Ray Dokes is an ex-ballplayer, a small-town Ontario man fresh out of prison and fresh out of options. With just the clothes on his back and a determination to stay out of trouble, he heads to the farm of his old friend Pete Culpepper, a crusty Texas cowboy who trains slow racehorses for a living.
Ray finds the rural landscape of his childhood transformed - urban development crawls across the once pastoral fields like a nasty rash. One constant remains: Sonny Stanton, the rich and violent heir of a thoroughbred dynasty, who is in the process of buying an entire concession of farmland in the county, for reasons he won't name. Standing in his way is the stubborn Etta Parr, Ray's old flame, who faces down the dangerous Stanton in a last-ditch effort to save her family farm.
The situation is a minefield, but one which Ray is determined to sidestep. He hooks up with Chrissie, a tough and talented jockey, and steers clear of Stanton and his rebellious underlings: Dean, a wise guy wannabe in a fake Armani suit, and his sidekick, Paulie, who is not quite as oblivious as he seems.
But Sonny finally pushes things too far. When a ten-million-dollar thoroughbred goes missing from the Stanton Stables, Ray and the others come up with a plan to exact revenge on Sonny, and right a few wrongs in the process. The scheme is audacious and the players unpredictable. One false move and Ray will land back in jail.
And the smart money is against him.
This book is essentially a western. There’s much talk about horses; the city, though largely absent, is encroaching. Beer, rye and bourbon are sipped; cards are sharped. There are corrals, saloons, horse rustling, vengeance taken, fist fights and gunfights. Homesteads are threatened by foreclosure, bad crops and family sickness. Outlaws abound, cowboys are heroes and the villains are not only villainous but stupid.
Ray Dokes, a former baseball player, returns home after two years in prison. All we know of his experience inside is that he’s gained a scar, “Defending my honour.” Later we learn he’d been sentenced for taking physical revenge on Sonny Stanton, local spoiled rich kid, who’d raped Ray’s sister. This pretty much defines Ray, whose only consequential acts are motivated by compassion for others. Otherwise, like his older friend and mentor, ex-Texas cowboy Pete Culpepper, he says and does little.
Ray’s ex, Etta Parr, is having a hard time holding on to the family farm. Her dad’s losing his mental competence, and the aforesaid Sonny Stanton is plotting to buy up the land, and every other farm in the concession, for a grand development scheme. Pete Culpepper’s farm and racing stable aren’t doing too well either, and he’s making noise about selling up and moving back to Texas.
Over at the Stanton ranch, Sonny’s abusing and insulting even those who try to help him. He spends all his time drinking, popping pills and gambling away his old man’s money. He delights in tormenting Dean and Paulie, two hard-luck poor relations he keeps sticking with the dirty work. Dean’s a smart-ass ne’er do-well and Paulie’s a simple, honest boy with an uncanny way with animals. Even Jackson, the foreman who’s done all the work for 20 years, gets nothing in the way of respect from Sonny; and when Dean and Paulie are fired, it’s Jackson who takes the hit – literally.
The plot takes off from here when Dean steals Stanton’s prime thoroughbred and drags Paulie along for the ride. Turns out Dean’s not as smart as he figured and can’t find a way to profit from his crime, though in desperation he stoops so far as to try collecting the stallion’s semen to sell for breeding. Sonny keeps at his gambling, getting himself dangerously in debt; but he manages to cheat at cards with the elder Parr and ends up holding a note of the farm. When Sonny runs across Paulie, Ray has to save the boy from a vicious beating.
Now it’s up to Ray to save the Parr’s farm, keep Dean and Paulie from going to jail, patch things up with Etta, and finally get revenge on Sonny Stanton not just for himself but for everyone.
Throughout all this, author Brad Smith manages two great feats. His characters are drawn with precision and sympathy, and seem as real as any in contemporary fiction. With virtually no interior monologue Smith still manages to evoke how these people think and feel. And because he’s got a natural talent for dialogue and the sensitivity to use banter sparingly, this novel is often laugh-out-loud funny. The writing is clean and muscular, the pace never falters. The plot is carefully developed, suspensefully elaborated and satisfyingly concluded.
This is excellent fiction, perfect for summer reading, neither too heavy to require a degree in literature – though it wouldn’t hurt – nor too light to frustrate the intelligent reader. Despite some sympathetic females characters, this is essentially a guy’s book, and the storytelling perhaps favours its genre roots over realism, but all in all it’s a highly recommended antidote to the earnest and ponderous novels we so often feel obligated to endure.
This novel gives good genre: advance publicity for All Hat describes it as country noir, and the shoe – or cowboy boot – fits. Set in the rusted farmbelts of Niagara and Northern Lake Erie, All Hat features all the country trimmings, from laconic wranglers to dead-end bars. The book’s pulpish kidnapping plot and motley cast of thwarted dreamers give the novel a noir-like tone.
