When we meet Rowan Petty, the protagonist of Richard Lange’s new novel, “The Smack,” he’s alone in a second-rate Reno hotel room on Thanksgiving Day, making phone calls to a list of hopeful investors in a fictitious mother lode of Peruvian ore. Petty is an experienced con man — he’s been on his own since he was 15, jumping from scheme to scheme — but he’s had a rough run of it. He’s been flopping at a series of cheap hotels since the bank foreclosed on his condo in Phoenix, and is now doing the grunt work of a phone scam for his former protégé, a ruthless con who feels no particular loyalty for the man who once took him under his wing.
All this weighs pretty heavily on Petty, who worries that his bad luck is not just a slump, but an irreversible trend toward desperation. “He’d recently turned forty, and this fact caromed inside his head when he stared at the cigarette burn on his room’s garish polyester bedspread, ate a dollar hot dog for dinner, washed his underwear in the sink, and got hung up on by widows from Des Moines.”
When an old family friend invites him in on a scheme to rip off a huge stash of stolen Army money siphoned out of Afghanistan, he can’t get away from it despite some serious misgivings — among them that his friend is washed up, the intel is sketchy, and Petty doesn’t stick people up for a living. “Two million dollars. The kind of score Petty had always dreamed about. Abracadabra, and all his problems solved in an instant and forever.”
In his last days in Reno, Petty meets a prostitute who goes by Tinafey—“‘Like that white lady on TV, but all one word,’ she said” — who’s also looking to get out of town. The two hit it off and head to Los Angeles, where Petty goes looking for the rumored cash jackpot. His estranged 21-year-old daughter, Sam, also lives in L.A., and he takes the opportunity to reach out to her for the first time in seven years.
As it turns out, $2 million don’t steal easy, and Petty ends up in a world of trouble when things deviate from his optimistic, half-baked plan. While he tangles with a young wounded veteran holding the cash in L.A., the mastermind behind the original theft is on his way to claim his booty, and he’s ready to kill all challengers.
Crime fiction is a staple of L.A. literature, which is full of crooks and hustlers, fast-talking wise guys who are tough to seduce and even tougher to deceive. Petty is persistent and reasonably smart, but he’s an entirely different kind of creature, fumbling and ordinary, and this makes him refreshingly realistic even as the plot zooms forward with big twists and the customary thriller propulsion.
When he and Tinafey get to L.A., they hunker down in a Hollywood hotel and buy dinner and T-shirts at the Hard Rock Café, just a couple of unselfconscious tourists. Still, we’re so used to smooth operators that it comes as a surprise when Petty gets hustled into paying a minor celebrity’s bar tab at Musso & Frank. Petty gets played a few times, and for more than a few martinis. He makes the kinds of mistakes that get secondary characters killed in other crime novels.
Thankfully, falling for the prostitute is not one of his mistakes. Tinafey is a kind, engaging character, a decisive departure from the trope of the sexual and therefore evil femme fatale, and their romance gives this hard-boiled novel a measure of earnest sweetness. Something happens when he opens up to Tinafey: “A key turned, a door opened, and he found himself standing somewhere he’d never been before — him, a man who thought he’d been everywhere.”
He also reconnects with Sam, with Tinafey’s urging and support, and his precarious relationship with his daughter drives both the plot and the emotional journey of the novel.
None of this hokey because Lange is an expert writer, his prose exact, his narrative tightly controlled. Even his occasional excesses — there’s some heavy coincidence with Sam’s story line — are well-managed and easily justified.
Petty may be a world-weary 40-year-old con man, but his character brings a fresh point of view to the world of noir L.A. Whatever he’s selling, it’s worth buying.
Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel “Dead Soon Enough.”
Mulholland Books: 368 pp., $26