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The Last Act


The Last Act

Speaking from personal experience, being an actor is not an easy profession. It is even more difficult to exclusively make a living from it. Only 3% of the SAG/Actors’ Equity Union can claim each year that their sole source of income was earned while acting in some capacity. It is these dour facts that lend themselves to the ingenious premise that Brad Parks has come up with for his latest novel, THE LAST ACT.

Tommy Jump has had some success as a stage actor and is near closing with a Broadway production of "Man of La Mancha," where the diminutive performer is cast as Sancho Panza. However, Tommy is a realist and recognizes that his showbiz career is in its last act. His long-time agent has passed away, and the agency he has worked for immediately dumps him because of his lack of promising revenue-generating jobs. He is ready to throw in the towel and get what he refers to as an “adult” job.

Everything changes, though, when Tommy is approached by an old friend --- and one-time fellow thespian --- Danny Ruiz, who has been working as an FBI agent. Danny and his partner, Rick Gilmartin, offer Tommy a six-month-long gig that could earn him upwards of $200,000. They want him for his acting skills, even though Tommy admits to never having much improv training. They intend to place him in deep cover as an inmate at a low-security federal prison, and the target to which they need him to get close is a disgraced former banker named Mitchell Dupree. Dupree is connected to El Vio, the leader of a deadly drug cartel that fills the void left by the detention of El Chapo. The Feds do not get everything they want from Dupree and need someone to befriend him to find out where additional paperwork and money may be stashed.

"THE LAST ACT is a fast read that sinks its hooks into you and doesn't let go. This is a testament to Parks’ writing and the ease with which he lulls readers into a false sense of security, only to pull the rug right out from under you."

Tommy literally jumps at the chance to make more money than he's ever earned before --- definitely more than the 30k annual salary an old acting chum offered him for a job assisting with his theater in Arkansas. There is an old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This is the bear trap that Tommy is about to step into, and life in the federal penitentiary, along with potential exposure to the homicidal madman El Vio, is far more than he bargained for when he agreed to this assignment. Making matters even stickier for Tommy is the reaction of his wife, Amanda, who, though reluctantly agreeing that this opportunity is too good to pass up, confesses that she is pregnant with their first child.

Of course, life behind bars, even in a federal/white-collar crime capacity, is something Tommy has never experienced. The feeling of claustrophobia and loneliness is so powerful it can overwhelm you. Parks indicated in an article he wrote, “8 Great Books Set in Prisons,” that he got a taste of this when doing research for a novel in the early 2000s by visiting Rahway Prison in New Jersey. He went on to mention that the moment Tommy enters the Federal Corrections Institute in Morgantown, West Virginia --- the real-life facility he uses as a setting in THE LAST ACT --- the stakes palpably increase, just like his blood pressure once did.

Tommy is such an engaging character that it is easy to lose sight of the danger taking place outside the prison. The cartel that Dupree is working for, New Colima, strikes fear in the hearts of all those with whom they come in contact. In fact, El Vio has made his reputation by killing anyone he no longer needs or trusts. Early in the novel, he takes out his right-hand man with a knife to the eye done in such a flippant manner that he may as well have been putting out a cigarette. He then turns to another member of his crew, Herrera, and tells him he has just been promoted. Herrera is tasked with locating the same information the FBI needs from Dupree. The question is: Who will get there first, or at all?

If Tommy feels out of sorts behind bars, just imagine how much worse things could be if he ever gets on the radar of El Vio and New Colima. Anyone who watches the terrific Netflix series "Ozark" will recognize that just because a drug cartel may be in Mexico does not imply that they will not go wherever they need to be in order to protect their interests --- or erase someone who they view as a threat. As Tommy eventually makes contact with Dupree, he gets closer to him bit by bit and actually likes him. However, nothing is what it appears to be in Morgantown Prison, and Tommy's acting career may indeed be in its last act in more ways than one.

I must admit that I was a little late to the game with Brad Parks. I had read one of his novels some years ago as an advance copy I received in exchange for an honest review. Then, last year, I went to a book reading and signing with Brad Meltzer and was pleasantly surprised to find Parks there. I found him to be completely engaging with a sharp wit and dynamic sense of humor. Afterwards, I sought out some of his prior work and was quite impressed with all that I read. It is easy to see how he has won a handful of literary awards and garnered even more nominations during his writing career.

THE LAST ACT is a fast read that sinks its hooks into you and doesn't let go. This is a testament to Parks’ writing and the ease with which he lulls readers into a false sense of security, only to pull the rug right out from under you. It is a terrific stand-alone novel that presents an opportunity for those unfamiliar with Parks to dive into his writing style and tight plotting. Hopefully, like it did for me, the experience of reading and enjoying one of his books will lead others to seek out his backlist and develop a greater appreciation for his talents.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 15, 2019

The Last Act
by Brad Parks

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Mass Market Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton
  • ISBN-10: 1524746517
  • ISBN-13: 9781524746513