Misdemeanor Man

by Dylan Schaffer

Published by Bloomsbury USA

352 pages, 2004

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I Right the Wrongs

Reviewed by Yvette Banek


Gordon Seegerman is the much-put-upon hero of his own life, but he's blissfully unaware of that fact. One of the most winning aspects of Misdemeanor Man, lawyer-turned-novelist Dylan Schaffer's remarkable debut work, is its hero's inability to recognize his own nobility. This glaring blind spot is what makes the smart-alecky Gordon oh-so-eminently likable. Told in a first-person, present-tense style, Schaffer's rambunctious tale appears initially to be nothing more than an absurdly funny satire of modern legal thrillers. The reader is invited to gaze, fascinated and slightly appalled, into Seegerman's warped world of courtroom bottom feeders, where public defenders routinely wheel and deal with California state prosecutors over cases of jaywalking, the prankish discharging of firearms, lewd behavior and other low-caliber crimes. Yet it's soon apparent that Schaffer has more in mind than screwball razzle-dazzle. Dark omens lurk in the background of this frenetic comedy of errors, adding a tender, bittersweet countenance that lifts Misdemeanor Man (the first installment of a new series) from the ordinary into the realm of the extraordinary.

As this book opens, we find Gordon, a man ever beset by the wayward vicissitudes of life, facing a crossroads. Although he's generally resigned to his underachieving existence as a public defender in the fictional city of Santa Rita (a faded, unglamorous, polyglotonous, ethnic melting pot that seems to be modeled on Oakland, California, where the author currently lives), Seegerman balances uneasily on the eve of the most important semi-professional event in his life. Barry X and the Mandys, the quirky band (made up of friends and coworkers) with which he performs as lead singer, is preparing for a gig in front of their idol, Mr. Barry Manilow (aka MBM), singer and songwriter extraordinaire. Practicing their music after work, and wondering whether the great Manilow will nod his acknowledgment, should he even deign to appear at their homage show, the performers -- unspeakably handsome bass player and investigator Terry Fretwater, Sikh electronics whiz Preet Singh, who "plays orchestra and everything else," and drummer/office manager Maeve O'Connell ("She is, as she often tells strangers within thirty seconds of meeting them, a 'lez-bean'"), and Gordon himself -- suffer for their art, now more than ever. As Seegerman explains:

The rest of the band members fell for MBM relatively recently and their nervousness about meeting him, about playing for him, has turned me from band leader into mother hen. Terry and Preet, who have been best friends since they were nine, almost came to blows at the gig last night over a minor costuming question. And Maeve? On a good day, on a low-stress day, on a day not a few weeks before the day she will drum for Barry Manilow, Maeve speaks constantly, loudly, profanely, has a microscopic fuse, and sports a paranoid streak that precludes her from driving, using a stapler, or eating foods that cannot be purchased in sealed, and preferably vacuum packed containers. ... The Mandys. I care for each of them as I would for a beloved pet -- perhaps the kind of pet best kept in a cage in the yard except on very, very cold nights, but they are my best friends and without them Barry X would still be getting booed off the stage at open-mike nights.

For the moment, everything else must take a back seat to the significance of this pending performance. Everything, that is, save for the slings and arrows of Gordon's outrageous day-to-day life. Petty crimes and still pettier criminals just keep getting in the way of his musical preoccupation. Most recently, he's unwittingly snagged what appears at the outset to be a run-of-the-mill, if lurid, case. It involves Harold Dunn, an accountant and former alcoholic who's accused of exposing his privates to the public outside the women's dressing room of a Santa Rita department store. Seegerman knows the type all too well, and has little sympathy to spare.

We call defendants in 314 cases willy wankers, which is a not altogether accurate description of the crime. Dunn could have violated Section 314 without touching himself at all. It's the exposure that counts -- the public display of the willy. The wank, if there is a wank, is like icing on the cake. Or something. In Dunn's case, as it happens, a wank is alleged.

Yet Dunn's transgressions may not be as simple as they look. He claims to have been set up for arrest by Selmer Godfrey, the progeny of a leading Santa Rita family that operates an organization known as G.O.D. (Giving-Out-Dinner), a highly respected charity founded by ex-nun Mary Godfrey. Dunn implies that Selmer is using him as cover for his own multiple sins, which extend from embezzlement to real-estate scams and money laundering. As this "misdo" case runs amok, murder inevitably ensues and Seegerman must turn to his coworkers and fellow band members for help. However, this hilariously intrepid group is hampered right and left not only by prosaic angst but by overeager cops and government agents, bad-tempered judges, eccentric witnesses and the ex-love of Gordon's life, "tough and brilliant" assistant district attorney Silvie Hernandez ("She is, as my grandfather would say, 'a very nice piece of fish.' Dark hair, blue eyes, Cuban-German, booty like two water balloons filled to the bursting point"), who's responsible for prosecuting the hapless Harold Dunn. You get the idea that Seegerman's life is on the brink of a meltdown.

Schaffer, a criminal defense attorney who's been involved over the years in the Billionaire Boys Club case and the John Gotti-Gambino family prosecution, peoples Misdemeanor Man with all manner of oddballs. These include Duke Abramowitz, Seegerman's "boss-in-theory" ("He is tall and exceptionally skinny and has a cross manner. He has a comb-over and a large, sickeningly three-dimensional mauve mole on the tip of his aquiline nose ..."), together with Gordon's father, known here only as S., a disgraced ex-cop in his 50s who is slowly sinking into the final stages of dementia brought on by a rare, genetic form of Alzheimer's that strikes its victims earlier in life. (Since this is a genetic strain, the disease has a 50-50 chance of being passed on to S.'s offspring, yet Gordon refuses to be tested for it, preferring instead to live in a never-never-land of doubt and fear, tempered with fatalism.)

Still, it's the chronically overburdened and unambitious Gordon who commands center stage in these chapters. He's a confirmed wisenheimer and irreverent good guy who boasts an inchoate love of Barry Manilow's songs (and, damn, if he doesn't get us musical heathens believing in Mr. B, too) as well as a penchant for self-examination that somehow leads him to discount his own potential for heroism. Despite his foibles, Gordon is the glue holding his family together -- a clan that, in addition to his increasingly irrational father, features Gordon's 88-year-old granddad, Ferdy; the woebegone family dachshund, LeoSayer; a healthcare worker who swings by three days a week to care for S.; and Gordon's scruffy brother, King, who comes and goes from the family's overgrown wreck of a mansion as the spirit moves him. (Seegerman's description of King is a gem: "My brother's face is almost invisible. His beard climbs nearly to his eyes. His hair is wild about his forehead. His eyes are intensely bright, though. I believe his latest job is distributing organic dog food. But with King, it's better not to delve too deeply.") Meanwhile, at the office -- armed with a highly refined sense of the absurd -- Gordon bobs and weaves, fencing as best he can with the flotsam of his clients' miserable lives gone awry. Amid it all, the reader can't help but laugh, sympathize and root for this protagonist's dreams to come true. Seegerman wants nothing less than a sign of approval from MBM, and the official OK to record the great man's songs -- not, one would think, a dream beyond hope of fulfillment.

But how on earth is a guy like Gordon Seegerman supposed to make his band members concentrate on their upcoming Manilow gig, get his client out of the slammer and identify a killer, while also having to cope with his father's illness, his own heartbreak, his brother's recalcitrance, startling news from his grandfather, the possible loss of their family home and the insanities of everyday life down at work?

You'll just have to read Schaffer's delightful Misdemeanor Man to find out. | July 2004


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