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East of A
By Russell Atwood

Ballantine, February 1999, $22 (hardcover)
Ballantine, April 2000, $6.50 (paperback)

Reviewed by Tom Kreitzberg (5/99)

Payton Sherwood is a New York City P.I. who knows better. He knows better than to wear his Rolex around the East Village after midnight. He knows better than to take on three goons who are threatening a teenage girl. He knows better than to try to find the girl after she steals his Rolex while he's lying on the ground, stunned and bleeding, having given her a chance to get away.

Yet within the first two chapters of Russell Atwood's debut novel, East of A, Sherwood does all these things. He relates these events with a mix of cynicism and humor, directed more at his own foolishness than at the unforgiving city. As the story progresses, though, his humor wanes; people around the girl who took his watch are being murdered, and nobody notices or cares.

What begins as a plan to take his mind off the pain from his late-night beating blossoms into a quest to save the young thief from whoever is after her. It takes Peyton, finally, to the point where he claims the duty to act as an instrument of justice. This is the story of an immature young man moving from the ranks of the sordid marital investigators to take his place among the P.I.s whose motive is moral, not financial. It's the case the private eye with a bottle of rye in the desk had before he started keeping a bottle of rye in the desk.

I lived in the East Village for a year, and Atwood's descriptions of the neighborhoods and how to get along in them ring true. The humor in Peyton's narrative voice, though, is a stronger element. It's wry and bemused, as he both recognizes how cliched his life is and continues to make choices that should result in death, jail time, or public ridicule. When he passes on a divorce case to keep looking for his watch, he observes, "What did I want work for anyway? I had a hobby."

If there are occasional lapses into overwritten literary prose, Atwood quickly returns to a more natural style: "Bright morning glare slashed a paper cut across my eyes. The rest of me wasn't so hot either." And if the liveliness of the writing in the opening chapters isn't sustained to the end, the grim substance of the emerging story may be more to blame than a flagging of talent or interest.

I think I may have liked East of A too much to give it a balanced review. East of A is a book that I found exciting -- not just to read, but to discover. I will be talking about this book for some time, and I hope to see more books from Russell Atwood to get excited over and to talk about in the future.


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