At 35, Tommy Cochrane is a washed-up boxer who missed out on a shot at the heavy-weight title and has to hang up his gloves for good when he's diagnosed with an aneurysm. His best friend and former sparring partner, T-Bone Pike, isn't in great shape either as the two of them head to Toronto on a quest for the $5,000 Tommy desperately needs to buy back his grandfather's farm.
In the big city, Tommy and T-Bone encounter an intriguing cast of characters operating on the questionalble side of the tracks. Fat Ollie runs the weekly poker game on Quenn Street; Buzz Murdoch gives Tommy a job as a doorman at the Bamboo club; Herm Bell is a sharp kid on a run of luck; and Tony Broad is a small-time hood with big-time ambitions and a seedy sidekick named Billy Callahan. There's also Lee Charles, a sharp, cynical, smart-mouthed torch singer, who happens to be Tommy's ex-girlfriend.
The five grand ultimately becomes available to a number of these people in a number of ways - all at great risk to Tommy and T-Bone.
“At eleven o’clock he and T-Bone were at the Old Kentucky Tavern. The front door was locked – the joint didn’t open until noon – and they walked around back through the alley. The bar was one of Tommy’s old haunts – he’d celebrated here after his first professional fight. The party had taken a hell of a lot more out of him than the fight, which had gone only two rounds. The celebration had lasted three days.”
Elmore Leonard. James Ellroy. Walter Mosley. There are a lot of Canadian writers who enjoy reading and admire the craft of the United States’ most novelistic crime writers. Brad Smith lives in Dunnville, Ont. What makes him different and sets him apart from just about every literate writer I can think of east of Vancouver is his use of Leonard’s device of establishing character through honest-to-the-ear dialogue, Ellroy’s criss-crossing story lines to broaden social contexts, and Mosley’s race and gender consciousness among the urban underclass to get at some overlooked truths about the rest of our lives.
One-Eyed Jacks is a quickly read, absorbing story of Toronto in the fifties with some good sex, bad beatings, stupid thefts and senseless killings. But it’s also a good novel about friendship that gets closer to the spirit of Charles Dickens than a lot of the mainstream, middlebrow doodling that generally gets taken more seriously.
There are no great expectations here. It’s southern Ontario and it’s 1959 and Tommy Cochrane at 35 is still ranked No. 9 among the Top 10 contenders for Floyd Patterson’s heavyweight boxing championship. That’s his only asset and it’s useless because he’s got an aneurysm and can’t fight any more. When Tommy comes riding into Toronto the Good on a freight car with his sparring partner, T-Bone Pike, he’s broke and homeless and hoping he has enough good friends in town to raise the few thousand he needs to buy back his grandfather’s farm and start scratching out the kind of subsistence that has been his family’s lot ever since coming from Ireland.
Tommy and T-Bone encounter the city Morley Callaghan liked to sketch in his stories and that M.T. Kelly, more recently, evoked brilliantly in Save Me, Joe Louis – a city of diners, taverns, boxing clubs, pool halls and nightclubs filled with gamblers looking for luck in all the wrong faces. T-Bone finds work sparring with a nasty local heavyweight on his way up while Tommy works the front door at a club and seeks out people who owe him money from the good old days. Lives intersect and double-cross: Tommy’s story and T-Bone’s get entangled with those of a kid with Lady Luck in his pocket, a fight promoter, a skuzzy producer of stag movies guarded by his gunsel, and Tommy’s old flame Lee Charles, a jazz singer with a mother in Rosedale. Small lives and narrow minds are etched with short, sharp lines and a city long gone is vividly recreated. Remarkably so – Brad Smith was a mere four years old in the year his story is set. He’s guilty of a couple of howlers – could any sexualized male not have known who Marilyn Monroe was in 1959? – but the sound of his jazzers is always in the right key and the feel of his city’s underbelly is as scarred , sticky and damp as the table tops at the Colonial Tavern I remember from a half-dozen years later.
