- Review by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
I am a sucker for a heist novel. Whether it’s amateurs pushed to economic extremes, “Born To Lose” punks with thirty-eights, or precise pros, the story of someone taking something from someone else always draws me in, no matter how well I’ve gotten to know the scores. I was excited to find out that one of my favorite hard boiled authors, Josh Stallings, was comitting his own style of literary larceny with Young Americans.
Set in the mid-seventies, Young Americans stars ringleader Sam, a former small time thief, scraping by as a stripper in Northern California. When her questionable boyfriend disappears with forty grand of her boss’ money, she must pay him back with either her money or her life. To get the money, she returns to her Bay Area home and enlists her old crew, enthusiastic participants in the glitter rock scene of the time. The crew includes her kid brother, Jacob; Candy, a glam rock princess and Jacob’s love interest, and Valentina, an African American Vietnam vet and transexual. The mark is a disco on New Year’s Eve. As you can guess, things don’t go as planned.
It is how Stallings spins these tropes that makes them work. His glam rock San Fransico gives the story a unique back drop, showing a group of young people pushing the views of culture and sexuality in a time of transition. Stallings explores how the heist plays with and against his characters’ emotions. Sam struggles to keep Jacob as safe as possible, but needs him around for the score to work. As part of their plan, Candy sleeps with the frontman of the disco’s opening act, wreaking havoc with Jacob’s emotions.
The author’s ability to play out the comaraderie aspect of the heist novel is what truly makes the story involving. Stallings’ seventies setting allows us to think back to the tribes we belonged to in our past, no matter what era, before marriage, family, and obligations made friendship a less concentrated form. He captures those connections of young people who would do whatever they could to back the other, no matter how stupid. When Sam and her crew learn how deep they are in, the implications of these connections become much more harrowing and serious.
Young Americans is a oddly sucessful hybrid of Richard Stark and Cameron Crowe. You root for these crazy kids to get the money, avoid murder by the mob, escape the law, and keep the bond they share together for as long as they can. You may end the novel yearning to listen to something on 8-track.
You can find Young Americans on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.