"The Good Thief" is the story of a one-handed orphan named Ren who is adopted from a Catholic orphanage in Washington Irving's New England by a con-artist named Benjamin Nab and a drug-addicted ex-schoolmaster named Tom. These opportunistic gentlemen-thieves put Ren to work as both distraction and front man while making their money running a medicine show and robbing jewelry from the dead.
They are trying to leverage into the "resurrection" business, and a kid seems like a good investment. People never think you are a criminal if you have a kid around.
Nab and Tom drag Ren across New England, conniving their way into one pocket after another. While Tom and Nab make plans, Ren befriends the many strange characters they come across by listening to their stories and viewing them as fellow inmates in Life's Grand Orphanage.
Tinti, the editor and co-founder of One Story Magazine, knows all the elements that go into a good novel and she deploys them here as if she is working from a laminated checklist, swinging a pickaxe and wearing a miner's hat in some deep, dark Fiction Goldmine.
This book features:
-- A mousetrap factory
-- A lovable giant named Dolly who likes to strangle people to death
-- A pair of twins named Brom and Ichy, neither of whom is headless nor a horseman
-- A dwarf who lives on the rooftops of a New England town and survives by wiggling down people's chimneys for food
-- An unethical surgeon with a cadaver addiction
-- A gang called the "Hat Boys," all of whom wear different festive hats
-- Two separate forlorn ladies who kill themselves by throwing themselves into rivers
-- A crack-shot factory-wench with a harelip and a burning yearning feeling inside her
-- A nun with a startling story to tell
After some shoot-outs, carriage-chases, and roof-top pursuits, Ren finally comes full circle and discovers both his origins and his future, in addition to discovering the real motivations behind Benjamin Nab's decision to adopt a child.
If there is anything like a purely American fantasy, it is the group of struggling weirdos who are joined together by weakness, and who must fight against a stronger, colder, more heartless foe. Adhesive vulnerability is pitted against unchecked power and privilege, drawl against educated whisper, handicap against advantage, oddball against football hero.
The fragile weaknesses of the freakshow ensemble cause them to trust one another and become a loving group, whereas the nemesis is always at a disadvantage because he or she must act alone.
Here's a point of contention about "The Good Thief": this book features as rag-tag a band of unlikely outsiders as you'll ever find, and yet they never really bond or grow. All the characters except Ren feel autistic, unconcerned by their surroundings and lacking clear motivations. They feel like movie tropes. In "The Good Thief," these outsiders are assembled as if for a high school yearbook photo, and then they go their separate ways as if following the advice in the back of the same yearbook, not ever changing, turning in circles like gears in a polished-copper engine of narrative.
With the exception of Ren, I didn't believe in any of the characters in "The Good Thief." Not for a second.
But for some reason, I never scoffed. I never sneered. I thought the book was still pretty great.
"The Good Thief" is not only a book about how you are often thrown together against your will with people you need and who need you back, it is also an exploration of haunted old New England, where the concerns of youth and age mingle and cross-pollinate.
In Lovecraft's "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," Randolph Carter travels through every land of dream -- from malevolent Leng to beautiful Celephais where King Kuranes reigns -- to find Earth's gods and petition them for access to his own perfect land of imagination. He overcomes night-gaunts, shasts, ghasts, dholes, and gugs to throw himself on the mercy of the Ancient Ones, only to be told that his dream city is really his own time-tinted boyhood memory of New England small towns. He awakes in Massachusetts, screaming in his own bed:
"New England bore you, and into your soul she poured a liquid loveliness which cannot die. This loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last these endless balustraded steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood."
Tinti's prose makes this land come alive with the same joyous poetry, and for a moment I could envision life here as something sustaining and good as opposed to a constant battle for survival among the nation's most wealthy and elite. Ren feasts on his surroundings as if he is at a banquet. He makes the most from every opportunity, and he grabs as much of life as he can, being one-handed and all.
When I stop and think about it, my only real criticism with this book is that it should have been longer. Much longer. Like, twice as long, at the very least. It is only 300 pages and this feels like a cheat.
This criticism may seem like a moony proclamation of backhanded praise ("I wish we could be TOGETHER FOREVER") but it is more like the huffy, twitterpated muttering of an unsatisfied lover.
"Did you come?"
"Are you just being nice?"
"You know, we could go again if you wanted."
"Maybe we should call it a night. I'm exhausted."
"I wish I was...exhausted."
"What was that?"
As it stands, the book is a bagatelle, nothing very substantial, too short and innocent to be really very good or really very bad. Imagine if Dickens had compressed "David Copperfield" into two hundred tight pages. Certainly, his book would be more readable by modern standards, but it would be more like somebody describing a shocking good read than an actual shocking good read itself.
I can say one great thing about this book: it has washed the taste of "Johnny Tremain" out of my mouth forever. I hated that fucking book when I was a kid, and it seemed like we had to read it every fucking year in school. We'd read it and then watch the movie, eating authentic New England corn muffins and wearing tri-cornered hats made from construction paper.
If you were spared "Johnny Tremain" when you were a kid, here's all you need to know:
If you have also been poisoned by "Johnny Tremain" when it comes to historical novels about early American childhood, Tinti's "The Good Thief" is the cure.
Now whenever I imagine being a kid at our nation's dawn, instead of conjuring up a one-handed silversmith who spends all his time listening to speeches and worrying about liberty, I can summon a one-handed sneak-thief who reads novels and is learning how to palm pocketwatches.
For that, I am eternally grateful.
Everybody should run out and buy Tinti's book and read it themselves, then give it to an 8th grader who is just discovering the color "black." They will write Tinti manic letters telling her she is talented and funny and that she is their new favorite writer.
If one thing shines through this book, it is that the author is a good person who does things the right way.
Her friends, publisher, and editor should chain her to a writing desk with mugs of hot cider and congenial cats for company. And they should not let her go until her manuscripts are as thick as folded cable-knit sweaters, as high as the top hats she is so fond of.
If Tinti has the courage to knock out a nice 800 page brick for her next book, I guarantee you that it will be an authentic American classic.
I hope "The Good Thief" is a promise of much more to come.
Posted by miracle on Thu, 04 Jun 2009 03:17:43 -0400 -- permanent link