When the stallion Jumping Jack Flash wins the Queen Anne stakes at Woodbine race track, there at least six people whose lives are changed in an instant: property developer Sonny Stanton, a psycho rich kid whose ailing father owns the winning horse; Sonny’s henchdudes Dean and Paulie, who clean up after Sonny and his horses in more ways than one; ex-art teacher Etta Parr, whose farm is the target of a hostile takeover bid from Sonny; and – newly released from pokey – former ball player Ray Dokes, an old flame of Etta’s and a good guy who can’t seem to find a way to win.
After the victorious horse crosses the finish line, cocksure Dean beats a foreman with a shovel and steals the bad-tempered thoroughbred to sell for stud. When Ray discovers where Dean has stashed the Flash, he sees a way to solve everyone’s problems and do the right thing while wooing Etta again.
For such a location-driven work, All Hat has an uneasy sense of place. From the title on down, a huge number of the book’s details, moods, and cultural references are so deep-fried American that the Ontario setting feels mystifying. Ostensibly Canadian characters say “ain’t” and “this here” and generally shitkick up and down the landscape in ways more associated with Dixie cowboys. When an occasional can of Molson’s pops up, it feels intrusive, like something an authenticity-seeking Texan author might pick up from the Internet.
This is a very minor gripe in light of Smith’s talents. That’s the thing with wild rides – you don’t always know where you are, because you’re having too much fun to care.
There’s a wonderfully comic, laugh-out-loud scene about two-thirds of the way into Dunnville, Ont. writer Brad Smith’s second novel, All Hat.
Bent on obtaining the juice of thoroughbred loins for artificial insemination, two woeful characters – they’re named Dean and Paulie in the book, but they might as well be Tweedledum and Tweedledumber – don’t have a clue on how to get even to first base.
“I never read nothing about getting the stuff out of the stud,” says Dean.
And so they go to the obvious. “Give me that picture again,” he says.
“It was a picture of a broodmare from a farm in Kentucky that Dean had cut out of a breeder’s magazine and then taken into the Kinko’s in town and had blown up. Sort of an equine Betty Grable.”
Of course, they’re no farther ahead, something of a surprise for the pair. Yet, Smith has not concocted a “look at the stupids” jaunt, but rather, a fast-moving, tightly controlled caper set in the world of Ontario thoroughbred horse racing.
Caper is truly the operative word here, though with a charitable mix of comedy and slight dark undertones. At age 40, ex-ballplayer Ray Dokes, newly released from prison after two years for beating up Sonny Stanton, looks to live “a half-ass normal life.” Part of that normalcy, however, will be in his getting revenge on Sonny.
Sonny’s a nasty piece of work, a billionaire’s son who can’t take no for an answer, particularly from women: He beats them and rapes them and, as the big fish in this small-town pond, gets away with it. One of his victims has been Dokes’s sister Elizabeth and, at one point, Sonny warns Ray’s ex-love, the art teacher Etta Parr: “You might piss me off, and I’m not a lot of fun when I’m pissed off. Ask Ray’s sister, although I think she kinda liked it. Hard to tell with a retard.”
It’s as if Smith has encapsulated every negative characteristic you could imagine in this guy: gambler, land speculator, insurance scamster and horse killer-in-training. He’s a sampler kit of humanity gone wrong.
“My mother used to say that it just seemed like the devil had a lot more interest in Sonny than he did in other people,” ventures hired hand Paulie late in the book. Though he’s hardly the sharpest knife in the drawer, Paulie is the most sympathetic character in All Hat, a horse whisperer who just makes bad choices for friends and employers. When the $10-million thoroughbred, Jumping Jack Flash, owned by Sonny’s father, wins the Queen Anne Stakes at Toronto’s Woodbine, the elements are in place for the real race to begin. There will be a horse theft, confused equine identities, some twists and turns that threaten the stability of everyone’s plans, and a stakes race at which all of the cantilevered elements are in fine, almost too perfect, balance.
If there’s a flaw here, it’s in the amount of time Smith takes to introduce his cast and get the proceedings under way. When the novel is well and truly on the run after 40 pages, though, there’s no looking back, and the well-drawn characters, from the stripper Misty to Ray Dokes, and even to the particularly nasty Sonny Stanton, easily move the story to it’s conclusion.
Both of Smith’s North American publishers – Penguin Canada here, and Henry Holt in the U.S. – take advantage of writer Dennis Lehane’s blurbing of All Hat as “country noir.” Still, it would be a mistake to characterize All Hat as being in the same noir vein as Smith’s first novel, One-Eyed Jacks.
Perhaps cheval noir would by a better choice. While not as quaint and predictable as the Dick Francis equine-set crime novels, it at least approaches noir country with the creation of Sonny Stanton. But with its double-and triple-crosses, this has more of the feel of a certain Robert Redford-Paul Newman movie about it.
Still, dark horse or not, All Hat is a winner all the way.