THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

The American dream turns to crime in Zeltserman’s latest

By Ed Siegel
February 11, 2011

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The middle-class dream has turned into a nightmare for Dan Wilson. From the outside his life looks pretty good — a nice house in the Boston suburbs, an attractive wife, two good kids, plentiful friends.

But it’s all unraveling. He lost his job as a software engineer when the company he worked for went out of business. And with the job went his insurance (this is pre-Obama America), making the onset of retinitis pigmentosa particularly dicey.

This is the setup for another of Dave Zeltserman’s local hero or antihero novels, “Outsourced.’’ Wilson, like one of the steelworkers in “The Full Monty,’’ decides he and his friends should go into a different line of work, seeing that there isn’t much calling for a 48-year-old software programmer in the States. His idea is a bit more radical than the stripteasing steelworkers, though. He decides that he and his friends should rob the bank that hired him and then outsourced the software development.

The book’s another feather in the noirish cap of Zeltserman, though it was actually written in 2004 before “Pariah’’ and “Killer,’’ two volumes of his excellent ex-con trilogy (third being “Small Crimes’’), and the even better supernaturally tinged “The Caretaker of Lorne Field.’’

And here again, Zeltserman manages to tell a riveting story in the straightforward, personality-driven manner at which he’s so accomplished. There’s no purple in his prose even though he obviously has learned lessons of the genre from masters like Jim Thompson. His characters aren’t as hard-bitten, which perhaps is why it’s easier to identify with them.

There is, though, one uncharacteristic misstep in “Outsourced.’’ The likable Wilson, no matter how desperate his circumstances, seems far too smart to surround himself with the psycho killers he ends up with, two of whom are also software engineers.

Zeltserman is no doubt having some fun here. He did, after all, give up his day job as a software engineer himself to pursue a life of crime, even if (presumably) he keeps his larceny limited to the written page.

But that’s an in-joke. With friends like Wilson’s it’s no wonder that the robbery is fraught with problems and enough extreme manifestations of personality disorders to make Quentin Tarantino blush. (In fact, movie rights have been sold.) Wilson’s cohorts — there’s also a relatively normal Indian engineer in on the heist — threaten to drag down the book, particularly in the middle section, with their nutty behavior.

Fortunately, two other characters — a cop and a Russian mobster — are much more believable and interesting, so “Outsourced’’ rights itself in the aftermath of the bank robbery as Wilson tries to stay one step ahead of the cop, the Russkie, and his increasingly suspicious wife, who had other things in mind when she told him he needed to bring in more income.

There are similarities to other films and novels about ordinary people running afoul of the forces of law and disorder, such as “A Simple Plan’’ and “No Country for Old Men,’’ though there’s none of the existential pretentiousness of Cormac McCarthy here. Zeltserman seems to be after more concrete emotional resonances with Wilson’s ultimate predicament, and this is where he really shines.

Will Wilson get away with it? Should we be rooting for him to get away with it? I think if he had had better taste in friends, those questions would be even harder for readers to wrestle with. But still, as the body count gets higher and you wonder how things are ever going to tie up satisfactorily, Zeltserman drives the plot forward with a craftiness that results in an ending as sharp as “The Caretaker’’ or any of his other books.

You can outsource software engineering, but so far at least you can’t outsource crime writing as good as Zeltserman’s.

Freelance writer Ed Siegel can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

OUTSOURCED By Dave Zeltserman

Serpent’s Tail, 313 pp.,

paperback, $14.95