Reading Preston Lang’s The Blind Rooster (Crime Wave Press) feels a lot like people-watching at the Laundromat. The major figures resemble coin-op types, people resigned to the vague indignity of paying to have their underwear tumble around in a public washer. And don’t take your eyes off them for a moment—they’d just as soon pinch a quarter from your pocket as take your favorite pair of jeans from a hot dryer.
What strikes me most in Lang’s work is the casualness of his narrative voice. His debut The Carrier (280 Steps), which came out earlier this year, had a similar understated tenor. It’s a manner of delivery that allows him to present the utterly random alongside the marginally droll alongside the plainly silly alongside the brazenly vile, all without ever changing pitch. There’s no shrill emotion or overbearing melodrama or manic activity. His narrative moves fluidly from one moment to the next, and between the minds of his six principle protagonists, each of them vying for first place as the least remarkable person in all of crime fiction.
The story begins and tracks most closely with your run-of-the-mill con man, Ralph. His physique’s not so much it’ll draw unwanted attention, but not so little he can’t knock you one blow between the eyes and lay you out cold. He’s no Romeo, but he’s got good abs and a thing for older women, which probably makes it easier to get laid than if he was out chasing college chicks. Serves him well at The Cat Scratch, anyway, the no-tell motel on the outskirts of town where he makes time with his partner-in-crime’s mom.
It’s early winter in Presser, Pennsylvania, when Ralph gets kicked off a bus, no money for the fare. It’s cold outside, but pretty quickly Ralph finds warmth in a diner waitress named Arlene, a college dropout who falls for Ralph as much for his charm as for his skill at petty crime. What kind of charm? Here’s how he orders his beets:
“You have sides? I’d like fries and beets.” “No beets today.” “That’s a disappointment. Beets are good for athletes, gamblers, and pregnant women.” “Why are they good for gamblers?” “Keeps your pupils small. No matter what cards you’re dealt, the folic acid stops the pupils from dilating.” “I’m pretty sure you’re just making things up.” “How about creamed corn? Do you have that?” “We have that.”
As for his petty crimes, Ralph can’t even get out of Chapter One without committing a dine-and-dash from the Fern Diner, stealing an orange sweatshirt off a snowman, and gate-crashing a movie at the Cineplex. And when he decides to make it a double feature, Ralph again runs into Arlene, the poor waitress he just stiffed for a turkey sandwich and creamed corn dinner. To make up for his caddish behavior, he invites Arlene to sit through a rom-com with him, stealing a tub of movie popcorn just for her.
Arlene sees utility to Ralph’s criminal nature and brings him into her plot: pinch a sheet of rare stamps from her stepfather’s former best friend. Enter the four other denizens of the Presser PA Coin-op Laundromat: Arlene’s mother Gracie, barely a high note away from megastardom, as anyone who’s seen her perform at the eponymous Blind Rooster karaoke bar can attest; Arlene’s church-going, golf-towel-salesman stepfather Mitch, who’s sweet on teen boys and films himself to prove it; Dugan, Mitch’s former best friend—the rumored philatelist who’s been blackmailing Mitch over his x-rated pastime; and Vivian, Dugan’s innocent daughter through whom Arlene angles to get at the stamps.
That’s it. A cast full of back-stories to provide a ready-made plot. No way The Blind Rooster stays on course as the straight caper it set out to be. No, this fast, light crime tale about middling crooks and accidental victims soon leads to unexpected darkness and unanswered mysteries. Mysteries like, how did Mitch’s loverboy, the teen in Dugan’s blackmail video, really fall into a pool and drown? What was Arlene’s role in his death, if any? And what comfort did the boy’s parents find knowing that while the pool owners were too meek to swim in his death waters, they had no problem whatsoever playing tennis on his grave?
The absurdity of movie popcorn theft juxtaposed with darker questions like sexual perversion and untimely death… It’s this, the casual marriage of dark and light, that makes The Blind Rooster so interesting. Far more coherent and better streamlined than his humorous debut, Lang’s second release suggests a writer on the make in the world of crime fiction, a man who tells stories that entertain without moralizing, even as they tread the blackest, least glamorous depths of criminal despair. Good reading, whether you’re riding uptown on the train or waiting out the spin cycle at your local coin-op Laundromat.
The Blind Rooster
By Preston Lang
Crime Wave Press, November 2014