Tafoya's Thief is a nuanced character study--with an extraordinary finish
By Dennis Tafoya
St Martin’s Minotaur. 291 pp.
“Ray was thirty and he felt like he’d come to the end of the life he’d been leading. He just didn’t know if that meant he was going to change or if he was going to die.”
Dope Thief is the debut novel of Dennis Tafoya and, while it bears all the hallmarks of a crime novel, it is also something more, a finely nuanced character study of a criminal trying to get out of the relentless downward spiral of his crimes. Ray is a small-time crook whose new racket is posing as a DEA agent, raiding drug houses and confiscating the money and drugs. Of course, his luck runs out and he finds himself on the run from criminals more ruthless and more violent than himself.
The first two-thirds of the novel read like a typical crime story: “there was only so much luck and then it was gone . . . It couldn’t go on forever. Everyone was high. Everyone was stupid. Everyone had guns.”
However, this isn’t really a plot-driven, genre book. Nor is Dope Thief a noir novel. Ray, like most noir protagonists, is a fallen character about to take an even greater fall. His life descends from one circle of hell to the next. Just as he escapes one torturous punishment, another is awaiting just around the bend. But Tafoya provides Ray with an un-noirlike extended coda, not just to wrap up the storyline, but to bring his character to fruition, to resolve the real conflicts of his life, to tell the story of a man trying to make a life and family for himself.
Even when he’s on the job, casing a meth lab, Ray can’t keep his mind from constantly drifting, reminiscing, fantasizing about the life he could have had, or the life he might have one day, if only he’d get a break. But every time he starts to believe, he’s reminded of the cold hard facts of a bleak world: ““Maybe it was all six kinds of bullshit, and you just made a choice about what illusion to believe.”
Dope Thief also begins like a father/son tale with the father missing. Ray’s father was also a small time criminal and is now in jail. The son hates the old man, but can’t help from following in his footsteps. The father’s absence in the opening is an unmistakable void, something missing, like a skipped heartbeat or a caught breath. Ray doesn’t need him, but he must come to grips with his legacy.
Ray spends lots of time thinking about his own family, or lack thereof, and observing an associate’s family life. He wonders about the families he’s destroyed and blunders into making one of his own. Through it all is the constant doubt: “Just grit your teeth and give it up.” At times, I thought Tafoya over-wrote some of these scenes, especially the ones between father and son (I wonder what this novel would have been like with only the ghost of the father to haunt Ray), but that’s a small caveat in a novel so rich.
Dope Thief is a novel that took me by surprise. Tafoya’s prose alternates between a staccato, hard-boiled cadence and a beautiful, near florid prose style, like a mid-career Bruce Springsteen album. Dope Thief could be all the stories of Darkness on the Edge Town (and a few from The River) rolled into one narrative, characters searching for meaning and a way to make a life on the streets at night.
I wondered about Dope Thief’s designation as a crime novel because it’s not really a plot-driven genre narrative. But this is a crime novel, filled with criminals and the crimes they commit. The difference is in it’s tone and resolutions. In the final ninety pages, the full coda that Tafoya gives us elevates his book to the extraordinary. Ray wants something more. He cannot escape his past, but longs to have what his father could never provide, a sense of family And Dope Thief, in the end, is about just that: a man trying to make a family even though he feels he doesn’t deserve one.