Read by Phil Gigante
Length: 6 Hrs 59 Min
Genre: Crime Fiction… well, sorta Crime Fiction
Quick Thoughts: Blackjack is over the top story telling that defies all of the expectations I have placed on the author. This novel is a game changer for Vachss. While he still brushing with many of the same strokes, he has totally reinvented his canvas. Brilliant and disturbing, Blackjack still lingers with me days after completing it.
What the crap? No… No… Really, what the crap? OK, deep breathe… Let me explain. I’m not good at building things. Hell, I can barely pull off children’s crafts and popsicle stick houses. Yet, sometimes I manage to build a beautiful box of expectations and place my favorite authors inside them. It’s true. I do that. But really, what the crap? Sometimes an author will tear apart my craftily built box, and break out in a way that I never expected. I first discovered Andrew Vachss like 10 years ago when I picked up a used copy of his novel Blossom. Now, strange thing, I didn’t remember much about Vachss or that novel. I have vague recollections of enjoying it, yet, I didn’t truly become a fan of his work until I started listening to his Burke series based solely on the fact that it was narrated by Phil Gigante and looked interesting. In fact, I didn’t realize that I had read one of his books before until I started listening to Blossom, and realized I had read this book, and dug it out of my vast paperback collection. So, now, I am truly a fan. At this point, I have listened to about half of The Burke series, and 4 of his standalones. So, with about 13 of his novels under my belt I had him pretty well pigeon holed as a stylish crime fiction writer, whose vivid characters and precise prose pushed right up against the established boundaries. Yet, what I never expected him to do was utterly shatter those boundaries. So, I was ready, in my comfortable shoes, to listen to another solid Andrew Vachss crime fiction tale with characters that are more anti than heroes. Then, suddenly… What the crap?
Blackjack is the start of a new series by Andrew Vachss, and like his popular Burke series it features a cast of characters that make a sort of strange family living among the outcasts of society. Cross’s crew are all broken in some way, a collection of outcasts living within their own existence. Those who join Cross’s crew are required to answer one question, “Do you hate them? Do you hate them all?” I went into my listening of Blackjack cold. I had no expectation except for what I know of Vachss as a writer. It seems Cross and his crew has appeared in some of Vachss’ short stories, but I really wasn’t even aware of that until researching it after the fact. Blackjack is a game changer for Andrew Vachss. He is still brushing with the same strokes, but has totally reinvented his canvass. This is over the top story telling even for Vachss. Blackjack reads more like three interconnected novellas, than one complete novel, and this keeps the reader totally unprepared for where the author is taking them. Again, Vachss explores the very nature of evil. When Cross is approached by a shadowy group to hunt down an almost mythological group of hunter killers, you feel you are on solid ground. Yet, that ground is utterly shaken by what Cross experiences when he goes undercover at a prison that the group believes these killers have invaded. Vachss explore evil in a way that is unprecedented in crime fiction, causing you to question the realities of the genre, because, quickly you begin to learn that this really isn’t crime fiction. This is something else. This is other. Vachss never lets you off the hook in Blackjack. There are no easy endings or pat answers. The characters aren’t forced into any life altering realizations about their existence. This is the truly unsettling thing about Blackjack, while everything you assumed when starting the novel has changed, nothing has really changed. Blackjack, I am sure, will be a very controversial novel in the author’s oeuvre. I imagine many longtime Vachss fans may hate it, wanting the author to stay within the carefully created box they created for him. I for one was mesmerized by the novel. It still lingers with me days after completing it.
Phil Gigante gives another wonderful performance in an Andrew Vachss novel, bringing the gritty setting and offbeat characters to vivid life. Blackjack has a purposefully underdevelopment of some characters that serves the narrative, yet, Gigante manages to pull the pieces of the characters together making them even more memorable than they would feel on print. Blackjack has many mood shifts, with Vachss often giving us a bird’s eye view of his characters from a surveillance perspective, then thrusting us into the midst of the urban jungle, getting close and intimate with the characters. Gigante handles these tricky transitions smoothly, portraying the moods and feel of each setting precisely, never letting it linger too long past a transition. His voices Cross with a strong, yet laid back authority that reeks of pretension, but also displays the defensive boundaries the character builds. I think what truly makes this audio work is that Gigante understands what Vachss is doing, where he’s taking the characters and the mood of the writing and is able to get that across to the listener. Gigante has a relationship with the text, and is able to bring that across in wonderful ways. Blackjack is a tough one for me. I enjoyed it as much as I was unsettled by it. It’s a reminder that one should never get too comfortable in the fictional worlds created by your favorite writers. I am looking forward to seeing the reactions of other fans of Vachss work, as well as those new to him. Expect some good, some bad, and probably just a touch of ugly.
Note: A special thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.