Review: A hypnotic debut tells tales from the D.A.'s office
On the Shelf
By Brian Selfon
MCD: 320 pages, $27
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While strict adherence to the adage “Write what you know” would render most genres of fiction extinct — How many of us have actually murdered someone? Been a shape-shifter? — all first-rate writing contains hearty kernels of emotional truth. Toni Morrison did not have to kill her own child to write of its consequences in “Beloved,” nor did Ursula K. Le Guin have to be nonbinary or a space traveler to write “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
So while Brian Selfon’s 20 years of experience in criminal justice — including a stint as the chief investigative analyst for the Brooklyn D.A.’s office — means he must know more than a little about money laundering and murder, his hypnotic debut novel, “The Nightworkers,” unearths not just the gritty mechanics of organized crime but the collateral damage it inflicts on perpetrators and victims alike, damage that outlasts the acts for as long as a lifetime.
The novel’s big, beating heart is amateur actor and Brooklynite Shecky Keenan, along with his “glued together” biracial family — nephew Henry Vek and niece Kerasha Brown. For a man who’d spent his childhood passed around among three vicious uncles, his beloved sister Dannie long dead, the rhythms of family are vitally important. Uncle Shecky takes in Henry as a frightened 10-year-old orphan and teaches him the family business: adjustable-interest loans, LLCs, PACs and nonprofits. Or at least that’s the yarn Henry spins for Emil Scott, a young artist he meets at an art opening in Bushwick, “the latest neighborhood in Brooklyn to burst with creatives and almosts.”
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Emil is 90% artist — hustling to get his art installed in coffee shops and bars — and 10% criminal; at the art party, he’s trying to sell heroin. Henry, leaner and meaner, is 10% artist — constantly drawing in the basement of Uncle Shecky’s house — and 90% criminal. He isn’t afraid to use his fists to keep his adversaries in line. Ever on the lookout for new talent, Henry immediately recruits Emil for the part of the family business he doesn’t initially come clean about, which will have tragic consequences for Emil. (There is also a deeper, unspoken attraction between the two: “They’re straight-ish for 2014,” Selfon writes.)
Henry’s family business isn’t even straight-ish. He manages the mules in Shecky’s money laundering enterprise, runners who fish bags of money out of Dumpsters, exchange them for money orders that wend their way through myriad shell accounts. While Henry handles the runners, Uncle Shecky maintains the ledger for phony bank accounts and other financial vehicles — sometimes on behalf of mom-and-pop store owners too strapped to spare anything for the IRS, but just as often for clients who commit far worse crimes than tax evasion.
Yet there’s more brewing in Bushwick than Uncle Shecky’s delicious coffee and the fancy single-origin beans in shiny new hipster cafes. The wire transfers he’s been making to some of his banks are being declined, other accounts closed pending investigation. Then there’s an Impala, and then a Mustang, parked outside the family home, suspicious vehicles Kerasha makes for cops.
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Uncle Shecky says early on that Kerasha is the only dark-skinned member of their little crime family. Raising Kerasha’s race without addressing its significance makes her an interesting yet opaque character. There are other signifiers of her identity: daughter of a doomed liaison between a Black college professor and his white, wannabe-poet student, who becomes addicted to heroin after complications from Kerasha’s birth. She has poetic yearnings tied up with her trauma — when high, Mom would riff snippets of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes to her. It’s funny and oddly poignant when Kerasha performs contrition for her parole officer while running lines to herself from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.”
Through numerous flashbacks, Selfon makes it clear that life for Kerasha ain’t been no crystal stair, to quote a Hughes poem her mother often referenced. Paroled at 23 and in therapy, Kerasha now cases the cops for Uncle Shecky; she sidelines one by stealing his badge and weapon. She stalks, then breaks into her therapist’s office. Just as Henry smothers his sensitivity in bravado, Kerasha’s crimes drown out her sense of self. “A noiseless patient spider,” Uncle Walt whispers to her night and day. “Launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,” Selfon writes. “If poetry is music, this is her theme song.” Complex Kerasha deserves her own orchestral composition, and this melody of tropes, while beautiful, rings slightly hollow.
When Emil disappears along with $250,000 in a drug dealer’s cash, the web that holds Kerasha and her fragile family together threatens to break. In revisiting Emil’s early-in-the-book murder — and those that follow — from different perspectives, Selfon elegantly and eloquently unspools the entire chain of cause and effect. We come to know intimately a wide cast of characters — dealers and users, cops crooked and straight, survivors of human trafficking and their tormentors. As in a painter’s pentimento, they peep though the present narrative, subtly revealing the author’s awareness of the world’s cruel ironies.
Selfon’s ability to give each character his or her own perspective, desires and demons makes “The Nightworkers” a resonant work of fiction, one that rises above its crimes to tell bigger truths about family, love and hope.
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Woods is a book critic, editor of anthologies and author of the Detective Charlotte Justice police procedurals.
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