You’re sitting at an intersection and you see two semi-trailers approaching each other in the cross street, exhausts pouring smoke as they push the odometers to the limit. A fiery collision is imminent. There’s no room to swerve. You cringe and want to avert your eyes, but morbid curiosity wins as you sit and wait for the carnage, wondering if it will be possible for any living soul to survive the catastrophe unfolding before you.
That is Gravesend, William Boyle’s first novel.
Boyle has taken some of Brooklyn’s darkest, most forlorn individuals, shaken them together like dice in a Yahtzee cup, dumped them out on the page, and lets us watch the ugly events build to a bloody climax.
Ray Boy Calabrese has just been released from a hefty sixteen-year stint in prison, due to his provocation of a hate-crime resulting in the death of a teenage homosexual. He’s returned home, downcast and reticent, yet, oddly, not quite clamoring for forgiveness.
Enter the victim’s younger brother, Conway, an underachieving drug-store employee who wants vengeance when he hears Ray Boy is back in town. Their confrontation within the first pages of the novel hints to the twists and turns of the narrative. Armed and full of hate, Conway shows up at Ray Boy’s home, but falters at the crucial moment.
Conway is shocked and confused as to Ray Boy’s complete change of character, from cocky outcast leader to docile ex-con. His relations with his widowed father and co-workers, already tenuous, degrade quickly while Conway struggles to justify another attempt to kill Ray Boy. Conway’s self-loathing and doubt, fueled by the long-kindling anger, sends him on a downward spiral that simple revenge will not quench.
The supporting cast that Boyle’s included not only superbly complements the main characters, but also adds depth to the tightly woven subplots.
We meet Alessandra, a shallow, failed actress returned from L.A. for her mother’s funeral. She reluctantly picks up where she left off years earlier, looking up classmates and frequenting the same dives. Alessandra soon discovers that while the bleak landscape hasn’t changed, the players have. She’s intrigued by Ray Boy’s radical change in personality and is on the receiving end of unwanted advances by Conway. Her own decisions concerning a spontaneous relationship with a bartender and a possible movie deal causes her path to intersect with the others at the explosive conclusion.
Ray Boy’s nephew, Eugene, is a troubled young criminal in the making who idolizes his legendary uncle. He’s the typical high school punk—no respect for authority with a knack for being suspended and is looked down on by adults. The boy, confused as to Ray Boy’s total change of character, embarks on a reckless adventure to prove his worth to the uncle he barely knows. He concocts a scheme to rob a local crime boss, confident that Ray Boy will not only support the plan, but will act as mentor to the upcoming criminal prodigy.
Boyle’s novel was one of the first five offerings of J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books. The first run featured well knowns such as Stephen Graham Jones (The Least of my Scars, The Gospel of Z) and Jedediah Ayres (Peckerwood, A F*ckload of Shorts). William Boyle has performed admirably with this cast, where others may have been relegated to second bests.
Why pick up this noir thriller amongst discount bins piled with imitators?
Boyle’s meticulous portrayal of the grim, seedy, Brooklyn neighborhoods adds authenticity and is the final ingredient in making this story a beautiful mess. He’s walked these same streets and built the story’s cityscape as a character in of itself.
Gravesend will keep you flipping pages—I didn’t predict any of the plot developments as I devoured this novel over two days. Just be ready for the carnage when the dust settles.
Most importantly, I think Boyle has debunked a popular myth that’s fed the clichéd storylines of countless predecessors: Revenge isn’t a dish best served cold. It’s a course that should probably be skipped altogether. Every single character in Gravesend would tell you that it doesn’t go down well. At all.
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