By Thomas J. Hubschman
By Richard Cumyn
It is difficult not to like Billy Conover, the small-time hustler, petty thief, and ne’er-do-well protagonist of Thomas J. Hubschman’s BILLY BOY. To quote Billy’s nemesis, “Something about the son-of-a-bitch remained persistently likeable, even when he was busting your chops or conning you out of your last quarter.” Hubschman has brought together all the ingredients for a riveting read: a sexy anti-hero, a persistent cop with a boyhood grudge, the gritty urban war zone of Brooklyn, NY, where the cultural melting pot is stuck on slow-boil, and a momentary lapse of his main character's judgment that sets the headlong machinery of the story in motion.
Hubschman’s narrative voice is confident and informed. While he may not depend upon a hip street patois of an Irvine Welsh or Elmore Leonard, his style is so clear as to disappear, letting the story advance in its simplest and most direct form. If the author has a fault, it is that he cares so much about his characters that at times he explains too much, speaking for them and pointing out meaning when he should let their actions do the talking. Nevertheless, it is a minor flaw and does not distract from the complete world set before us, one of close-knit but troubled families, off-track betting parlors, prostitutes, junkies, homeless people, thugs, and the law.
An early scene in the novel reveals Hubschman at his best. At a wake for a friend of the Conover family, the traditional elements of mourning, religious observance, and community mask the ugly reality that the deceased, an attractive young woman not unlike Billy’s own sister, has died of a drug overdose. Billy arrives late, high on amphetamines, and provokes a fist-fight in the middle of the funeral parlor. Like the catalyst in a chemical reaction, Billy is at the center of this and similar collisions between past and present, head and heart, like and unlike, good and bad.
Throughout the book we are reminded of the normalcy lurking in the distant but still vivid past of these misfits. Billy and his closest accomplice in crime once strung beads together in kindergarten. Billy turns to a trusted clergyman for advice. Billy’s sister works at a respectable job in Manhattan. Yet we are never far from an unsettling world where normalcy and tradition have been subverted. In a particularly startling juxtaposition, Haitian immigrants offer blood sacrifice and local teenagers couple under cover of darkness in a high-fenced Quaker cemetery. “In the morning park rangers found both used condoms and decapitated chickens, along with the occasional goat’s carcass.”
On the surface this is a crime story with a driving momentum as Billy, first as fugitive and then as falsely accused defendant in a murder trial, has his survival skills severely tested. On a deeper level it's a story about the possibility of redemption. Far from innocent, Billy is morally adrift. He knows right from wrong and, despite his flaws, owns to a most unlikely religious faith, one that stands as a lesser counterweight to the adrenaline rush that accompanies his theft, sex and drug-taking. Will he do the right thing by his family, by the mother of his child, and by himself? Indeed, what is the right thing? The promise of an answer to these questions impels us to the very last word of this most disturbing but most satisfying novel.
BILLY BOY is as real as it gets, a tough, disturbing, unsentimental account of life on the mean streets of New York City. Thomas J. Hubschman achieves a minor miracle: he makes us actually care what happens to a small-time punk who appears hell-bent on self-destruction. In Billy Conover’s redemption there’s hope for the rest of us.
(Richard Cumyn is the author of three collections of stories, I am not most places (Beach Holme, 1996), The Limit of Delta Y Over Delta X (Goose Lane, 1994) and Viking Brides (Oberon, 2001).
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