Now that Toronto has had more makeovers than Madonna and only slightly fewer than Cher, some astute filmmaker will probably have to scout out Hamilton or come downriver to Montreal’s Saint Henri district for probable location shots when One-Eyed Jacks get filmed, as it inevitably will. But the part of Brad Smith’s story that survives everywhere is that nobody, no matter how strong, ever gets to be the hero of his own life. We all get rescued by those who love us. T-Bone Pike is Tommy’s best friend but he’s something more than that. Brad Smith uses T-Bone as a lightning rod that attracts all the racist impulses of Toronto. It’s a risky move but Smith finesses it without reducing T-Bone to a stereotype and caricature. His big black fighter is a first cousin to the older men who inhabit Walter Mosley’s “Socrates Fortlow” novels – Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned and Walkin’ the Dog – and reminds us, as good novelists always do, that any two hearts can beat as one.
It’s a measure of the vigour and variety of the present CanLit moment that books like One-Eyed Jacks are being published. Having said that, it is a curious work: part screenplay – actually, mostly screenplay. Told in 26 consecutive short scenic chapters, One-Eyed Jacks is a Hollywood genre movie written as a novel. I do not mean this derisively – for it’s eminently readable, eminently enjoyable, eminently optionable – but, as such, it seems more appropriate to gauge its achievement by how well it realizes certain Hollywood criteria. To wit: What’s it about? Whose story is it? What does he want? What’s at risk? What choice does he make? Is the ending satisfying?
One-Eyed Jacks is about guys and dolls in the prize-fighting, torch-singing, poker-playing, horse-racing scene of seedy, 1950s Toronto. Specifically, it concerns Tommy Cochrane, “a finished up boxer,” who needs five grand in the next 30 days so he can buy back his grandfather’s farm. But Tommy ain’t supposed to fight on account of the aneurysm the doctors told him he had. What choice does Tommy make? That, I won’t give away, on account of it ruining the story – which is mainly what the obviously talented Smith is interested in here: story and genre.
Genre-writing is good work if you can get it, and Brad Smith does; that is, he knows the period, knows the lingo. Not only does he get his details right – the green zoot suits, sawbucks, Brylcreems, DeSotos, jazz song lists – but he understands that the characters (though they have names like Gus Washbone, Red-haired Billy Callahan, even a Harry the Horse) can mean more than what their pulpy stereotypes represent. For without a moral interest in character, genre stories risk becoming either kitsch parody, like Movie Movie, or well-concocted but synthetic homage, such as Miller’s Crossing.
The characters, in all their grit and contradiction, are well-served by the author’s acrid omniscience. Here is Bobby Dean the porn star: “A handsome man whose looks were going fast, a never-was actor who’d fallen to whiskey and his own lack of intelligence and imagination, a lifetime loser whose only claim to fame these days was an over-sized cock.” The book is told with pithy attentiveness – Smith is quite alert to his words, scenes, and dialogues – though there are sections where, because the narration shadows the attitudes and language of the characters, a reader isn’t sure if a torch-singer’s clichés aren’t the author’s clichés. Consider: “Teddy Foster on the piano, Ralph ‘Bugs’ Bundy on bass, and Lee’s old pal Doc Thorne, blowing sax and clarinet. These guys weren’t just good, they were a country mile better than that, and Lee was pleased as punch to have them backing her,” or, “Tommy narrowed his eyes and looked at the sharp-dressed kid a moment.” But instances of “drugstore fiction” are few, and, surprisingly, the softer character moments that the author chooses to depict are often affecting, subtle and memorable.
Which brings me to the bigger-they-come-the-harder-they-fall character moments. In a genre story, the challenge is the supervision of characters into a complex plot and, most importantly, a worthy climax. Now, as anyone from Sophocles to film producer Jerry Bruckheimer will tell you, it’s hard to have a good ending. “For myself,” writes Terry Rossio in his remarkable Wordplay columns (www.wordplayer.com - perspiring screenwriters take note), “Act III – and coming up with that great ending – is definitely the toughest plotting on a script. It’s an act where you can’t get by on just craftsmanship, you really do need to have something that’s inspired.” Smith’s novel is patiently set up, well plotted and paced, but the ending, for my money, is not wholly inspired, coordinated, or satisfying. Why? Because the big finish is not driven by the hero’s desires, choices, or actions; and because the biggest plot moment is not a character moment.
Speaking from experience, genre novels are easier said than done, and easier done than done well. One-Eyed Jacks, which marks the arrival of a very capable writer, is a piece of sly, adult-strength pulp fiction. I carp about the ending only because my expectations, stoked by the author’s proficiencies, were not completely fulfilled; I felt the book’s characters, and its readers, deserved more. But Smith, who hereby serves notice of his ability and intentions, may well be a writer whose books get better the more he publishes; I look forward to the champs to come.
