BOSTON -- At first, the two aging gangsters don't recognize Rick Marinick as he glides through the old neighborhood. He's usually behind the wheel of a junker with chipped paint, not his wife's shiny import, so it takes a beat before scowls turn to schoolboy grins and the men shout out greetings.
Marinick waves back. The old South Boston Irish mobsters might as well be family, and these one-way streets are home: taverns where he and local boys planned bank heists, parking lots where federal agents eavesdropped, hoping to catch stray shop talk among members of the notorious Winter Hill gang, the lonely stretch of Sugar Bowl beach where enforcers kept bookies and gamblers in line.
He's been giving a lot of tours of this working-class, Irish-American enclave lately, ever since galleys of his just-released debut novel, Boyos, started making the rounds, triggering the kind of buzz that makes Hollywood agents and literary magazines fawn.
The book is the story of Jackie "Wacko" Curran, a gangster on the hunt for the perfect, liberating score, one that might fulfill his secret wish to get out of the organized crime racket that's become his life.
For the 53-year-old author, the story, like memories grown fuzzy with time, is equal parts creation and recollection. And perhaps something of a metaphor for his own turbulent life.
Twenty-seven years ago, Marinick graduated near the top of his class from the Massachusetts State Police Academy. Not long after, though, he shed the uniform to be become a bouncer, a street tough and petty thief, and later, an industrious armored-truck robber. Next came a shootout that left his partner bleeding to death in his arms in a speeding stolen car, a spiraling cocaine addiction, and finally, a police chase that ended with him locked inside a series of Massachusetts prisons for 10 years.
When he emerged in 1996, Marinick seemed remade. While jailed, he'd earned two degrees from Boston University, had joined Narcotics Anonymous and had gotten a (mostly) legit job. He'd fallen in love, too, and was ready to prove himself worthy. So he grabbed a blue binder and started writing.
Now, Publisher's Weekly calls Boyos (Justin, Charles & Co, $24.95) "confident and brutally authentic." It compares Marinick to other crime writers who in recent years have put South Boston on the literary map, extolling throaty dialogue that reads like pure George V. Higgins, and frenetic, moody imagery that brings to mind Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. Kirkus Review gave the book one of its coveted starred ratings. USA Today says the book "has the feel of a cult classic." Film producers keep calling, asking about manuscript rights.
Rick Marinick, an ex-con one strike away from a life sentence, is a wanted man again. Crime gave him stories to tell, fiction a way to tell them. But he's still here in Boston, on the edges of the life he writes about, a wave and a nod away from those still living it. Will Boyos be that perfect, liberating score that takes Marinick completely away?
Boyos is not the first thing Rick Marinick ever wrote. It's not his favorite thing, either. That distinction goes to a tender children's story, tucked away for now in a bedroom drawer.
The kids' book is about the adventures of a bespectacled rhinoceros that escapes the zoo to go on a quest to find his family. Unlike the story of Wacko Curran, it's a simple allegory on good and evil. Too simple, it would seem, to come from a guy like Marinick.
But then, things with Rick Marinick are not always what you might expect.
His home, for instance, is a renovated 1860s house on Dorchester Heights, the hill in South Boston where George Washington used captured British cannons to help turn the tide of the Revolutionary War.
The house stands out among the neighborhood's staid gray and white duplexes. Its shingles are varying shades of tropical-water blue; inside, the walls of the eating nook are sunset orange. There's a fancy Jenn-Air range in the kitchen, a bidet in the master bath. All Marinick's doing, reminders of Key West, where he vacations and dreams of making a home.
His wife Elaine's Raggedy Ann and Andy loll in a bedroom window seat, and Chinese charms of jade and red silk cord dangle from the doorframes. A giant maple shades the roof deck and, on clear days, the Marinicks marvel at Boston's skyline and harbor. It is, Marinick says, his fortress, a place where he can write and think and turn in at 9 if he wants, as he does most nights.
"I'm a homebody now," he admits, showing off a collection of rhinoceros toys. He says it as a matter of fact, the same way he talks about the alternative, should this fortress ever crumble. "There's a jail cell waiting for me, I know."
Maybe it's just a rueful sigh. Or maybe the middle-class trappings are less of a safety net than they appear. He gave them up once before, haunted by his boyhood admiration for a heart-of-gold wiseguy who was a friend of his father.