Poughkeepsie Shuffle by Dietrich Kalteis
Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
Kalteis does it again—shoots us into the seedy side of criminal life with a raunchy cast of posers and thugs and one bold anti-hero. Fresh from the Don Jail, Jeff Nichols is an underdog who’s willing to do anything to impress his woman; after all, Ann did wait for him. But, Ann’s baby clock is ticking. She wants a clean, suburban life, a house with wallpaper, and a swing-set out back, and that ups the stakes for Jeff.
Vick DuMont, an acquaintance from the Don Jail, gets Jeff a job at Ted Bracey’s AutoPark. It’s selling on commission, but it’s something for a con. Still, that’s not good enough for Ann. Her baby clock is thumping. So, Jeff shows Ted what he’s willing to do for cash, and soon our boy is not just making money, he’s been given a Gran Fury off the lot, a new suit fitted by a tailor, and an invite to Ted’s home for dinner.
Set in mid-80s Toronto and peppered with references to pop culture, the novel takes us back to a different time—a time when a couple of dodgy cons could drive a vehicle packed with Uzis across the Canada-US border and get away with it. That’s the “Poughkeepsie shuffle”—at least until Jeff pulls a shuffle of his own.
The novel is cleverly-written in Kalteis’s signature clipped-to-the-quick phrases, with sentences that defy every grammar rule you were ever taught in school. Each scene is a short burst like the blast of automatic gunfire. The first scene, which features two thugs, a victim, and a pair of garden pruners, might leave you breathless, or at least, questioning whether you want to go on.
I had to read more. A master craftsman, Kalteis continues to deliver. For example, at Deli-cious, Jeff says: “The woman behind me was embalmed in eau-de-cheap, the scent twisting the taste of my corned beef, a two-inch pile of heartburn on rye” (92.) Kalteis knows how to rock our senses exponentially. Mixing viewpoints between our anti-hero’s first-person narration and third-person for all the lesser beings, Kalteis makes it clear who we should be rooting for.
Jeff is so desperate to please Ann, that he attempts to buy her a house, a fixer-upper. But when he insists on a clause in the offer that requires the vendor to fix the broken statue in the algaed fountain, things get dicey. Perhaps, Jeff needs the emasculated cherub’s part glued back on because he identifies with the poor mutilated creature, just like he feels for the heavyweight boxer George Chuvalo bested by Ali, whose poster he keeps above his desk.
On the surface, this novel reads like a shoot-em-up crime caper, but between the layers, like Jeff, this story has meaning. It’s a story of hope. Can a down-and-out underdog rise above the pack and find true happiness?
Poughkeepsie Shuffle is published by ECW Press.
Wendy Hawkin writes urban fantasy with a twist of murder. To Charm a Killer and To Sleep with Stones are the first two books in her Hollystone Mysteries series with Blue Haven Press. Watch for the launch of To Render a Raven this Halloween.