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Thomas Kelly's much-acclaimed first novel clearly wants to make a grand entrance. Payback renders a hardscrabble, working-class cityscape in broad strokes, as if it's striving to enter the proud literary tradition of dramas about class struggle. But the book also tries to be a more personalized family drama. Ultimately, Kelly never seems quite sure what kind of novel he wants to write.
As a tale about Irish mobsters rigging New York City's 1980s construction boom, the book has a gritty, Godfather-esque feel. But as the story of Billy Adare, who returns from college to his family home in the Bronx seeking his place in the world, it plays as a working-class version of The Great Gatsby, substituting dirt and soot for wealthy sophistication. Struggling to find a medium between the two, Payback is unable to reconcile the two books it's trying to be -- it's a promising work that, unfortunately, collapses under its own weight.
Billy is the main focus of Kelly's story, and the book's most fully realized character. Back home to earn money for law school, he spends the summer working as a "sandhog," chiseling and blasting through tunnels four miles beneath the city. Desperate to escape his claustrophobic old neighborhood and "the toil and noise of mining," he plans to make this his last summer underground. His brother Paddy, a former boxer now working shakedowns for the local Mafioso, finds himself falling deeper into a world of violence and vengeance. A minor offense can equal death, and it's not long before Billy is caught up in a grisly game of blood and broken promises.
To his credit, Kelly isn't interested in polishing the Adares' halos; both Billy and Paddy are, by turns, lousy boyfriends, hard drinkers, struggling souls -- they're perhaps two of the most unheroic heroes in the mob genre. Still, Kelly's complex characterizations are working in service of a plot structure so flimsy and familiar it barely passes building code. Payback is standard blood-brother stuff, complete with a weak grandfather at home and a noble federal agent entangled in bureaucratic red tape. The array of hit men, mob bosses and worried women that orbit the story are little more than standard-issue caricatures.
With a better plot in his hands, Thomas Kelly could be a riveting storyteller: Payback shows him mastering a frenetic pace of plot twists, and the voices of his barflies and construction workers can rise above clichés when he wills them to. Furthermore, the book's violence is perpetual, but never random. Every gunshot seems to fire out of a tangled network of emotion and fate. But that means little when you don't care who's pulling the trigger. The hackneyed story Kelly is offering comes pre-encased in cement overshoes; bravely gasping for air and room to move, it simply sinks away, slowly and irretrievably. -- Salon