One-Eyed Jacks are hearts and spades, which pretty much sums up this second novel from Brad Smith, a Canfield native now living closer to the action on a farm near Dunnville. Romance there is, in a sweet mug’s way, and lots of down-and-dirty dealings, too.
This one is strictly for fun: a fond comic look at 1950s’ lowlife with enough sex and violence to keep things interesting.
One-Eyed Jacks is not to be confused with the Marlon Brando western of the same name, though both novel and movie are about double-crossers.
This is more in the tradition of Damon Runyon’s guys and dolls or Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Doubleday, the publishers, would like you to draw parallels with James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard.
The story is set briefly in Southern Ontario and then in the underworld fringe of Toronto the Good in 1959. Tommy Cochrane, 35 – a heavyweight contender until his career is endangered by an injury – has returned home with his boxing buddy T-Bone Pike, 40. Tommy’s grandfather has died, leaving half the family farm to Tommy, who has 30 days to raise $5,000 to buy out his sister and her self-righteous husband. So Tommy and T-Bone head for T.O. on a mission to get rich quick.
What follows is an entertaining excursion through a subterranean milieu along Queen Street, peopled by two-bit gamblers with thousand-dollar dreams, hustlers and con men, babes with moxy, laid-back jazz musicians and assorted small-time hoods.
Smith captures the era with rollicking success. It’s kicks to return to language such as “mooched, chowderheads, made-in-the-shade, cop a feel, bun-in-the-oven, welshing,” and meet the flotsam and jetsam of the fight game.
The dialogue is terrific.
Here’s Mac Brady, a promoter always eyeing the big killing: “I’m looking into this new show at the Bellair Theatre. It’s a hell of a thing. It’s like Shakespeare but with strippers, you know.”
Fat Ollie we’ve heard from at the start of the review, avoiding the sauce for his wife’s C-note. He runs the all-night poker game on Queen Street (“two bits for a bottle of beer, same for a shot of whiskey”) that attracts a cross-section of crumbs.
Here’s a description of Herm Bell, Parliament Street hotdog with a love for the ponies at Greenwood: “He loved the smell of horseshit – to his gambler’s nose it was Chanel No. 5.”
And of Tony Broad, the porno-movie producer: “Tony…had cards printed up, with his name and a Beverly Hills address, and he dressed well and groomed himself carefully. Sometimes he snuck out of hotels in the dead of night, but it didn’t cost a nickel to keep the moustache trimmed.”
Against some of these denizens, Tommy Cochrane, the hero, comes off less indelibly. Maybe he’s too cool for this company, but he tends to remain in the background. The major love interest is between Tommy and Lee Charles, his former squeeze, now a saloon singer at The Blue Parrot. She’s hip, independent, brash, wise-cracking, tough, sexy, easy on the eye and sings on key to a jazz beat. Like the book says, she’s a pistol.
Here’s her take on her rooming house: “No drinking, no smoking, no men. Sort of what Lee had always imagined hell to be like.”
Lots of guys line up along the bar at The Blue Parrot with more than Lee’s vocal cords on their minds. Among them is the promising heavyweight contender and Manitoba farmboy Nicky Wilson (“strong like bull, smart like tractor”). Nicky has eyes for Lee, so there’s more than a farm-buying five grand at stake when promoter Brady tempts Tommy to fight Wilson at the Gardens.
Smith nicely conveys a sense of time and place, from a rundown gymnasium (“The place was falling apart, but then Tommy had never seen a gym that wasn’t”), to the rapport between singer and musicians at The Blue Parrot to the cocky menace of Fat Ollie’s poker sessions.
But the writer has less success with his similes. Too often he settles for the commonplace: “drunk as a failed preacher, tighter than a Scotsman’s purse, colder than dry ice, dead as a mackerel,” or stretches: “quiet as three dimwitted church mice, busier than a one-armed switchboard operator with the crabs.”
One-Eyed Jacks has its violence – the stupid kind that belies better intentions. It has its language, too. But mostly it’s a blast from the ‘50s that keeps a smile on your mug as you thumb through 266 entertaining pages.