Jason Starr has made a career writing novels like *Tough Luck.* They invariably tell the story of a relatively ordinary guy with some modest aspirations and a few flaws. The modest aspirations lead him into trouble and the few flaws end up magnified into grotesque proportions. One bad choice leads to another, and, to paraphrase Schopenhauer, ends with the worst of all possible choices. As a reader, you watch, helpless, and gruesomely fascinated, as the main character tries to do the equivalent of wiping away a speck of lint from a white suit with hands covered in red ink. It's a formula as old as Og the Caveman, but in the hands of a writer like Jason Starr it still works to perfection.
In *Tough Luck,* the ordinary guy is Mickey Prada--a 19-year-old working at a Brooklyn fish market. Mickey is going to college next fall. He's just taking a year off to save some money and take care of his ailing father. He's got plans, you see. He's not going to be gutting halibut for the rest of his life. One day a local comes in for his usual order of shrimp. He asks Mickey to do him a favor: place a bet for him with a neighborhood bookie. The guy is always well-dressed, sharp, an obvious player. A good guy for a guy with big plans to know. No?
A bad choice it was to place that bet. The speck on the white suit. By the time Mickey is finished trying to pluck that speck off, he's practically drenched in blood--armed robbery, assault, murder. How could doing someone a simple favor possibly lead to all this? Mickey Prada shows you, step-by-step, with one seemingly well-thought-out, but unexpectedly disastrous, decision after another. The vicarious thrill the reader gets watching how quickly a normal life can veer into criminal nightmare has always been the chief appeal of this brand of hardboiled mystery and *Tough Luck* has that thrill in spades.
Starr writes a very serviceable, straightforward prose. He doesn't get in the way of the story. There isn't anything snazzy about his style, nothing distinctive or even memorable; it's an invisible style, like porn, the narrated events are everything, the only thing. There isn't a lot of interiority. Mickey Prada isn't a deep thinker. He isn't Raskolnikov. Starr provides just enough insight into Mickey's thinking; then he records the disaster that follows from there.
For what it is, a throwback to the gritty fiction of writers like Jim Thompson, *Tough Luck* is a fast, fun, and harrowing read that works on a small stage to tell a big story: the Homeric tragedy of the little guy trying to escape his predestined fall.