Payback: A Novel

Overview

New York City in the boomtown 1980s: land values skyrocketing, new buildings going up on every block, fortunes being made overnight - and extorted in the morning. On the streets of Hell's Kitchen, the construction rackets are in the hands of the Irish mob. It's always been their turf; now it's their time. And the stakes are higher than ever before - which explains the sudden interest in the Irish on the part of both the Mafia and the feds (led by a female agent trapped by the necessity to prove what she is ...
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Overview

New York City in the boomtown 1980s: land values skyrocketing, new buildings going up on every block, fortunes being made overnight - and extorted in the morning. On the streets of Hell's Kitchen, the construction rackets are in the hands of the Irish mob. It's always been their turf; now it's their time. And the stakes are higher than ever before - which explains the sudden interest in the Irish on the part of both the Mafia and the feds (led by a female agent trapped by the necessity to prove what she is clearly capable of), and the growing struggle for position and profit within the mob itself, an internecine war that finally ignites in the back rooms and broad daylight of the neighborhood. At the heart of the story are the Adare brothers: Paddy, a failed boxer turned mob henchman who's never left the streets he grew up on and who, at thirty-two, is beginning to pay the price for years of living large; and Billy, a college graduate, back home for the summer to work in the tunnels as a sandhog before he enters law school and gets himself out of the old neighborhood and in on the American dream - brothers divided by everything but their powerful blood-tie. Now, as their paths converge on familiar streets in a cross fire of greed, treachery, and violence, their loyalties - to family, friends, neighborhood, and, most important, each other - will be put to a brutal and profoundly telling test.
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Editorial Reviews

Mark Athitakis

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 clich├ęs 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

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It's the go-go real estate boom of the 1980s: new buildings are sprouting up all over New York City and money is falling like rain-but who will control the flow? In the neighborhood called Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side, the Irish mob has always ruled the construction rackets, but there's a turf war brewing. Now the Mafia wants a piece of the action, and to make matters worse, the feds are sniffing around looking for trouble. Set in dusty Ninth Avenue gin mills and amidst the bellow and clank of construction sites, Kelly's sprawling debut novel is a macho tour de force centering on the Adare brothers, Paddy, a former boxer turned mob enforcer, and his kid brother, Billy, a college graduate trying to earn money for law school as a sandhog digging tunnels, which one co-worker calls "the job with the highest death rate in America." The vividly realistic depictions of the sandhogs' brutal working conditions 80 stories underground and the grim consequences of labor strife bring to mind Zola's Germinal; the scenes of gruesome mob violence are choreographed with cinematic intensity. Chapter by chapter, the story reaches inside the minds of all the story's key figures, including those of a psychotic hit man who's a neat freak, a ruthless crime boss, a tenderhearted Mafia capo and a hardworking, pregnant FBI agent. Although Kelly relies a little too heavily on flashbacks for character development, his dialogue rings true and his characters emerge as convincing individuals battling a whirlwind of forces beyond their control. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Kelly uses the cranes that towered over New York during the Reagan-era building boom as a backdrop to his searing tale of greed, corruption, and loyalty. Paddy and Billy Adare are brothers descended from a long line of Irish sandhogs-miners who dig tunnels for cars, subways, and water. After Paddy's boxing career ended due to injury, he turned to crime and became an enforcer for a West Side boss. Billy went to college and is working what he hopes is his last summer as a sandhog before he enters law school. When the sandhogs contract runs out, and powerful contractor Joe Harkness is willing to use extortion, threats, and violence as negotiation tools, Paddy is forced to choose between his profession and his past. The vivid characterizations, crafty pacing, and authentic millieu makes Payback a very impressive debut, despite the race-against-time ending. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/96.]-Adam Mazmanian, "Library Journal"
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780449002230
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/27/1997
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 323
  • Product dimensions: 4.16 (w) x 6.91 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Kelly was born in New Jersey. He spent ten years as a construction worker, including three years as a sandhog in the Bronx. He went on to earn a Bachelor's degree in political economy from Fordham University and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard. Kelly has also been active in local and national politics through labor unions and has run a nonprofit organization for trade unions.

Kelly lives in New York City. Payback is his first novel.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2000

    Good Stuff

    This is the book that started it all for me. I never enjoyed reading until i opened this book. It drew me in and did not let go. Congradulations to Mr. Kelly, great book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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