Book review: funny crooks Down on Ponce

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Money laundering noir from Atlanta in the 1990s

James knocks on Sam’s door and asks him to kill his wife.  Sam asks, “Ever thought of divorce?”  James hadn’t.  Thirty thousand dollars later, Sam relents.  He promptly double-crosses James, tells his wife, and keeps the cash.  It’s all fun and games until somebody else kills James and his wife and burns down Sam’s mobile home.

The strong opening is followed by Sam going into hiding in plain sight on Ponce de Leon Avenue in east Atlanta.  He hooks up with a crew of colorful crooks: Charley who works at a funeral parlor and drives around town in a hearse, Bob who can’t talk but writes poems, and amputee Stinky.  Later they’re joined by Bug, a wisecracking lady’s man lunatic they help bust from an asylum, who may only be pretending to be crazy, but is insane enough to love killing his posse’s enemies.

We learn that people who live on the streets, especially criminals, are better adjusted than those dangerous freaks in the suburbs.  That’s the order of affairs in Down on Ponce, the 1997 novel by Fred Willard.  Street people’s approach to theft is individualized; suburbanites’ approach is institutionalized.  This is illustrated by the savings & loan crisis that preceded the action in this book but is alluded to, and the drug trafficking and money laundering that was ongoing from the time period of the book to the present day.  The cops in North Georgia don’t care because they see it as the natural evolution of moonshining, or something.

Sam figures that James was involved with a money laundering ring run by Dong Chandler.  Sam’s plan is to trick Dong into believing that his crew is experienced in laundering money through the Dutch Antilles or Costa Rica.  That way they can steal the money and figure out who burnt down Sam’s mobile home at the same time.

Sam is a sharp protagonist.  Maybe too sharp.  His foresight and leadership over the crew are on par with Robin Hood.  His morals are more variable.  He always stays a step ahead of his opponents, and outwits them in every conversation.

Sam’s fellow travelers are eccentric and constantly craclomg jokes.  They get embroiled in random, comical situations. Willard’s writing style is entertaining and even joyful—he seems to love being in the company of the characters he creates, and it’s infectious.  It’s a humorous book, and its humor helps distract from the excessive anti-suburban, anti-conservative, and anti-institutional messages of the story.  The book is also so funny that after a while you stop taking the book seriously.  It’s marketed as “hard-boiled” or “cracker noir,” but the levity of the constant gags undercuts the hardest edges.

Three stars out of five.

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