I love surprises, and THE OLD TURK’S LOAD is one of them. Gregory Gibson is the highly regarded if non-prolific author of three nonfiction works. At an age when most individuals would be not merely contemplating but actively engaged in retirement, Gibson has published an instantly memorable debut, a complex, occasionally darkly comic novel that exceeds its own promise on all levels.
The MacGuffin of the book is a shipment of heroin --- the “Old Turk’s Load” of the title --- that quickly goes astray within hours after initially being acquired by the minions of New Jersey crime boss Angelo DiNoto. The shipment quickly finds its way into the bands of Richard Mundi, an unscrupulous real estate mogul. Mundi’s company is all but tapped out due to a combination of a series of bad investments, ill luck and a fading economy. Mundi knows from nothing about selling heroin, but sees the equation of “drugs = money” as being simple and uncomplicated. Julius Roth, Mundi’s enforcer, is a dangerous man who does not let his conscience get in the way of what he has to do, yet is not above regret. He sees early on that Mundi, his childhood friend, has gotten to the point in life where his reach has exceeded his grasp, not only in the business sense but cognitively as well.
"At an age when most individuals would be not merely contemplating but actively engaged in retirement, Gibson has published an instantly memorable debut, a complex, occasionally darkly comic novel that exceeds its own promise on all levels."
However, Mundi’s problems are not limited to bad ideas and a fading real estate market. His daughter Gloria is an attractive disappointment, choosing to hang out with a group of wannabe revolutionaries run by her boyfriend, a well-known street revolutionary named Kevin Gallagher. Gloria becomes aware of the heroin in her father’s possession and makes the double-edged mistake of informing Kevin of it. This slip of the tongue sets a plan in motion to relieve Daddy Mundi of his stash, which would then be sold to finance terrorist activities. Meanwhile, Kevin, who is much more and less than he appears to be, has some additional plans that will make Mundi’s life even more miserable.
How can that be? Mundi, concerned about his daughter’s association with the low-life revolutionaries, hires a quietly weary private investigator by the name of “Walkaway Kelly” to see how deeply she is into the counterculture. Kelly’s primary tragicomic flaw --- a first among equals --- is that he doesn’t know when to stop. His investigation into Gloria’s carrying on inadvertently uncovers what he believes to be mysterious circumstances concerning the death of Mundi’s wife and Gloria’s mother several years previously. Kelly’s dogged determination to uncover the truth of her death leads him unwittingly into danger, and for all the wrong reasons. At the same time, DiNoto has become aware that Mundi has his heroin, and will do everything and anything to get it back.
And, of course, there is a wildcard in the form of “The Mailman,” a former mail carrier retired on medical disability due to throat cancer. The Mailman, a hopeless drug addict robbed of his voice by his illness, sees the acquisition of the missing heroin as his chance to make the one big and final score of his life. Using his knowledge about the ins and outs of the city where he worked and lived for years, he will spark a cataclysm that will bring down at least one empire.
Those initially wondering why Gibson selected 1967 as the time and New Jersey as his setting will quickly find their curiosity satisfied; events overtake the principals involved not once but twice during the course of the novel. The conclusion also leaves open the possibility of a return visit for at least a couple of the characters, though don’t try to guess which ones. Regardless, THE OLD TURK’S LOAD is an unexpected joy.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 17, 2013