5 out of 5
Funny story: I read Fake I.D. somewhere around or close to the time it came out for Hard Case Crime – 2009 – and hated it. I picked and chose which HCCs I read somewhat at random, while trying to complete my collection of the entirety of their catalogue, and while there were some books that were amazing versus great versus okay, there were only a couple I felt weren’t necessarily “good”; Fake I.D. was the first one I straight up wanted to put down, though. I had / have very clear memories of moments of disgust with what Jason Starr had his protagonist, Tommy Russo, get up to; I couldn’t identify the redeeming qualities of the tale – it just seemed like making us wallow in misery. A little later I would read the first book in Starr’s and Ken Bruen’s “Bust” series, and while I recognized some of that same miserableness therein – that same brutality, and mean-spiritedness – I felt like it was much more tolerable because it was clearly canted toward humor; like, everyone in the book was scum, so it was okay to laugh at them. I figured: Starr on his own is a rough read, but pair him up with a buddy and it can be okay.
I’m going through HCCs sequentially now, and had Fake I.D. looming, not looking forward to it. I hadn’t really realized it, but inbetween the two reads, I’d gone through the rest of the Bust series and mostly really enjoyed them, picking up on the smarts hiding behind the crass – crass – surface.
On this second go-through: man, this is one of the best things I’ve ever read. Tastes change over time, but I’m honestly a bit puzzled at what set me off so much on the first run. I’m scared to consider that I might’ve seen some of myself in Tommy, and was then disgusted by his actions. Maybe. Maybe it was just one of those things, not being in the right headspace. Maybe I was just an idiot.
Tommy Russo: actor; bouncer. His next big break is surely right around the corner – something he knows as he squanders any and every dollar he scrounges at the OTB. He’ll apologize for his gambling addiction when begging money off his boss, Frank, who sees Tommy as something of a son, and say he’s getting straight and going to GA, but needs a few more dollars to get by… and then he’ll go right and bet that as well. Tommy experiences no guilt about this; there’s no inner monologue. Starr doesn’t wink at us about how Tommy’s only use of his acting is when lying to those around him; how there’s no actual “fake I.D.” in the book, beyond Tommy’s mellifluous nature giving him the ability to be whomever he needs to be right in the moment. And the thing is: it works. It works to keep him working as a bouncer, in good with Frank; it works in his flirtations, invited up to a girl’s room after a single conversation… then stealing her jewelry when she’s asleep; and it works again when he lies his way out of that theft.
At the OTB, Tommy gets the sniff of going in on a joint horse-owning syndicate with some others, if he can put the cash together. This is the next big break. And so the pulp / noir premise is established: do what you need to do to get ten grand.
The brilliance of what Starr pulls off as we read Tommy’s exploits is that complete lack of inner monologue – the zero self-awareness – without it becoming comedy. That may have been what tweaked me before, that this dude was a little too real, going around and doing some incredibly dastardly things with very little consequence, but also no afterthought… or forethought. Just like he can put on a new attitude for Frank or the girls, Russo’s “self” turns on a dime as well, and sequences in the book don’t exactly escalate, they just suddenly become horrific. It’s beyond shock – it’s senseless. Russo gaslights everyone in his life; sees everyone as either in his way or a stepping stone. You’ve met people like this, and, within the first chapter or so is borne the thing we hear whenever that neighbor or friend is revealed as a rapist, or murderer: “they seemed so nice…”
Starr maintains a tight hold on this all the way through Fake I.D., never leaving Russo’s side. I guess I could say it’s not a “deep” book, as it’s not out to exactly examine Tommy’s condition, but there’s something to be said for a title that can hold you in page-turning mesmerism alongside a character who, himself, as no depth. It’s brilliant, brutal stuff.
(And maybe it is occasionally pretty darkly funny as well, christ.)