Death Lit: The Torch is Passed, Kakonis to Levison

You have to poke around some on this site to find it, but if you do there’s an enthusiastic endorsement for the crime novels of Tom Kakonis. And I guess some people may surf right in to that page, because Kakonis’s name always appears in the top 25 search terms that bring people out of nowhere and onto These Mean Streets.

So I wasn’t surprised to get a note from Joseph Hirsch, telling me he’s found a worthy successor to the type of books Kakonis turned out, knowing I’d like to know. If that’s the case, said I, feel free to step in with a Guest Blog and Tell the People.

I figured Joseph’s judgment was pretty good, since he added, “Allow me to express my gratitude for the great Willeford bio, and the tip on Floyd Salas. The books you’ve hipped me to have stayed with me for decades. Those extras at the end of your bio of Willeford, where the conversations are laid back, the musings about Robert E. Howard, Charles Bukowski, etc. really made my day. Even though I am a Buk fan I laughed when Willeford mocked him.”

In a subsequent email, Joseph wrote, “Through an amazing coincidence, my mother who teaches at a technical school in South Carolina had a friend in the Department who was good friends with Willeford during his Miami-Dade period. He invited me to his house and let me borrow signed copies of Everybody’s Metamorphosis and Willeford’s Son of Sam book, Off the Wall. The Burnt Orange Heresy stands up there with Maltese Falcon and the best of them. I see Willeford in the same category as John Fante, a titan who worked between major movements (i.e. Expats and Beats) and thus got lost in the sauce in terms of recognition. Willeford was so subtle (especially with his humor) and so unpretentious that if you weren’t careful the first time you read one of his books, you would merely write it off as a good read rather than a great book.”

Joseph has “sold short stories here and there” — Underground Voices and Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction — and he was also a sports columnist for FightHype.

And now, Joseph Hirsch:


I’d first heard about Tom Kakonis several years ago, thanks to the efforts of the
inimitable Don Herron. He had previously pulled my coat about a cat named Floyd
Salas, a criminally-neglected writer whose book Tattoo the Wicked Cross is
perhaps the most harrowing written about young men and violence, with the
possible exception of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Shortly after hearing about Kakonis, during the dead of winter I found myself wandering
the dreary streets of Dublin, Ireland around Christmas time. It had started to snow and I ducked into the nearest building, which, as luck would have it, was a bookstore called “Murder Ink.”

The cashier asked if she could help me and I asked if she had any Chester Himes,
and Oh yeah, have you heard of this guy Tom Kakonis? To my surprise, she had.
I picked up a dog-eared copy of Criss Cross there and took it back to my hotel room overlooking the flats of Ballymun, the notorious Irish ghetto.

Then I began reading. The book had the makings of a slick mass-market thriller,
featuring a cash strapped protagonist with a dark past, and a bombshell
tagalong floozy who proves to be more trouble than she is worth. What really
made the book stand out, however, what truly makes it memorable to this day,
was the rogues’ gallery with which Kakonis populated his criminal universe.
There were heavies in this novel, but they were not the cardboard types one usually
encounters. No, Milo Pitts and his sidekick Ducky were a couple of meth-addled
state-raised individuals who were as well drawn as Dick and Perry, in Truman
Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood.

Kakonis effortlessly juggled multiple plotlines, involving the most preposterous and
odious characters and deeds including a sex act involving a rubber glove and a
bucket of Vaseline, and a doctor of dubious credentials who claims he can cure
baldness while doing his level best to orchestrate a complex robbery with his
hapless crew. It is a testament to the novel’s effectiveness that I have not read it in some years, and can still recall its details so clearly.

It was one of those rare reading experiences where time disappears and one is
engulfed in the story being told by a master and a true original. Like Charles
Willeford or Gerald Kersh before him, Kakonis had taken the genre into
mind-bending, off-kilter territory where everything was somehow funny in a
cosmic way, even (and especially) the violence.

After finishing Criss Cross I devoured the rest of Kakonis’ oeuvre, and then moved
on to his pseudonymously-written books. When that didn’t suffice, I had what
the Pink Floyd would call a “momentary lapse in reason” and looked Mr. Kakonis
up online, and promptly called him. While he would have been well within his
right to tell me to piss off, Mr. Kakonis listened charitably as I told him
that I thought he was a hell of a better crime writer than anyone else alive
(including Elmore Leonard) and could I entice him to write some more books?

He graciously refused, and laughed when I even offered to subsidize his production
of a novel. I was a bachelor living on a generous GI Bill stipend and a cushy
disability rating from the VA, but he wouldn’t bite. After a time on the phone,
his wife finally put her foot down and told him to hang up. I thanked him one
last time and told him his place was assured in the pantheon of crime writers,
alongside big Jim Thompson.

Flash forward some time, and I’m still treading water at a liberal arts college and
searching for the next “it” writer in American crime fiction. The pickings are lean, however, and I am up shit’s creek until steers me with one of its little autosuggestions, which are usually way off and not very helpful (Hey, if you liked Philip Dick, you might also want to try a shiatsu massage chair!).

Only this time, Amazon did me a solid. Had I ever heard of Iain Levison? I had, in
fact. I had read a short book (little longer than a tract) he had written years ago, about being a low-wage factotum, barely scraping by as another low-waged lamprey suckling on America’s fetid underbelly. The book A Working Stiff’s Manifesto was a good, grim expose, a more readable version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.

I’d also read Levison’s short novel Since the Layoffs, which mined the same
territory as his previous nonfiction book, but suffered from copout rationalization, which could pretty much be summed up as: I didn’t want to get involved in crime, but the factory closed. It was basically The Killer Inside Me if it had been written by Michael Moore, with all of its pathos replaced by editorializing.

That is not the case, however, with How to Rob an Armored Car, Levison’s first
real foray into crime writing, which sheds the coil of bourgeois concerns about
rectifying a problem through writing, and finally gets down to the nitty-gritty
of showing man as he actually is. The book has all the hallmarks of a
genre-bending classic. Its critique of American consumer society careening
into the 21st century is subtle and spot-on, and it documents the humiliations of the minimum wage slaves who people its pages so poignantly that whatever your feelings about capitalism or crime, you are rooting for the clueless criminals while simultaneously cursing them for their stupidity over the course of a couple hundred pages. The
book is painfully funny, morbid, and staffed by characters that resemble people
we know.

I don’t want to give away too many details here, but suffice it to say that Levison extracts a tungsten vein’s worth of comic ore from the tribulations of amateur thieves trying to make the leap to the pros. There is a botched auto theft, a dead dog, clouds and clouds of
marijuana, domestic strife, a department store manager who thinks there is a
centralized authority known as the “webmaster,” and there is even a lobster who
manages to avoid his fate in the boiler, only to wind up as a jaded killer. In short, we have a true original on our hands, a descendant of the Willeford-Kakonis school.

Iain Levison. Look him up, you won’t regret it.

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