It happens rarely, but sometimes you get to the end of a book and what has gone before leaves you speechless. As a reader, this is a wonderful feeling, as you've just been through a great experience. As a book reviewer, however, it presents a problem, as you tend to have to sum up a book in more than no words. My first draft of this review read simply "..."
"Pariah" is the story of Kyle Nevin. A little over eight years ago, he was part of the mob running South Boston. He was set up by his boss Red Mahoney and was jailed for an armed robbery. Recently released from prison, he has his mind set on revenge. Prison hasn't mellowed Kyle the way it did his brother Danny and he's not about to settle for a life as an ordinary working man. However, he's found that South Boston has changed in the eight years he's been in prison and he doesn't have the same power or respect he used to.
Before he can track down Red, Kyle needs to get the resources to do so and he has a plan to get several million dollars so he can do just that. Things don't go so well, but a letter he sends to the New York Times brings him to the attention of a publisher, who is keen for him to write a book about what he may or may not have done. Suddenly, Kyle has a Plan B and he looks set to make more money honestly than he ever had as a criminal and South Boston is now looking at him in a new way.
The story is presented as the writing of Kyle Nevin himself, complete with occasional notes to an editor regarding sections where he may have taken minor liberties with the story to put himself in a better light. It's wonderfully done, as you get to see glimpses of his ego amongst the violence and anger he has made his life. Whilst Zeltserman rarely describes his characters in detail physically, leaving you unable to picture them terribly well, the insights he provides into Nevin's psyche let you get more of a feel for him as a person.
Whilst the physical descriptions aren't detailed, he does pick out characteristics, the same kinds of thing that would first draw the eye if someone like Nevin was looking at them, so you at least get a good feel for appearances, if not an exact picture. He does much the same for the locations, so you don't get to feel South Boston as a whole, but you get a decent impression of Nevin's South Boston. Indeed, as a further touch of realism, he pays more attention to describing women and their distinguishing features than he does of the men and when he visits somewhere he wouldn't usually go, such as his visits to New York, the descriptions of places he's seeing for the first time and isn't accustomed to get additional detail.
Kyle Nevin isn't a particularly likeable character. Of course, the aim isn't to make him out to be a hero. He may have been wronged, which was how he ended up in prison, but he's wronged more people in worse ways and continues to do so. Nevin isn't trying to make himself out to be a sympathetic character and he shows no remorse. The intention here is simply to tell the story, not to distract the reader with thoughts about right or wrong and in that aim, Zeltserman succeeds admirably. This isn't a book about the good guys and the bad guys, it's a story all about the bad guys. Nevin's just a man from the mean streets of Boston, he's not necessarily proud of what he's done, but he demands respect and he's unapologetic of what he's done to ensure he gets it.
With books like this, you can often find they're all style and very little substance. With "Pariah", Zeltserman writes not only with great attention to stylistic matters, but he also has a great eye for a story. Kyle Nevin is the kind of man who once he knows what he wants; he's in a hurry to get it. He comes out of prison with an aim and he's going to get there as quickly as he can and the pace with which he moves through the things that need to be done to achieve that is reflected in the pace of the writing and the pace of the story. It's relentless and leaves the reader almost breathless at times.
What really stuck out for me in the overall brilliance of the book was the ending. So often in stories like this, the author waters down the ending in a weak effort to tie up loose ends. Zeltserman doesn't fall into this trap. Once the story is over it ends and that's it. If there are loose ends, they stay loose and that makes the ending the best and most honest ending to any book of this kind I recall reading.
There's nothing bad I could say about "Pariah" and it's not often I find that. It's the perfect mixture of style and substance and the unusual way the story is told adds a lot to the book and to the genre as a whole. It's the kind of book that is going to spoil whatever I read next, as it's going to be found wanting compared to this. This is a book that anyone with even the slightest interest in the crime or thriller genres simply must get their hands on, as it's bound to have a huge impact on you and given that it can be found for as little as £1.99 on eBay or £1.75 at the Amazon Marketplace, it's well worth buying.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk