I finished Attica Locke's debut novel last week. It was a quick, enjoyable read, but I'm not 100% convinced that it's the best of the best of women's writing for the year (as judging from its Orange Prize shortlisted status). Yet, that said, there's something about commercial fiction writing that I admire. The way the plots drive forward ceaselessly, the way the action never seems to stop, and the muddled way the somewhat damaged protagonists always seem to figure it out in the end. Locke's narrative reminds me a little of a Dennis Lehane novel -- she's got the same strong characters, the same driving storylines, and the same gift with both prose, and I really enjoyed her main character, Jay Porter.
The gist of the book is as follows: Jay Porter's a black lawyer in Houston. It's 1981, and he just can't get his practice off the ground. He's not a bad lawyer -- he's just attracting the wrong kind of clients. Making it on your own isn't easy and money is beyond tight. Also, Jay and his wife Bernie are about six weeks away from having a baby. The timing couldn't be worse for him to get wrapped up in a case that he, literally, saves from drowning.
Yet, when on a romantic boat ride with his wife to celebrate her birthday, they hear shots in the distance. Then, a splash in the water, and screams for help. Soon, Jay's jumped overboard, swimming, diving, then rescuing a white woman who looks to have obviously been attacked. When they drop her off in front of the police station, Jay and Bernie think that's the end of it -- only it's just the beginning and this one incident will soon change his life in ways he never expected.
Jay finds himself embroiled in a case that involves a lot of crooked people. It digs up his past, makes him face certain demons, and even puts his life in danger. And here's where the novel kind of broke down for me -- there were a lot of cliched, "car on the railway tracks against a running train" moments in the novel. Locke's a screenwriter, and so you can see why she'd fall back into certain cinematic touch points, but I didn't find those aspects of the story believable. To me, car chases and railroad crossings are the stuff of films, not real life, and I found it hard to swallow when Jay was in these precarious situations.
Interspersed with this case that just won't let him out of its clutches, Jay becomes involved with a situation with his father (a Reverend) and some of his constituents. There's a labour dispute that has its heart in the desegregation of the stevedore unions, and when a young boy is violently attacked for no reason, the situation heats up. So, now, Jay has two unsolvable situations on his hands: an ever-increasing case with the almost-drowned woman; and the union dispute that could lead to a lawsuit.
How Locke wrote with the difficult parts of the story that had to do with race relations, the south, and the complex issues of labour surrounding integrating the unions that deal with the docks was incredible. Those part of the novel sang for me -- the setting, the politics, the very nature of Jay's own troubles with the law before he set himself to rights -- the writing was sharp, the relationships taut, and the book felt wholly original. It's a shame that there couldn't have been more of that and less of the played-out gunshots and car chases.
Regardless, once I picked this novel up, I didn't put it down -- I wasn't sidetracked by other books (read The Lacuna and the new Stieg Larsson). Locke's a real talent and I hope she continues to publish in this vein. I'd be happy to see what Jay Porter gets himself mixed up in next. I'll just keep my fingers crossed he stays away from the railroad tracks in any future books.