GUY RAZ, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
It's time for another installment in our series Three Books, where authors talk about three books on one theme. Today, writer Tony D'Souza celebrates a character type that subsists in the shadows of real life, but has long thrived in the spotlight of good fiction: the criminal.
TONY D'SOUZA: A longtime acquaintance of mine happens to be a drug dealer. Well, of course, our moral codes aren't in alignment. I do recognize his ability to handle the intricate logistics of running a complicated midsize business, all under the shadow of the law. He argues that what people like him do serves vital functions in our society, allowing access to wealth for those often denied it and occasionally undermining oppressive laws.
Here are three wonderful novels whose takes on different aspects of crime are valuable to us all.
"Goodbye Mr. Norris," only available today collected with "The Berlin Stories," is Christopher Isherwood's portrait of an aging homosexual confidence man. Sometimes, criminals are the last ones left with the skills to survive an oppressive system, as was often the case during Nazi Germany. With his wigs, phony passports, elaborate cover stories and talent for getting money when he needs it, effeminate Mr. Norris is one of the few of the targeted classes to survive the rise of Hitler in Berlin. It's a testament to the destructive force of the Nazis that even the ever-wily Norris barely escapes with his life.
John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer" was a landmark book during its day; Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, D.H. Lawrence all sung its praises, and Jennifer Egan mirrors its hectic urbanity in "A Visit from the Goon Squad." Riddled with Manhattanites aching to lift themselves out of varying degrees of financial frustration, the standout character for me has always been Congo Jake. When we meet him, he's a peg-legged sailor docking at the teeming port. By the book's end, he's evolved into Armand Duval, a Park Avenue burgher married to a socialite, rich off his years of bootlegging.
For Congo Jake, who is denied the educational and economic opportunities to truly get ahead, life as an Upper East Side moonshiner shows that crime can pay in big, big ways. Finally, "The Restraint of Beasts" was a breakthrough novel for author Magnus Mills, and such a wonderful noir read that even Thomas Pynchon came out of seclusion to laud it. The novel tells the tale of a three-man team of fence builders in Scotland who unintentionally go on a killing spree through the rural countryside.
An anatomy of unpleasant labor, poor pay, cultural tensions and overbearing bosses, "The Restraint of Beasts" is quick to reveal its hand that it's not meant to be read literally but to be enjoyed for its subversive statements and haphazard chaos. It suggests that insolence and aggression are often how marginalized groups voice their oppression, while also allowing us to laugh at the criminals' hapless attempts to best a system we're equally trapped in. To better understand crime, these novels seem to say, is to become more aware of the flaws of our own culture. Whether we mythologize them or sneer at them, criminals serve to remind us that there is always a way out.
RAZ: Tony D'Souza is the author of "Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight."