Friday, September 30, 2016

A Gritty Look At the Dark Side of Life in Post-World War II California

Originally published in 1939, this dark novel describes the struggles of a second-generation immigrant named Nick Garcos to improve his lot in life and the obstacles that stand in his way and in the way of so many others like him who are attempting to climb the economic ladder and grasp a slightly larger share of the American dream.

The book is set in post World War II California. Nick's father dreamed of owning his own trucking business, but died a long, slow death from an illness, beaten down by life and in particular by his wife, Nick's mother, who is one of the most unpleasant characters a reader is ever likely to encounter in a novel.

Nick, who worshiped his father and who hates his mother, is determined to do better and to fulfill his father's dreams. Through rather dubious means, Nick acquires the money to purchase a used truck. He hooks up with a veteran trucker named Ed who agrees to show Nick the ropes and, using Nick's money, they buy two truckloads of apples in the Central Valley which they hope to sell at the market in San Francisco.

In detailing their struggles to do so, Bezzerides attempts to expose the dark side of American capitalism in the late 1940's. It seems impossible for an honest man to have a chance in this system, and corrupt people of every stripe attempt to take advantage of Nick at virtually every turn. Nick and Ed are hardly paragons of virtue themselves, but the crooks that they encounter, especially at the San Francisco market, are villains of the first magnitude and Nick is the quintessential sheep being led to slaughter.

This is a beautifully written book. Bezzerides has a talent for description that draws the reader immediately into the setting. One feels totally immersed in the atmospherics of the scenes that Bezzerides describes and there's the ring of truth in the descriptions of the hard scrabble lives of the characters that populate them. Even the minor characters are very well drawn.

If I have any complaint about the book it lies in the fact that there are no sympathetic characters for one to care about. Nick, the main protagonist, has so many flaws of his own that it's really hard to root for him, even as the system grinds him down. Still, this is a very good read which would make an excellent companion piece to Leonard Gardner's Fat City. The books are set in roughly the same time and place and are populated by many of the same sorts of characters. I like Fat City better, mostly because there are more appealing characters in it, but Thieves Market is definitely a book to look for if this type of novel appeals to you.

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