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‘Cemetery Road’ by Gar Anthony Haywood

Gar Anthony Haywood’s new novel, “Cemetery Road,” his first in a decade, opens in the winter of 1979, with three young men -- Errol “Handy” White, the story’s narrator, and his trusted homeboys R.J. Burrow and O’Neal Holden (usually known simply as O) -- gathering together to burn $140,000 in a steel barbecue drum. Handy lights a match, tossing “the yellow flame into the grill before regret had any chance to take over the room,” and the three accomplices watch all that dough go up in smoke. Why they do it remains, at this stage, a mystery, although the reader already senses that regret and guilt will indeed be the subjects here.

The action then leaps forward almost to the present day, bringing Handy back to L.A. for the first time in more than 25 years. All this time, he’s been living a quiet life in St. Paul, Minn., whence he fled after burning the cash. But now his friend R.J. is dead, murdered, having been shot four times and left to rot in the trunk of a stolen car. “How a man leaves this world, much like the way he comes into it, is almost never his own call to make,” Handy says, “so evil men die on satin sheets in 400-dollar-a-night hotel rooms, while good ones breathe their last lying face down in cold, dark alleyways, their bodies growing stiff and blue on beds of rain-soaked newspaper.” Handy knows that “death devoid of indignity” is something each of us can only hope for, and not expect.

At the funeral, Handy sees R.J.'s widow and daughter. He encounters his buddy O, now a local mayor, a power in the politics of Los Angeles County, and blurts out his fear that R.J.'s death is somehow connected with what happened all those years ago. Handy, scared, flees back to St. Paul, but he can’t jam the lid on his stirred-up feelings and inevitably finds himself drawn to L.A. yet once more. He’s no private eye, but he decides anyway to dig into the mess of R.J.'s violent demise. He’s known as “Handy,” after all, because he’s good at fixing up broken stuff. Nonetheless, he thinks: “It’s not an easy thing to do well. Separating those things that can and should be saved from those that are not worth the trouble requires a keen eye and years of experience. Sometimes I make mistakes.”

That’s the setup, and it’s both classic and elegant. Thereafter “Cemetery Road” weaves together the threads of Handy’s detective work with the piece-by-piece revelation of what actually did go down in 1979 when the three young friends, petty thieves, hatched a plan to jack a local drug dealer, an elaborately worked scheme that went torturously and tragically wrong.

Handy gets to know his native city all over again. “Neighborhoods that had once been all white or all black were now diluted or overwhelmed by Asians or Hispanics of one geographic origin or another: Koreans and Vietnamese, Guatemalans and Salvadorans. Mexican-Americans in particular seemed to have made inroads everywhere,” he reflects. That seems flat, both in the observation and the writing, and “Cemetery Road” isn’t too interested in evoking the smells and atmospheres of the city where its action takes place.

Rather, the novel dwells on Handy’s fear that he might be the next to die and his determination to fix himself before that happens. Guilt acts on individual characters differently, but the idea of the past’s inescapable sad legacy lingers on almost every page, giving “Cemetery Road” a powerful, elegiac undercurrent. “It is the story of a man who once took a girl who did not belong to him to a dance party and, in so doing, brought a world of hurt to a great number of people, not least of all himself,” says Handy, intent on tracing both the mayhem and his self-reproach back to an original cause that seemed, at the time, so harmless.

The violence in “Cemetery Road,” when Handy relives it in the past and when it occurs in the present frame, is shocking and human. “I came up on my hands and knees, dog-like, staring down at the carpet I was staining forever with blotches of dark red,” says Handy. The haunting phrase “staining forever” speaks both to the physical fact of bloodletting and the ideas from which this terrific little novel draws its inspiration and power. There are so-so sex scenes, and the identity of the heavy is pretty much guessable from the start. But then the bad guy turns out to be not so bad after all, for Haywood writes about people who have enough sensitivity to be hurt, and enough complexity to do wrong and have to live with the consequences. In this, his writing recalls, not so much Walter Mosley or Michael Connelly or Raymond Chandler, but Ross Macdonald, whose theme was ghosts, and the dizzying effect they have on the present.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming-of-Age.”


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