by Jim Fusilli
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
273 pages, 2003
I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
There isn't a single blues lick in Tribeca Blues, Jim Fusilli's latest private detective novel; not one mention of poor sharecroppers, cotton picking or slavery; no name-dropping of Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson. Oh, there's music, for sure -- Chopin and Rubenstein and opera are mentioned frequently, and the P.I.'s slacker rock-critic pal, Diddio, coughs up enough rock 'n' roll trivia to smash a guitar against, but the blues? Barely a note. Take it from me, though, this book ain't called Tribeca Blues for nothing.
OK, by outward appearances, its hero, rich white yuppie boy Terry Orr, has no right to sing the blues. He has money, a healthy intelligent daughter (the precocious Bella), exceedingly loyal friends, an attractive and smart girlfriend (Assistant District Attorney Julie Giada), and a great house (yes, I said house) right smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. But forget all that -- this cat has metaphorical hellhounds on his trail and stones in his pathway, just as surely as any poor mama's son.
And even worse, a lot of those stones he put there himself.
Boo-hoo-hoo, you may say. Who cares about some spoiled, self-obsessed, self-pitying yuppie who's seemingly addicted to expensive bottled water, swilling it by the gallon? Well, you should.
You see, Tribeca Blues, the third book to feature Terry Orr, is not your average P.I. novel, and Terry is certainly not your average private eye. While it's true that most independent investigators in fiction these days aren't exactly poster boys for mental health, if there was ever a candidate for multiple 50-minute hours, it's our boy Terry.
When we were first introduced to him, in Closing Time (2001), Terry was already on the ropes. Devastated by the death of his wife, artist Marina Fiorentino, and their infant son, Davy, a few years before, he was still running on survivor guilt and grief, with the growing Bella to rear and a hard-on for revenge. And it was that driving rage, that obsessive, bitter hatred for Raymond Weisz, the man who had pushed half of his family in front of a speeding subway car, that kept Terry's heart pumping. Weisz, a former child prodigy-turned-standard-issue homeless Big Apple wingnut, has evaded capture ever since, despite attempts by both the NYPD and an increasingly driven Terry to bring him to justice. But justice -- never mind closure -- is as slippery as Weisz has turned out to be, and Terry, once a promising athlete, and then an equally promising writer, now defines himself almost entirely by what he's lost, not by what he has.
I confess, there have been times when I've felt like smacking Terry around a bit, telling him to smarten up and get on with his life. But alas, this guy's so full of himself, he doesn't even listen to those who love him and care about him, so what chance does a mere reader have of prying him loose from his obsessions? And though lugging his weight of woe around isn't healthy, it's how Terry has taught himself to keep on keepin' on. His obsessions carried him through his first two widely acclaimed adventures (Closing Time and its 2002 sequel, A Well-Kept Secret), and could probably have propelled him just as easily through a third, and then a fourth and a fifth, and on and on, until the series eventually ran out of steam.
Certainly, had Tribeca Blues been merely round three of Terry's dangerous game, fans would still have lapped it up. Fusilli's impassioned prose; the nostalgic, bittersweet flashbacks to happier times; the warm friendship between slacker Diddio and the increasingly mature Bella; the finely wrought renderings of New York City's various districts and boroughs; the imagined conversations between Terry and his deceased wife; the sparring with Bella's psychologist -- they're all here, ready to please any fan of this series' previous installments. But Fusilli, it turns out, is after far bigger game, and in Tribeca Blues he does something that's so brave and audacious, his longtime readers will be left gasping. And yet it's so simple: Fusilli lines up his characters, reintroduces all the major themes of the series ... and then ups the ante by gleefully kicking all of Terry's props out from under him.
Oh, you can find the conventional elements of a modern gumshoe tale in this novel -- people die, secrets are outed, there are a few head-shaking coincidences, plenty of good ol' sex and violence and despair and cynicism, and Terry is run through the usual physical and emotional wringer. In this case, the festivities kick off when eccentric bar owner Leo Mallard, one of Terry's closest friends (and one of this series' more colorful figures), kicks off, leaving his bar to Diddio and saddling Terry with a mess of legal and financial problems that need to be sorted out -- not the least of which is the barkeeper's final entreaty to Terry (left in a handwritten note tucked in a shoe), that he should find Mallard's estranged wife, the cold-hearted Loretta Jones, and "bring her to justice, make her pay for taking my business." The detective's attempts to "set things right" soon lead him to Leo's funeral and into the company of his late friend's twisted family in New Orleans, and reveal some troubling details about Leo's past. In the midst of all this, though, a mysterious fax provokes Terry's return to New York, where he's plummeted right back into his own obsessive hunger for vengeance.
Here's where things really get complicated: when the murders of Terry's wife and son become hopelessly entwined with Leo Mallard's death, and our hero discovers that the slippery Loretta is somehow, inexplicably involved in -- or at least has secret information about -- his beloved Marina's death. Knowledge that could tear everything Terry Orr thought he knew about himself apart. And knowledge that Loretta would be only too happy to reveal, or conceal, for a price.
What would you do if you discovered that almost everything you had defined yourself by for the last several years was wrong? What if, somehow, everyone from the spiteful ex-spouse of one of your closest friends to the police, from your girlfriend to your daughter's psychologist, seemed to know more about your wife's death than they were letting on? Who can you trust when it appears you can't trust anyone? How far into the darkness would you be willing to go in search of answers?
At one point in Tribeca Blues, avuncular NYPD police detective Luther Addison, who originally investigated Marina and Davy's deaths, and has since befriended the young widower, tells Terry, "You've got some hard days coming."
Not that the entire New York Police Department is as generously inclined toward Terry's (frequently inept) quest for justice as Luther. One of the running jokes in this book, if it can be called a joke, is that Terry is not a very good detective. As the NYPD's Reynaldo Twist, the surprisingly antagonistic cop who's currently assigned to Marina and Davy's case, tells Orr at one point, "You can't help but fuck up, can you? Can you?" This is just one more hard question Terry is forced to finally ask himself in these pages.
By the end of this dark, noirish tale, Terry Orr has managed to find the answers to many of those questions. But the truth alone, he realizes, isn't enough to set him -- or anyone -- free. Terry ruefully admits that he hasn't "come within a hundred miles of closure." He's at an existential crossroads in his life, with a bad moon on the rise, "hating the world, if not the concept."
So if the truth doesn't set the world right, what will?
True love? Don't be a chump.
"Love is anguish, betrayal, abandonment," Terry concludes, and hopes fervently that his girlfriend doesn't utter the dread words "I love you." Julie, he thinks to himself, please let's not destroy this good thing.
And ultimately, it's the good things, the things that really matter, the things we cling to and hope will carry us above the pain, that are really at risk in this novel. The question that burns throughout Fusilli's chapters is this: How do we live with the bad things, without losing the good things, and how far will we go to protect them?
In Tribeca Blues, detective Terry Orr, forced at last to strip bare and examine his life and question everything he used to believe in, must once and for all answer that question for himself; "to keep pushing," as Leo put it in his last words to Terry, "until it's all like it ought to be."
And if that ain't the blues, I don't know what is. | January 2004
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth, he now lives in the Los Angeles area, an imaginary city in sunny Southern California, where he enjoys studying the sometimes bizarre habits of the natives, and continues to push.