Story of a Southie thug rises above crime noir in ‘Pariah’
Kyle Nevin’s not the kind of guy you would want to cross. He’d as soon beat your face into a pulp for looking at him the wrong way as he would cadge a drink off you. Unless you’re a good-looking woman, of course, in which case he’d have other plans.
Nevin, a former big-time South Boston mobster, is the central character in Needham writer Dave Zeltserman’s darkly enjoyable new novel, “Pariah,’’ which appears to be based, at least in part, on the story of Whitey Bulger.
The Whitey character here, however, is not Nevin but Red Mahoney, who ran Southie before ratting out Nevin and the rest of his mob to the FBI and taking off for Europe. Nevin’s now out of jail and out for Red’s blood, but not before reviving ties with his brother, Danny, who’s trying to go straight, and with Nola, a yuppie nymphomaniac who goes trolling for bad boys at a Southie bar.
Sound clichéd? At times it is, but Zeltserman’s talents as a noir writer rise above the genre’s conventions, even if he stumbles over them here and there. First and foremost, “Pariah’’ is a page-turner, even more so than his earlier novel, “Small Crimes.’’
Nevin is one of the more unlikable main characters you’ll come across, someone who’s reminiscent of Jim Thompson’s ugly protagonists. But as with Lou Ford in Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me,’’ Nevin draws you into his web of sex and violence by his sheer, self-confident sociopathology.
Not that he lives without a code of conduct. How do you deal with a restaurateur who won’t cover his garbage, thereby drawing rats to the alleyway in back of Danny’s Brighton apartment? “By snapping the guy’s finger and smacking him in the face with a car door. In this world that’s how you get someone’s attention.’’
Watching Kyle get steamed about Danny going over to the other side - he now prefers sushi to red meat - is one of the more interesting parts of the novel. That and Kyle’s wooing him back to life among the carnivores. Part of the allure of that relationship is that readers tend to identify with Danny, so we understand that the life Kyle holds out will probably be no good for Danny - or us - but we also appreciate how powerfully seductive is Kyle’s offer to take a walk on the wild side.
But let’s face. It’s not really Kyle but Zeltserman who’s doing the seducing with his clear, crisp prose; his fearless portrait of amorality; and his smart plotting. That doesn’t always prevent him from letting the story wriggle away at times. Things go too bad too quickly in the middle of the book, and Zeltserman is a little too coy in having it both ways as far as Kyle’s role in a couple of deaths. The Southie jargon often sounds inauthentic and other aspects of the story feel more like an exercise in noir instead of an exploration of contemporary life.
There’s more than enough compensation, though, in Zeltserman’s smooth, lively writing and his witty satire of the publishing industry in the second half of the book. We won’t give anything away, but chances are that by the end you’ll be thinking of James Frey, O.J. Simpson, and John Henry Abbott, along with Jim Thompson and Whitey Bulger.
Or forget about those guys and just think about Dave Zeltserman, and what a fine addition to the local literary scene he’s become.
Ed Siegel, a freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.