Hot Wire by Gary Carson (Blasted Heath, 2013)
Hot Wire by Gary Carson is one wild ride. The hero(ine) is a 19-year-old woman named Emma Martin who makes her living stealing cars with the help of her side kick “Arn”. Emma, who weighs 90 pounds nothing, orphaned at an early age after her parents died in a car crash. Most of her life was in and out of foster homes and reform schools. The novel is told from her point-of-view.
It has a killer opening paragraph:
“My last night on the job started like any other night jacking cars on Deacon’s payroll. I checked in at the station around eight, then parked my Dodge behind the Hot Box and walked over to the lot to get our work car – a Jeep Wrangler with clean tags and insurance. Buster, the fat drunk who ran the lot, came onto me while I checked the registration, but he was mostly harmless except for his breath. The papers looked OK, so I climbed into the Jeep and he waddled back to the TV in the attendant’s booth, mumbling and scratching his ass.”
Emma works for Deacon, who deals in stolen cars and Heberto, who deals in drugs. She gets paid to bring in cars to Deacon and Humberto sells them in South America, using his take from the proceeds to buy drugs for resale in the US. And so the great chain of life continues. Most of the story takes place around Oakland and San Francisco, CA.
Both places are seedy to the extreme:
“Heberto sprawled on the sofa next to the door, blowing smoke rings at the TV. He looked calm enough, but he’d look calm if he was drowning a bag of puppies. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes, yawned, then got to his feet and cracked his knuckles, scanning me like a robot. He was twenty-eight, maybe, lean and buff, a Mestizo with black hair, black eyes and knife scars on his pockmarked cheeks. Dignified and soft-spoken, he used to be a cop in Mexico City and he had connections in all kinds of pest holes: El Salvador, Brazil, Panama, Columbia. He talked like an English textbook with a couple of missing pages, always polite and formal, but nobody ever laughed at his Spanglish. I knew for a fact he’d clipped a couple guys in Oakland and there were all kinds of stories about his crew. Meat hooks and blowtorches. Crap like that.”
At the start of Hot Wire, Emma and her partner spot a beautiful black Lexus ES300 tooling around the bottoms of Oakland. Smelling an opportunity, Emma follows the car. The Lexus stops in front of a decrepit warehouse and two thugs get out, carrying in a third person between them. They make the mistake of leaving the keys in the ignition, which is the golden moment for Emma. She jumps in the car, starts to take off in it. But one of the thugs runs out of the warehouse trapping her partner Arn in the car they were driving. Emma manages to take off in the stolen car, but one of the thugs gives pursuit. She eventually loses him, but a crazy chain of events has been set in motion.
Much of the book is a stream-of-conscious:
“I was dragging now, stiff and sore. A TV jabbered in one of the rooms and I heard somebody come down the stairs behind me and go outside. Turning down the hall to my room, I got really gripped for some reason and stopped dead in my tracks. A horn beeped in the parking lot and I could hear a vacuum cleaner running in some other part of the building. Steffy’s face popped into my head, gagged and bug-eyed, her cheeks bruised and smeared with mascara. I tried to blank her out, but the memory of her lying on the bed had been scorched across my brain. Whoever had killed her must’ve picked the lock on the apartment door, or maybe she’d let them in herself, thinking they were cops, but they were long gone by the time I got there. The goons in the black SUVs showed up later, after I’d arrived, but who were they? They’d identified themselves as cops, but the guy I saw in the alley didn’t look like any cop I’d ever seen.”
As it turns out, the car is part of a series of incidents involving rogue federal agents, official federal agents, gang-bangers, and the local police. Let’s see, there is also a has-been investigative journalist who figures into the story. More federal agents. And a bar owner. There is also Emma’s sleazy stripper cousin who gets caught up in the whole mess. Did I leave anything out?
The novel is nonstop insanity as Emma tries to outwit the combined forces of law, order, and crime who are trying find her. It’s a difficult book to put down and written in a full-throttle style. But what makes the book a must-read is the final quarter. There’s a show-down in a warehouse where all parties concerned collide. In the rain. And the final confrontation rolls on for nearly 50 pages. Most authors would’ve wrapped it all up in 10, but Carson keeps the action roaring five times that length. This, children, is the mark of a great writer.
We also get a fabulous take-down of Berkley, CA:
“Horns blared on Telegraph. The sidewalks crawled with tourists, junkies, street vendors, runaways and bums from People’s Park. UC students walked by with pierced ears, tattoos and the usual look of smug stupidity, mingling with trendy Marxists and Goth punks dressed in black. A couple of Earth Mothers wandered through the crowd, arm in arm, naked to the waist, making a statement about Free Expression that was older than their flopping tits. A Bible Thumper with a megaphone was preaching Armageddon on the corner by Cody’s Books, trying to ignore a hippy who was screaming insults and gibberish, trying to drown him out. The scene was typical Berkeley: a tie-dyed sewer of dopers and Sixties rejects.”
The book isn’t perfect: I didn’t like the ending at all. But you could do a lot worse than reading this novel. I definitely will be looking out for more books by Gary Carson.