Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Another Excellent Novel from Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is not the most prolific of writers, but he certainly is one of the best, and he demonstrates this again with Green Sun, which was released last year. This is the third novel featuring a Vietnam-era Special Forces soldier-turned-cop named Hanson, following Sympathy For The Devil (1987) and Night Dogs (1996).

The first book detailed Hanson's experiences in the Vietnam War. The second followed his stint as a cop in Portland, Oregon. The new book, set in 1983, finds him as a thirty-eight-year-old rookie cop in Oakland, California, a city torn apart by crime and racial divisions. The city's police department doesn't begin to have the money or the manpower to police the streets effectively, let alone humanely. Hanson patrols some of the meanest streets in the city all by himself in squad car that is barely functional and rarely with any backup.

The police force is still overwhelmingly white, and the approach of most of the other white cops who patrol the black areas of the city is to impose their will on the citizens by brutal force, intimidating anyone who would dare challenge their authority. They are much less concerned about justice than they are about maintaining control and, inevitably of course, they have alienated the city's black population.

Especially in a situation like this, Hanson is a fish out of water. He's older than most of the other patrolman and even though he has experience as a cop in Portland, he's forced to start at the bottom of the department in Oakland. As a liberal arts graduate who briefly taught college before joining the Oakland force, he takes a different view of the job--one that immediately alienates his superiors and most of his fellow cops. Hanson is more of a social worker than a typical Oakland cop. Unlike his fellow officers, he'd much rather defuse a situation and send everyone home peacefully rather than breaking heads. Given that he is a white cop, he's automatically suspect and while he tries to build a rapport with the black citizens whom he is supposed to serve and protect, it's a hard uphill climb.

Hanson is mostly on duty at night, and the book follows him from one incident to another as he patrols his sector of the city, tries to serve the citizens as best he can, and attempts to keep his own bosses from coming down on him. It's a thankless and virtually impossible task, and in parts, the story is horribly bleak and depressing.

What lifts it up though, and what makes this such an engaging book, is Hanson's character. He's among the most solitary protagonists you will ever meet in crime fiction these days--a loner's loner. But at heart he is such a good and decent man, in spite of all of the problems he faces, that you can't help but root for the man and be inspired by him. Even above and beyond that is the quality of Kent Anderson's writing, which is simply beautiful even in spite of the horrors that unfold in the story.

Anderson was himself a Special Forces soldier and a beat cop both in Portland and in Oakland. Clearly he knows the territory, and this book, along with Night Dogs, are probably the most authentic novels about police work that you will ever read. Anderson's biography says that he may be the only person in the country's history to have been awarded two NEA grants as well as two Combat Bronze Stars, and clearly these experiences have served him and his readers well. A fantastic book and a great character than no reader will soon forget.

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