Raymond Gaspar has done his time: four years for trying to sell a stolen boat and for possession of crystal meth. “He served them at a place in Tracy called the Deuel Vocational Institution . . . The only vocation he learned was making sure the drugs kept moving.” Inside, his boss is Arthur, “the only man in the California Department of Corrections who could make a call to the Black Guerilla Family or the Aryan Brotherhood and get action from either group.” Now Arthur wants Raymond to work for him on the outside by stepping into the ecstasy-selling business that Arthur has going with a Filipina named Gloria. ” ‘Unless you’re planning on going straight or some bullshit? Accepting the Lord into your heart?’ Raymond shook his head.”
Cool and laconic, echoing vintage Elmore Leonard, the early scenes in Patrick Hoffman’s new novel, Every Man a Menace, radiate tension. A complex trap is being set — you can almost hear the pulling back of the spring — and around it Hoffman will construct an intricate fretwork of betrayal, blackmail, murder, and retail economics. “Almost $4,090 a pound,” one ecstasy dealer calculates. “That, times sixty pounds, worked out to around $246,000 a load. They could sell it to one buyer for more than twice that price: half a million a load. It was good.” Even better is the $50 million load snaking its way from Burma to San Francisco, a shipment that explains so many of the novel’s befuddling plot twists.
No wonder, when Raymond first meets Gloria, “it occurred to him that he might already be in over his head.” Gloria buys ecstasy, sells it to weird Shadrack, who sells it on, and Arthur, the dealmaker, gets 10 percent. Now Arthur wants more. He sends Raymond to replace “one of these two parties.” But Raymond’s story is merely the overture to a byzantine drama in five acts that takes us from Southeast Asia and Israel to Miami and California, keeping us guessing until the final confrontation that explains everything: the setups, the side deals, and the ultimate payoff. Even then, as the waters of San Francisco Bay close over a weighted garbage bag containing one of the plot’s loose ends, key scenes remain tantalizingly opaque.
Hoffman is an infernally clever writer. His first novel, The White Van, was a Fabergé egg of a thriller, spring-loaded with revelations, and Every Man a Menace is more intricate still. Yet Hoffman’s puzzles are more human than mechanical. His characters are too complex and his scenes too immediate and engrossing to be diminished by intrigue. Raymond, for instance, is the closest thing to an innocent here, yet far more than a pawn. Fresh out of prison and out of his depth, getting high, sensing danger, he dominates the novel’s first section. Through his eyes, we see an outside world that seems oddly unreal. “Raymond walked up Mission Street and bought himself a prepaid cell phone. The sidewalk was crowded, but he felt tense and lonely. The city had changed. It seemed richer.” When he is taken to the airport and instructed to buy a ticket to Mexico — one he will never use — he thinks that the terminal “looked like a prison for rich people.” Losing sight of him is abrupt and wrenching, but Hoffman is merciless, and he has much more to show us.
So it’s on to Miami. “There were nearly two hundred people inside already,” a nightclub owner observes. “They stood clustered in groups and moved their shoulders to the music like apes; they surrounded the bar like ants.” Semion and Isaak, Israeli army buddies, own the Ground Zero club, but their real business is selling drugs shipped from Southeast Asia through a middleman, Mr. Hong. “Miami was the new Switzerland,” Semion boasts. “Russians were buying property all over the city, and nobody looked at the money. Banks welcomed new customers with champagne.” There are no innocents here. But there are victims, and Semion becomes one, set up by a beautiful grifter but destroyed by somebody far more powerful. “He cracked his eyes open; the bed was covered in black paint . . . He sat up a little more, then reached for the lamp and turned it on. The black became red. The paint became blood.” Another wheel in Hoffman’s elegant clockwork plot starts turning. By the time it winds down, the deadly stratagem behind all the killing, all the lies, will make perfect, terrible sense. This is business, after all, as Gloria tells her new partner: “I moved to America from the Philippines when I was twelve years old. I never went to school . . . And look at me now . . . I own property. I get awards from city hall for my community work. I pay my taxes. You understand what I’m saying?” Hoffman makes sure that we do.