Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wallace Stroby's "The Heartbreak Lounge"

Wallace Stroby is an award-winning journalist and the author of the novels The Heartbreak Lounge and The Barbed-Wire Kiss.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the former and reported the following:
Page 99 falls at an odd – but fitting – juncture in The Heartbreak Lounge. It bridges two scenes involving Johnny Harrow, a career criminal and borderline sociopath who’s just been released from prison in Florida and made his way home to New Jersey. In the first scene, Johnny is reunited with his natural – albeit deeply dysfunctional – family, including pedophile stepfather and small-time-crook brother. And though I wasn’t conscious of it, I guess it was the first glimpse I was giving into Johnny’s past, as opposed to presenting him as the vengeful force of nature he is at the beginning of the book. During a tense sitdown in the kitchen of the brother’s trailer, the stepfather is trying to make nice with Johnny – who, after all, has grown up to be a dangerous guy – but Johnny isn’t having any of it. He gives the old man some money and tells him not to come back – or else. In the next scene, in an office above a North Jersey porn store, Johnny is reunited with his other father figure, a wannabe crime boss named Joey Alea who sent Johnny on the errand that landed him in prison. Alea and his lieutenants – who have moved up in Johnny’s absence – are Johnny’s other family. “It’s good to be back,” Johnny says when he meets Alea for the first time in eight years. He means it too, but not in a way that will do anybody any good. This prodigal son has major scores to settle.

In retrospect, I think some of the inspiration for these scenes came from James Gray’s great-but-little-seen 1994 film Little Odessa, in which a hitman for the Russian mob (played by Tim Roth) comes back to Brooklyn to visit his troubled family and dying mother after years on the lam. Gray’s movie is very nuanced and character-driven; there are no big gestures, blazing shootouts or operatic violence. Roth’s hitman has come home to try to make sense of the two worlds that shaped him, and finds they’re equally poisonous – and that he’s become the deadliest poison-bearer of all. So if you’re out there James Gray, thanks for that. Even if it is a couple years too late.
Learn more about the author and his novels at the official Wallace Stroby website and The Heartbreak Blog.

--Marshal Zeringue