Death Lit: Treasure Coast by Tom Kakonis

Treasure-Coast

Today’s the day — official release date for the first new novel by Tom Kakonis to hit print in many years. I believe it also serves as the launch date for the first thirty or so titles from Brash Books, a tidal wave kind of like the hurricane that threatens the cast of the new Kakonis.

Our pal J. Kingston Pierce over at The Rap Sheet just did a detailed article for Kirkus Reviews on this press — with the interviews that rounded up the background info for Kirkus  showing up on Rap. If you’re curious about the birth of a new crime fiction publisher, there you go. They seem eager, and with a barrage of thirty books to announce their arrival, I think they’re ready.

I’m wildly prejudiced in favor of Kakonis, so decided to hand the reviewing duties off to occasional Guest Blogger Joseph Hirsch, who doesn’t have anything against Kakonis, either. I guess if I scrounged around I could find someone who doesn’t like his writing, but then they wouldn’t make a good fit with the excellent hardboiled content you expect here in Up and Down These Mean Streets.

Joe, by the way, is working away at his own contributions to the field — every time I turn around he’s got another book out, with Kentucky Bestiary the latest — at least I think it’s the latest.

And now, Joe Hirsch on the new Kakonis, Treasure Coast:

Jacques Cousteau once said, “I am not an expert at anything,” and while I certainly don’t style myself an authority of crime fiction, I have read enough in my day to note some very basic rules, one of which should already be as obvious to hardboiled connoisseurs as Sturgeon’s Law is to readers of Science Fiction. The best crime writing (whether you like Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, George V. Higgins, or Elmore Leonard) is usually spare, terse, and deceptively simple in stylistic terms.

Like all rules, though, there are exceptions, and the glaring one in this instance is Tom Kakonis, a man who has been absent for too long, a writer whom Don Herron dubbed the heir apparent to the late Charles Willeford, a man who Publisher’s Weekly glowingly compared to another late, great genre practitioner, Elmore Leonard. Kakonis is a complex wordsmith whose literary powers (and philosophical digressions) far exceed what pulp fans are accustomed to reading.

His latest book is Treasure Coast, and much like his magnum opus, Criss Cross, it is great. In broad outlines, the book is about a down-at-heel cardsharp, a pair of grifters, a couple of ex-cons, a kid who can’t pay the vig on an outstanding debt, and a sexpot who has hitched her wagon to man who is fat, stupid, and rich beyond dreams of avarice.

That brief summary doesn’t do the fine details justice, though. It doesn’t give the reader the full sense of Kakonis’s dark, rich sense of humor, or his near-expressionistic descriptive powers that verge on the Lovecraftian in their density. The reader has to experience the book for themselves to see what I’m talking about. Consider, however, a choice excerpt, in which the aforementioned sexpot gives her sugar daddy a rubdown:

Lonnie laid the smoldering rope in an ashtray and, at her direction, removed his shirt and stretched himself out flat (or as flat as the parabolic arc of tummy allowed for) across the sofa, face buried in a cushion. Gently, expertly, she massaged his manifold distresses away, starting at the neck and working slowly, tantalizingly slow, down the lardy back, like a master pastry chef artfully kneading dough, now and then brushing her fingertips, as if by accident, over the gorge between his flaccid mounds of buttocks

Kakonis doesn’t so much do noir, as he does a kind of Grand Guignol nightmarish carnival, only with convicts in lieu of conventional circus freaks. On the subject of convicts, I should mention that the twosome featured in this book are some of the most sharply realized baddies I’ve encountered this side of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; and since Dick and Perry were actually real men, we can’t give Capote credit for creating his heavies ex nihilo the same way Kakonis creates his.

I remember reading Criss Cross years ago, and wondering then, as now, how Kakonis knew these bad men, these terminal hard case felons, inside and out. The writer William Styron, a great patron of the ex-convict turned writer Edward Bunker, was fond of saying that imagination could allow a man who hadn’t been to war to write of combat, but that a man needed to have spent time in prison to really be able to write about prison convincingly.

I knew upon reading Criss Cross (and was reminded upon reading Treasure Coast) that this Kakonis guy had to have spent time in prison, either serving a bid, or perhaps working in some kind of correctional officer capacity. His cons are just too real. Consider this terse exchange between two thugs, sizing one-another up and making small talk:

“So what’s your real one?”

“Name?”

“Fuck’re we talkin’ about here? Yeah, your name?”

Already Hector was regretting the shared confidence. A little sheepishly he said, “Jesus Morales,” the given name delivered in precise Spanish pronunciation.

“That Hay-soose’ spelled like the Bible Jesus?”

“Yeah.”

“So why you people say it funny?”

“That’s how we do.”

“Don’t seem right, callin’ yourself Jesus.”

“Why’s that?”

“Ain’t like you is exactly holy.”

“So? Lotta names come from them Bible dudes. Y’got your Matt, Mark, Luke, John,” he enumerated, ticking off the Gospels on the fingers of a hand, warming to the topic, “an’ none a the guys I ever seen wearin’ them tags walkin’ on water either.”

Folks, you can’t make this kind of stuff up, or at least not without receiving a post-doctoral degree from the School of Hard Knocks. A little internet sleuthing confirmed my hunch, as well as Stryon’s assertion, that a man’s imagination can only carry him so far into the terra incognita of the dark underbelly of America’s prisons. Kakonis has, by his own admission, worked “a stint as a teacher at Stateville Prison, Joliet, Illinois” and it shows in the writing. The verisimilitude of the language is unquestionable, on a par with vintage George Pelecanos or Richard Price.

Unlike Price or Pelecanos, however (both of whom I admire), Kakonis is not just kinetic and believable. He is deeply philosophical. Without giving away too much of the plot, the fact that one character perhaps believes she can communicate with the dead adds an eerie, otherworldly quality of dread which is absent from all but the bravest genre-bending forays, like William Hjortsberg’s masterpiece Heart of an Angel.

I’ve said enough already. Let me just close by saying the bottom line is that Treasure Coast is a page turner, but you don’t just find yourself turning the pages. You savor the language, the  mordant, unpleasant insights into human nature, fate, chance…the whole damn ball of wax.

It has been too long since we have had a new offering from Tom Kakonis. Treasure Coast is a wonderful return to form, as good as, or perhaps better than Criss Cross, which I consider to be the best crime novel since Willeford wrote Sideswipe.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many young lions out there, and great burgeoning talents in the field of hardboiled crime writing. Jed Ayres, and his southern-fried bloodbath Peckerwood, spring readily to mind. But with age comes experience, and a veteran can’t be beaten. Now that Elmore Leonard has passed through the pearly gates, Kakonis is, to my mind, the only real master left standing, aside from maybe James Ellroy. I knew as much back when I read Criss Cross all those years ago, and Treasure Coast only confirms it. Read it. You’re in for a hurricane, both figuratively and literally.

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