Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Review of Gravesend by William Boyle (2013, No Exit Press)

Conway D’Innocenzio has been waiting for Ray Boy Calabrese to be released from prison so he can exact revenge for the death of his brother. When the day arrives he finds himself ill-prepared, his ex-cop friend teaching him to shoot. When Conway does confront Ray Boy, he finds he can’t pull the trigger, setting him free in their home town of Gravesend. Conway stalks the streets and bars, frustrated with life. Ray Boy returns to his parents and sister, unhappy that Conway didn’t have the nerve to go through with his quest. Another of Conway’s school contemporaries, Alessandra, also returns to Gravesend from Hollywood, where she has failed to make it as an actress. She re-ignites a friendship with Stephanie, Conway’s co-worker and secret admirer. Like Conway and Ray Boy, both women are somewhat lost, unsure how to make something of their lives. Ray Boy’s fifteen year old nephew, Eugene, feels the same way. He worships his uncle Ray and is already plotting to team up with him for a life of crime.

Gravesend is William Boyle’s debut novel set in the neighbourhood of the same name in Brooklyn. The area is somewhat run-down a shadow of its former self, as are its residents. Four high school contemporaries find their lives re-entwined. Conway and Stephanie never left and both work in a local pharmacy. Ray Boy has just been released from prison for the murder of Conway’s brother. Alessandra has returned from Hollywood, where after a decade she has failed to make it as an actress. Conway wants to enact revenge on Ray Boy. Ray Boy wants him to. Stephanie wants a relationship with Conway, and to move out of home with her mother and share an apartment with Alessandra. Alessandra’s not sure what she wants. Eugene, Ray Boy’s nephew, wants to be free of school and to run wild. The story charts the intersecting lives of these five characters as they slowly revolve towards a cathartic and violent set of resolutions. The tale is very much character-driven, with a strong sense of place, focusing on lives and a community abandoned by the American dream. There’s a fatalistic realism to the story, with Boyle painting a fairly bleak picture of troubled lives that are seemingly going nowhere, the narrative shot through with a noir atmosphere shorn of any hope. It’s a well told and engaging tale, but a far cry from light entertainment!

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