Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Life of Crime

“It’s a civilized country that sells cappuccinos on the commuter ferries.” My sentiments exactly. The country in question is Italy and the book in question is the novel The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. You may start to see ads describing this book as “Riveting”, “Provocative”, “A Wild Read” and I would agree.

The place of the story is alternately Brooklyn and the island of Ischia (a real island off the coast of Naples. When I looked it up, it mentioned that the island is well regarded for its thermal baths though no mention is made of that in the story!) Three main characters: Anton, mid-level manager in a research division at an international water systems consulting firm; his cousin Aria; and his corporate assistant Elena. When the company is awarded a contract with New York City, all of the employees must have a background check…and that’s when Anton’s carefully constructed life starts to come apart.

What starts with a falsified college diploma ends in murder with all manner of illegal activity in between: selling stolen goods, creating and selling false passports and social security cards, human trafficking. As the subject of illegal immigration appears almost daily in our news, the sections of the book related to the false passports and social security cards bring another dimension to that debate.

Like the rest of us, criminals are not one-dimensional. They are not completely defined by their criminal activity. They are also parents trying to raise their children; artists with a love for restoring their stolen antiquities; philosophers reading Spinoza on a Sunday afternoon. But loyalty is paramount and betrayal is unthinkable. That makes breaking out of the cycle of criminal activity, no matter how innocently begun, almost impossible.

This is Anton’s story but not just Anton’s. As his mother tells him, “Well, most things you have to do in life are at least a little questionable…” Haven't we all been there?

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