Ballantine Books/Random House
US Hardcover First
240 Pages; $21.95
Publication Date: May 2004
Date Reviewed: July 16, 2004
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004
All the hype on the dust jacket of Huston's debut novel, 'Caught Stealing' promises a neo-noir scorcher full of high-voltage action and non-stop brutality. It's so annoying when they undersell a book like that! 'Caught Stealing' is probably best described as a speeding bullet that zips through nasty noir space, right through Tarantino territory, and into a world of hyper-ultra-mega plus-some violent action; a novelized screenplay that packs enough brutality and hard-boiled action between its covers to make Jerry Bruckenheimer drool. It's all about a twenty-something, probably Hollywood-hunky guy with sore feet and only one kidney who tends bar in New York and innocently agrees to take care of his neighbor's cat Bud. (As in Budweiser.)
Hank, the protagonist-cum-punching bag, lost his budding baseball career to a broken leg while stealing third base. He lost his childhood best friend in an auto accident while he was driving. He's a California boy who now finds himself slacking around Manhattan, watching baseball (loves the Giants, hates the Dodgers), drinking (loves all alcohol, hates none), tending bar, and having nightmares. He's a good boy who has lost his direction. He loses his innocence and whatever good sense he may have left, cat sitting.
For along with the cat, the litter and the cat carrier comes an envelope containing a key - the key to trouble -- squared. The key, it turns out, opens a storage locker that contains four and a half million dollars, money that most every bad guy in New York wants a piece of.
The plot is the classic everyone-is-after-me-and-I-don't-know-why. Among those after Hank and the key are Samoans, Chinese, Texans, a nasty crooked cop and Russian mobsters. (What's this with the Russian mobsters? They're turning up everywhere these days as the neo-Mafia bad guys, always viscous, brutal and usually wearing Cossack hats. Kind of makes you nostalgic for the old-fashioned Cosa Nostra with their family values and good pasta.) The pursuers have revolvers, shotguns, machine guns, brass knuckles, viscous fists and feet - all the tools of their trade. And they use them with abandon on Hank, Hank's friends, Hank, his girlfriend, Hank, his neighbor, and on Hank, again. And again. This isn't so much a body count book, although the dead number many, it's a bodily abuse book and Hank's the all-too-frequent victim. While everyone around him is simply killed, Hank is endlessly tortured and beaten but never finished off because, of course, he has The Key.
Midst all the brutal beatings, told in graphic first person detail by Hank, there is a meandering and complicated narrative thread that ties this multinational group of thugs together. The thread is so convoluted and confusing as to be essentially incomprehensible. Fortunately, it's also irrelevant. This is an action movie on paper and all you need to understand is that there is one good guy, one good cat and everyone else exists simply to administer pain and wreak havoc, all of which they do exceptionally well. The action is top-rate, the pace is breathless, and the pain is excruciating. Those who are squeamish about torture - to humans and to animals - may well find this book more than they care to tolerate. The human torture starts on page 2 and never ends; the cat torture starts on page 52. You can skip that part.
Huston writes action inventively well. There is an exceptional chase sequence in the New York subways that screams for the big screen and any number of only in New York moments that mandate location filming. Baseball scenes and play-by-play descriptions add sports appeal while the warm-and-fuzzy, humanizing element is provided by the feline Bud. Hank, initially but a bewildered patsy, slowly develops a human dimension, slowly figures out what he needs to do to survive this living nightmare, and ultimately dives in the game with savage abandon to play nastier and more heartlessly than his fellow competitors. This good boy finally goes bad.
If you're looking for social commentary, perceptive characterization or even clever plotting, bring it from home. If you're looking for non-stop action, ultra violence and unleavened ferocity, 'Caught Stealing' is the book for you. You'll finish it feeling a bit like a James Bond martini. Shaken, not stirred.