Forget It, Santiago, It's Chinatown
Rivers of Gold
(Bloomsbury Press, 2010)
Not quite a detective story, Adam Dunn’s tech-noir novel lives up to its front-cover claim that it’s “a mile a minute” page-turner. Set in New York City in the year 2013, in which the five boroughs have been reduced to one giant South Bronx circa 1975, our chief docent is a hipster named Renny. An up-and-coming photographer, Renny uses his career to gain entrée to the city’s thriving underground nightclubs, or “speaks”—short for speakeasies—so he can deal Ecstasy to the city’s steadily dwindling number of affluent Beautiful People.
On the streets, violent crime is rampant, despite a pervasive surveillance culture propagated as much by NYPD’s street cams as by anyone with a cell phone. The safest refuges to distribute drugs are in the backseats of selected N.Y.C. taxicabs, whose drivers are part of specific drug kingpin’s distribution networks. Babe magnet Renny, who gets laid by exotic, statuesque models almost nightly, seeks to become middle management for Reza, a shadowy Russian mobster with designs on controlling all of the speaks in the city.
Across town we meet the NYPD’s Detective Santiago, a Dominican tough guy who is part of the new, secret Citywide Anticrime Bureau, or CAB. The acronym’s no coincidence, as the unit’s main cover for tackling street crimes is a fleet of taxicabs. Little do these fearless detectives know, they’re encroaching upon the turf of drug lord Reza’s main distribution channel. Santiago, who fights to remain strictly by-the-book despite the corruption all around him on the force, has just been assigned a creepy new partner named More, a silent, quick, heavily-armed human Terminator. Santiago correctly infers that More is a highly trained secret agent working undercover as a mere police officer, but why? Renny and Santiago, who don’t know each other from a hole in the sidewalk, are on a collision course toward an ugly meeting.
There’s a reason this genre is called tech noir. True to its roots in film noir, the novel’s climax even takes place in, you guessed it, Chinatown, conjuring up images of the Robert Towne-Roman Polanski homage to the genre. Like any good noir story, Dunn’s imagery creates a palpable sense of place, a narrative in which the eternally moist environment, with its high-contrast lighting and sharp cinematic angles, is as much a character as the cops, mobsters, dealers, cabbies, fops, and femmes fatales who inhabit it.
Arresting passages of the now-dilapidated Flatiron District put one in the mind of Theodore Dreiser’s depiction in Sister Carrie of the same area 110 years ago before its fall. Any New Yorker reading Dunn’s novel will at once feel nostalgia for a beautiful homeland lost. A queasiness sets in when learning that New York City has collapsed not because of a monstrous Hollywood meteor, but because of a freefall into financial ruin like the one we’re skirting right now.
The book’s law enforcement and taxi industry milieus feel meticulously researched, creating a sense that, even when situations push past credibility, they’re probably rooted in fact. Despite this strength, the novel falters under the weight of its own dogged research, as though the author is dying to show off his deep familiarity with the minutiae of how taxi companies are run, how airstrikes are called in, how military-grade weapons work, how trained snipers operate, and the model numbers of the latest automobiles. The narrative is so bogged down in real and fictional acronyms it starts to read like a run-on text message: Audi QX TDI, Heckler & Koch P2000SK, OCID, SL95 AMG, GHB, MDMA, ESU, SCAR, SERE, JADAM, LRRP, MARSOC, SO/AMF, SASR. Do what with a what?
Thankfully, the author presents New York City as the multicultural, multinational city of immigrants it has always been, rather than subjecting readers to a couple of white leading men supported by second-string magical Negroes and pet gays. Unfortunately, he relegates those insulting stock roles to the novel’s women, 99.995 percent of whom are models who live to be screwed and to screw over men.
If the female characters are largely one-dimensional, the men just barely hit the two-dimensional mark. That the priapic Renny is heartbroken over a lost love, yet immediately decides he’s fallen for a new conquest simply because she’s great in bed and likes art museums, keeps the emotional range of this major character limited to junior-high puppy love. When More hops out of a moving car en route to a stakeout just for kicks and tumbles off into the darkness, he becomes a farcical stock character à la Dr. Strangelove’s General Buck Turgidson or M.A.S.H.’s masochistic military intelligence agent Colonel Flagg. When he goes in for the kill, sporting an absurdly high-powered explodo-rifle that will not only take out his targets but vaporize them—all while wearing a ghillie suit and oxygen mask so he can hide in a pile of trash—one can only chuckle.
The plot is mortally wounded by poorly handled exposition, which is delivered in the clunkiest way imaginable: via monologues. These forced speeches are delivered primarily by minor characters who serve their expositional purpose and quickly exit the story. In addition, at one point the author stops the plot dead in its tracks to hand readers a top secret dossier on the shadowy More. Later, readers are treated to the full text of a detailed newspaper article used as a creaky device to tie up loose ends. These expositional brick walls pop up with increasing frequency the closer one gets to the end, slowing the plot to a crawl when it should be hurtling like a speeding bullet.
In short, Rivers of Gold is like a decent Ecstasy trip; it feels good going up, but the inevitable come down makes the whole thing feel like a bummer.