of Terry Orr. Initially, his casual disregard for the daughter who needs and adores him made the reader impatient for a handy weapon.

But, thankfully, Fusilli is an author of daring, and dead sure of the story he wants to tell. He's given Orr a great kick in the psyche, and managed to take an essentially unsympathetic figure and blossom him into a compassionate one, made us care what happens to him and his daughter.

In Hard, Hard City, as never before, we're given bits and pieces of Orr's early hardscrabble upbringing in New Jersey and his uneasy progress as a well-meaning child of his times. Knowing that he's the lower-middle-class product of a Catholic school education, and was reared by an often irrational, hard-drinking mother and a dispirited dad ("my poor gullible father, who spent all week, save Wednesdays and Sundays, on his feet for 10 hours a day in Anthony's Barber Shop, and who, to my knowledge, never wronged anyone"), helps to explain Orr's basic insecurity and the reason why his marriage to the worldly Italian artist, Marina, came as a revelation and a godsend to him.

Little by little, we're getting him. And he is so worth the effort.

With his wife's demise, Orr inherited her wealth, a handsome Manhattan brownstone and a gallery full of coveted paintings; so, financially, he and Bella are set. Now, he hangs around the city, occasionally butts heads with the police, makes desultory efforts to write again (including putting the finishing touches on his daughter's historical mystery, which features a character known as Malachi Foxx) and, hoping in some cosmic way to set things right somewhere, puts in time as a private investigator.

Early on in Hard, Hard City, Orr endeavors to explain himself to Bella:

"I'll try to stay busy," I said as we reached Greenwich.

"Busy isn't working. Writing: That's working."

"How about if I go look for a few arch-criminals?"

She turned up her pretty nose. "You go to hell for wasting your talent, you know."

To our right, a fat red sun hung above the Jersey palisades. It was early October then, three months ago, but it felt like mid-August, and dumb-ass stories about global warming speckled the tabloids and local TV news. The summer scent of sticky tar was still in the air.

"You'll have to give me a little more on your doctrine," I said. "A hell full of lazy writers, ventriloquists, lethargic shamen ..."

"You laugh now," my daughter said. "But we'll see in a thousand years who's laughing."

Hard, Hard City finds detective Orr responding to a request from Daniel Wu, Bella's best friend, that he look into the case of a missing high-school student. It seems that Allie Powell, a gifted rich kid who's been taking additional classes at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology, has vanished from his uncle's place on East 64th Street, along with $471 and some papers from the uncle's safe. Allie, we're told, is originally from Silver Haven, a small, exclusive New Jersey enclave -- the kind of money-glazed place that imperiously repels all outsiders. His parents seem, on the surface, unfazed by their son's disappearance. The father, Harlan, a high-tech entrepreneur who has recently drawn some unwanted attention from the Securities and Exchange Commission, looks to be hardly more than a well-dressed thug, while Allie's mother, Alexandra, is an icy photographer with political connections and a hazy past, evidently more interested in her cameras than her son. However, when Orr comes calling at chez Powell, he's given a vicious beating for his trouble. Hardly appropriate when all he's trying to do is find their absent offspring, but an indication of how Fusilli has been influenced by Ross Macdonald and Robert B. Parker, both of whose novels often feature children seriously neglected by wealthy but narcissistic parents.

Later in this story, an attempt on Orr's life and a nasty murder lend an even more ominous tone to the proceedings, and as Terry, dogged as ever, refuses to back off, more serious attempts are made to intimidate him. Being tossed around and springing back for more is Terry Orr's specialty, and in Hard, Hard City -- to the consternation of his attractive girlfriend, attorney Julie Giada -- he receives more than his fair share of bruises. "I'm walking the halls, ass out, protesting my shabby treatment," he tells Julie after one beating lands him in the hospital. Protesting his shabby treatment seems to be the motif of Terry's life. In the hands of a less talented author, such protestations might be hard to take, but Fusilli makes it work.

On top of everything else, Orr is trying to stay abreast of his daughter's basketball games and teenage angst, and he's miffed because he hasn't yet caught a glimpse of her mysterious new boyfriend, Marcus. He's also having to deal with his hapless friend Diddio's failing tea bar ("D was a rock critic by profession, a pothead by choice, and he had no idea how to run a street-corner lemonade stand, never mind a business that required a monthly intake of $12,200 just to make the bills. ... Through lunch and at night, the place was dead, and the colorful furniture, which matched D's unbridled optimism, seemed to mock his dreams"). But Terry perseveres. It's what he does best -- probably because if he's moving forward, he can't slip backwards. He wrestles with his private demons, remembering his past and constantly reliving it as he knocks about the city looking for the elusive answers to questions better left unasked.

Eventually, of course, Orr locates the missing Allie, and then because it's obvious that the boy is in danger, he hides him with a trusted acquaintance uptown, in Harlem. In the end, justice doesn't necessarily triumph -- it rarely does, especially in Jim Fusilli's world -- but at least, some of the bad guys get theirs, and Terry lives to fight another day. Now if the past could only stay dead, life might be good. | October 2004


Yvette Banek is a New Jersey artist-writer who reviews crime fiction for both January Magazine and Mystery Ink.