Jonathan Ashley crams a lot into The Cost of Doing Business, from ghetto shootouts with Tec-9s to sociological laments about middle class norms. It’s got elements of the tough-talking hood narrative, and the book is entertaining in places, but ultimately much of the action is muddled by drawn out sentences and the narrator’s distracted observations.
What Ashley does well is provide an inside look at the criminal underworld between Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. We get everything from the street-level hood to the big drug capo, from the accidental user-turned-dealer to the strung-out junkie, from the dirty shakedown patrolman to the PD Captain who takes orders from crime bosses rather than the chief of police.
He casts much of his tale on the border between urban decay and seedy gentrification. His part of Louisville is “The best of New York City Bohemia packed into a two mile strip… the tattoo parlors, the coffee shops, and record stores… ethnic joints and five star restaurants…” All this set beside the “Undesirable neighborhoods… where black and white children in hand-me-down underclothes block the middle of the street playing with hula hoops and deflated soccer balls, avoiding whatever horrors their parents perpetuate in the shotgun shacks on either side of the blacktop.”
In this environment narrator Jon Catlett and his manager-cum-buddy Paul pass the time selling used books and hosting yuppies to live music. Here he sets the opening scene, an accidental homicide that sends Catlett’s world crashing down around him. In the process of his unlikely journey from bookstore businessman to murderous dope dealer, Catlett earns no sympathy as a narrator. He’s judgmental, and never really gives the reader a reason to sympathize with his downward spiral. His main flaw, aside from addiction, is the cadence of his delivery:
Her abstinence had both saved and strained our relationship as she’d threaten to leave or even cut off contact completely for whole weeks whenever she suspected me of using, a suspicion well founded since I ceased opiate dependence since we’d started seeing each other around the time she came home from rehab.
The 52-word sentence, like so many others in its company, holds out a beat too long. More problematic, the style tears the narrative from its focus. In what should be a quick and dirty scene that sets the tone for an escalation of violence, we get instead Catlett’s thoughts on naming conventions and the history of parenting styles: “Her name was Tiffany or Brittany or one of those awful valley girl designations born into popularity during the 1980s when parents began becoming their kid’s best friends rather than, as had been practiced in most cultures throughout history, examples of humanity.” Sure, these names bring up the gag reflex in me, and lousy parenting should be publicly shamed. But these particular views are unrelated to the bloody confrontation that’s about to unfold.
Speaking of which, Catlett’s opening climactic moment, which needs to shock us and draw us in, leaves us instead to wonder how seriously the narrator takes any of his own story:
I… flung the dictionary like one of those Olympic discs… I actually giggled as the hardback left my hands, imagining me in short shorts and an undershirt… I threw the book at him, so to speak, but my smile disappeared as I helplessly watched what followed. The book… hit the demented drug addict in his forearm, forcing his hand back toward his neck, the broken bottle lodge in in his windpipe.
A grim death indeed. But a narrator who can’t name the discus and who giggles mid-homicide isn’t very convincing.
It’s not to say that all of Ashley’s writing is tone deaf, and he’s pretty good with irony—“Look, Paul. He’s going to be dead a long time so I’d get used to it if I were you”. The story is well conceived, successfully digging into both sides of crime—the cops and the criminals. And his street-level hoods talk the part. But many of the sentences in The Cost of Doing Business could be improved by firing them up in a coke spoon and boiling them down to their purest form.
The Cost of Doing Business
By Jonathan Ashley
280 Steps, November 2014