Charlie Hustonís Caught Stealing is the kind of novel that makes you realize that happy endings are overrated. Oh sure, the book has a happy conclusion of sorts. But itís the kind of happy you might feel if you thought someone were about to kill you, and they just maimed you instead.
Caught Stealing is about a sad sack named Hank Thompson, whose promising baseball career was derailed by an injury in his youth. The tragic death of a friend shortly after compounded his anguish, and Hank never really recovered. Heís working as a bartender in New York as the story starts Ė an unremarkable man, but a nice, trustworthy one. But after his shady neighbor Russ asks Hank to watch Russís cat while heís away, poor Hankís life is thrown into upheaval.
Suddenly, scary Russians in tracksuits beat him up, destroying one of his kidneys. Men in cowboy hats and boots visit the absent Russís apartment in the middle of the night. Even the police canít be trusted..
Itís standard-issue crime novel stuff, but Huston plays this game with astonishing skill. The elements may be relatively routine, but the characters arenít. Hank isnít your typical innocent man thrust into peril. He has a toughness and self-destructiveness about him that let you know heís actually a time bomb, always in danger of being set off by the blood-curdling events surrounding him. Yet he has a sweetness about him that makes his inevitable sacrifices heart-wrenching. When it comes time for him to kill to protect himself (and it always does in this kind of story), heís ready, but he feels genuine pain. Hustonís depictions of the violence are sometimes witty, but never glib.
Hustonís attention to humanity is apparent in the supporting characters, too. From a crooked cop to a benevolent doctor, even to the cat that sets off this chain of events, every character is given three dimensions. By the end, Hank has lost a lot, but Caught Stealing is never depressing, despite its downbeat milieu. It is, in fact, quite heartening to see what a skilled written like Huston can do with the genre.