Meet the Pike Boys, heavy hitters in the New Orleans underworld. A step outside the law is the only way for dirt poor people to break out of poverty and make it in 1920s America – and when it comes to setting, what could be sexier than the Big Easy during the birth of jazz music? This is Canal Street, gangsters and their molls, steamy brothels, sleazy politicians and every kind of hanger-on and grifter you could imagine – all part of the backdrop to Danny Cherry Jr’s ambitious new novel, and an iconic location begs an authentic feel.
The Pike Boys has an intriguing and poignant origin. It began when Cherry was 20 and looking for an escape from the racism he was experiencing in an America that seemed hostile to his existence as an African American. Initially, it was to be an outlaw adventure but it soon became a more complex, noir-ish character study of a crime family – The Pike Boys.
There’s Rory, the youngest, a little rough at the edges but eager to learn, easy to mislead. Clyde is the oldest, fresh out of one of the south’s toughest prisons, a man with problems and a fragile grip on his sanity. Further damaged in jail, he’s a shadow of his former self and, free again, he’s desperate to prove himself. Then there’s Jesse, the boss. Practical and smart, he runs the family businesses and has his own innovative ideas. His problem is that there’s a perfect storm of events coming that could prove as devastating as a hurricane.
There’s plenty of action across the novel, which opens with a truck hijacking. Jesse, Rory and Twitch lie in wait for the Thompson Distillery convoy and when it passes they hold up the trucks. They beat the lead driver for authenticity, though he’s in on it. Then they drive off with the massive haul of booze.
The alcohol is about to become gold dust as the Volstead Act is comes into force, launching the era of Prohibition and, consequently, a decade of flying lead. Jesse’s plan is to sell the booze to fund legitimate businesses. He’s thinking about the future; he wants out.
When Clyde returns home from prison, Jesse and his partner are running The Rising Sun, the biggest, most profitable brothel in the French Quarter, but Clyde doesn’t get this thing about legitimising the family enterprise. He’s about to undermine Jesse and the family’s entire future.
The top dog in town is Big Sal. He and everyone else think that Jesse is a king-in-waiting, because as an old man he won’t live forever. At a meeting of the clans, Jesse shocks them by announcing that he intends to step back from the rackets and Clyde will take over. It doesn’t go down well and trust and confidence is everything for these guys.
Prohibition is an opportunity to make serious money but it has its threats too. The latest is golden boy district attorney Cameron Mulligan. He’s looking to run for mayor as the new broom sweeping New Orleans clean, draining the swamp. Arresting the people behind the booze hijacking would be a massive boost for his campaign.
Now Mulligan, Big Sal and Clyde are all preventing Jesse from moving on and that’s not the end of his troubles. Though he’s married, there’s an old flame in the picture, and after one the girls is assaulted the brothel is demanding the protection he’s supposed to provide. It’s a problem that can only be solved with violence and that just leads to more trouble.
Jesse knows that he has to get out if he wants to hold onto his sanity and any chance of hanging on to the man he is, rather than become like Big Sal. How many gangsters have said that and meant it? But then things just drag you back in.
The biggest strength of the novel is its portraits of Clyde and Jesse, their blood ties and conflicting ways of seeing things, plus there’s young Rory caught between them. Together with that, Cherry presents a plausible picture of the machinations of a corrupted world, the gangsters and the politicians, the shenanigans, manoeuvring, racism, scheming, backstabbing and greedy ambition.
I didn’t feel a sense of the streets as strongly as I would have liked – the bars and brothels, the smells and the music. The action that punctuates the drama fits the story but it’s never full-on thrilling in the best traditions of an edgy page-turner. Here, it’s the family saga that dominates and this element is done with real skill and captivating drama.
The Pike Boys is about family, mental health, drugs, bacchanalia, jealousy, revenge, greed for power and money and the whether we can escape the bounds of the life we lead. Some of the minor character motivations are a little easy, perhaps more complexity at times could have spiced things up against that impressive range of themes. However, you won’t want to miss the internecine family showdowns. It will be fascinating to see where Danny Cherry Jr goes next.
Also see Ray Celestin’s The Axman’s Jazz.
Big Easy Press
CFL Rating: 3 Stars