Rich characters make for rich and rewarding novels. Without a character to cheer for, or sneer at, what difference does it make what the character is doing throughout a story? Darin Strauss makes rich characters. His first novel, the highly acclaimed CHANG AND ENG, recreated the lives of the famed Siamese twins, making them come alive once more, and made their characters entirely different, making them separate even though they were attached. His new novel, THE REAL McCOY, brings characters to life once more. This time it's "Kid" McCoy, loosely based on a real man --- a boxer, a charlatan, a lover, a scam artist. It not only brings McCoy back to life but America at the turn of the century as well.
Strauss likes research. It took him three years to work on CHANG AND ENG, and it would seem that he spent just as much time on THE REAL McCOY, bringing our past into crisp and astounding clarity. Similar to CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL by Glen David Gold and THE LOST DAUGHTER OF HAPPINESS by Geling Yan, the readers' senses take in the story, the characters, and life during a legendary time in American history.
The story opens: "Here was a champion before he closed his hand into a fist. The boy's gumption was like the full steam of a locomotive. Plus he was a born liar. 'Kid' McCoy (born Virgil Selby, but he keeps that under wraps, unless, of course, it helps in a scam) is a wiry fellow and one who knows how to fight (particularly since learning a corkscrew punch from flimflammer extraordinaire Johnnie Gold, a Chinese con man he met at a work camp out West). Better yet, he knows how to get ahead, whether it's scamming someone out of two bits, two thousand dollars, or the championship belt (fixing fights doesn't bother in the slightest, particularly if he gets ahead because of it). He's also popular with the ladies, married a few times over. And, of course, there's the jewel heist to consider."
Told from various points in time (sometimes hampering the excitement of McCoy's life and times), McCoy's life unfolds slowly before us. We like him, swindles and double-crossing and scams and bigamy and all of it. We don't always agree with what he does but we cheer for him anyway. He's too passionate about it all not to like him.
Strauss has himself another literary knockout with his new novel. It's a book I can imagine Jack London writing or, at the very least, enjoying reading. It shows that Strauss, in regard to writing quality, entertaining novels, is the real McCoy in his own right.
Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley on January 23, 2011
The Real Mccoy