Kelly's 'Payback' - How power works

February 16, 1997|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,special to the sun

"Payback: A Novel," by Thomas Kelly. Knopf. $23. 276 pages.

"Payback," a stunning first novel, portrays two Irish brothers from the Bronx grasping for survival amidst the moral miasma and economic anarchy of the Reagan Eighties. Billy Adare, a "sandhog," one of the Irish workers mining the tunnels beneath the turbulent city, is poised to enter Columbia Law School; his brother Paddy, an ex-con and ex-prize fighter, now a hood for the Irish Mafia who has outlived his usefulness, faces a dim future.

We meet as well Jack Tierney, the head of the Irish Mafia, a vicious killer who honed his cruelty in Vietnam; his sadistic brother Butcher Boy; a pregnant FBI agent named Mary Moy; an Italian mafioso with doubts named Vito Romero; a heartless contractor named Harkness, who profits from Reagan's

laissez-faire union-decimating politics, and many more richly drawn personalities. "I have a judge who will issue an injunction ten minutes after they walk off the job," Harkness boasts. "I'm prepared to bus men in to work this tunnel."

Kelly assumes omnisciently the point of view of heroes and villains alike, a welcome change from the claustrophobia of the ,, limited narration so popular among the moderns and the post-moderns. Good fiction portrays people in trouble and Kelly, quite obviously pro-union, pro-Irish, and anti-Mafia, does not spare even the character he most admires, the intrepid, loyal Billy.

As skillfully as he creates character, Kelly is no less adept at depicting setting: the action is set in the Irish upper Bronx, Hell's Kitchen, Mafia Brooklyn, and the black hole of the mines and tunnels. Goons run rampant; crack is dealt on every corner of the Bronx, and law enforcement is something of a joke.

In an Irish bar called Briody's, Billy is proclaimed "the next JFK." Beside the Irish flag they have hung his acceptance letter to college. Jack Tierney's parallel artifacts are a photograph of himself holding the severed heads of two Vietnamese and a collection of shriveled ears. History defines us, consumes us.

Nor is the violence reserved for artifacts. With a free hand, the Italian and Irish Mafia join forces to defeat the workers. Sandhogs are murdered, both directly and because safety regulations have been abandoned in the tunnel. Low-life wise-guys urinate on their enemies' graves. A scab's left eye is knocked out of its socket and hangs by the optic nerve down on his cheek. "Payback," almost a "Studs Lonigan" revisited 50 years later, is not pretty. Some of the murders will make you wince.

Thomas Kelly has written a powerful story about how easy it is to lose everything, how in the America of the '80s, and beyond, the humans live surrounded by the subhuman, about the dying moment of union camaraderie, and about the transcendent grace of family loyalty. His harshest lesson is that "you can never be betrayed by someone you don't trust." A fine example of what Graham Greene called an "entertainment," "Payback" introduces us cinematically to frightening subterranean worlds which define the way power really works. Don't wait for the inevitable film version, which is likely to heighten the violence while diluting Kelly's important perspective.

Joan Mellen's most recent work "Hellman and Hammett (HarperCollins) is her 13th book, among them she has written a novel, several biographies and books of literary and film critisism. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Temple University.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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