The White Van
THE WHITE VAN, Patrick Hoffman’s remarkable and unsettling debut novel, is one of the best noir books of the year thus far. Its primary setting --- the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s very dark and dangerous underbelly --- is perfect for the subject matter. Hoffman lived in San Francisco for nine years and worked as a private investigator; one cannot help but feel that at least some (if not all) of the events that take place here actually occurred. If they didn’t, they certainly could have.
The narrative tracks primarily back and forth between two individuals who are quite different in some ways but very much alike in others. Emily Rosario is a resident of the Tenderloin, living in a flop hotel that is one rung above the street with an abusive boyfriend and a drug habit that is sucking what little is left out of her soul. During a night of drinking in a dive bar, she permits herself to be picked up by a stranger, a fairly well-dressed man with a foreign accent who is a fish out of water in more ways than one. He has a lot to offer, though: money, a seemingly endless supply of drugs (including those she wants and otherwise) and a proposition. The proposition has nothing to do with sex; it is presented to her as “identity theft” but involves robbing a bank. There is a bit more involved than that, and given that no plan of battle survives first contact with the enemy, things don’t go precisely as intended.
"Hoffman is a marvel at keeping the reader guessing and wondering as to what is --- and isn’t --- going to happen next. He also infuses each page with a cinematic narrative; one could practically film the book page by page and enjoy every minute of it."
When the dust settles and the smoke clears, Emily is on the run, holding two bags stuffed with more money than she ever could hope to earn in her life and a crew of Russians who are after her. The Russians aren’t the only ones in pursuit, though. The other individual followed by the narrative is a downtrodden cop named Leo Elias, who sees a desperate opportunity in the aftermath of the bank robbery. Elias is an alcoholic who is barely capable of putting one foot in front of the other. His house is in foreclosure, and there is hardly an area of his professional and personal lives that is not under siege. Money would fix everything, and he figures that if he can get to the robber (Emily) and the money before anyone else does, he can solve all of his current problems and keep other ones from occurring.
For all of his problems, Elias is an excellent if twisted investigator and is able to follow a trail that would be all but invisible to everyone else. As one almost might expect, he drags a lot of people into his mess --- most notably, his partner, Trammell --- and what seemed like a desperate but relatively easy way out is anything but. As Elias and Emily leave a trail of violence in their respective wakes, it is only a matter of time before their paths and interests intersect; chances are, neither will emerge from the encounter intact.
One might initially find the manner in which Emily becomes involved in the bank robbery somewhat far-fetched. My advice --- without giving anything away --- is to keep reading. Hoffman is a marvel at keeping the reader guessing and wondering as to what is --- and isn’t --- going to happen next. He also infuses each page with a cinematic narrative; one could practically film the book page by page and enjoy every minute of it. And while it is complete in itself, with a definite resolution of all issues, Hoffman leaves himself enough wiggle room at the conclusion for a sequel. Believe me, if you read THE WHITE VAN, you will want more of the same.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 3, 2014