I lack the knowledge of sufficient superlatives to adequately describe the works of Ken Bruen and Jason Starr. We have two very different, though equally excellent, authors here. Bruen’s dark-humored, off-kilter, down-so-long-looks-like-up worldview is dead-on --- whether his protagonists are prowling through Dublin or trolling through Los Angeles. Starr uses New York City as a canvas to paint pristine, immediately identifiable pictures of ordinary folks who make extraordinary mistakes, for whom a draw is as close as they will ever get to a win.
How is it then that these two gentlemen from very different backgrounds can come together to create so seamlessly a work as THE MAX? No, I’m not forgetting BUST or SLIDE, the volumes that precede it. Both have the same brilliant pacing, plotting and characterization. There’s no prickly Lennon/McCartney thing going on here (strike up a conversation with one, and within the first five minutes he’ll turn around and give all the credit to the other) but instead a genuine feeling of mutual admiration.
THE MAX is more than an outstanding tale of violence, lust, revenge and greed. It is an homage to everything that has made the underbelly of American literary culture addictive. And great. If one was forced to select a single work that typifies the spirit of Hard Case Crime, this book would be the obvious pick.
Start with the cover, which consists of a suggestive, soft focus artwork shot of women in prison. Continue with the characters. There’s Max Fisher, drug trafficker, grifter and loser who finds himself in Attica and somehow actively thriving in spite of himself, just like he did on the outside. Or Angela Petrakos, Max’s erstwhile lover, victim, conqueror and all-around femme fatale who turns Europe upside down, and woos and wins the British version of Max (and who bears an uncanny resemblance to a very successful author). With an angry Greek in hot pursuit, Angela heads back to New York to look up Max just one more time, never dreaming that he has traded his Gotham penthouse for an upstate New York cellblock.
Then there is Paula Segal, a midlist author who wants to write a breakthrough true-crime book about Max. His price: marry him. Paula, however, is not quite oriented that way, given that she has a major crush on… But I need to keep at least some surprises here, including the climax, which in some ways bears a very subtle, uncanny resemblance to a literary classic written by a gentleman named Boris Pasternak and is all the funnier for it.
You will want to read BUST and SLIDE before delving into THE MAX. My advice is to buy all three and then spend the rest of the year reading (or re-reading) Bruen’s and Starr’s backlist. It will be like sitting down with two friends who take turns telling enthralling, unforgettable stories all night long.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 6, 2011