Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand
There's plenty of what John O'Connell calls Adrian McKinty's "brutal lyricism" in Fifty Grand, which was published last year (after the international success of McKinty's "Dead Trilogy). Fifty Grand is told in the voice of Mercado, a female detective in the Cuban national police, who makes a revenge journey to the U.S. (through Mexico) after her estranged father (who left Cuba years before) is killed in a hit-and-run auto accident in Colorado. The first two sections, a "flash-forward" to the final revenge scenario and a rape attempt along her coyote-route into the U.S., are more brutal than lyrical, and then the novel settles down into Mercado's attempt to infiltrate the local scene in Fairview (think Telluride) Colorado, home of a vicious sherrif, a pimp-drug-dealer who also brings in unauthorized immigrant labor (including Mercado, masquerading as Maria, who is assigned a job as a house cleaner when she refuses to work as a prostitute), and a crowd of movie stars, would-be movie stars, and Hollywood hangers-on (including Tom Cruise, and you can decide which category he fits into, though he's never "on camera" in this book).
The long middle section, in which Mercado works as a maid, meets some of the actor-crowd, befriends a fellow indentured laborer (Paco from Nicaragua), and investigates surreptitiously the possible drivers of the car that hit her father, is a bit slow--perhaps seeming so to me because I listened to the audio version of the book (courtesy of the digital branch of my local library) rather than reading it. The reader, Paula Christensen, is very good, obviously a Spanish-speaker with a slight Canadian lilt to her English, and is good at voices. But a spoken-word novel takes longer to hear than a print novel takes to read, and when the action gets slow the "heard" novel is slower. There's also a funny multilingual pun that I think is inadvertent: one of the Hollywood types refers to someone else as a "Playa with a capital P," which Christensen pronounces as in Spanish for "beach" rather than in its "Gangsta" pronunciation.
When the action gets started back up, the revenge seems both not well enough motivated (though her father was left to die, he wasn't deliberately murdered, after all) and oddly unsatisfying (a lot of unpleasant people get killed, but perhaps not the right people). There's also a coda, taking Mercado back to Cuba, that is more interesting in some ways than the Colorado sections (which are satirical in their portrait of Hollywood but not that incisive about the U.S. as a broader culture). The intermittent flashbacks to Cuba and the final sections do give an interesting portrait of where Cuban society is in its current state of change (and the anticipation of even more change to come).
Fifty Grand (the title refers to a bribe that sets the value of a lost life) has received good reviews, but it was a bit flat to me (my brother, a big fan of the Dead Trilogy, also obtained the audio version and was not motivated to hear it to the end). Mercado is interesting but she does a lot of dithering in her investigation, and some of the other characters are a bit two-dimensionsl (though to be fair, they're satirical "types" more than full characters). It would be interesting to read about Mercado again, in whatever social/national context she might find herself (a changing Cuba maybe?), but Fifty Grand didn't fully live up to my expectations.