Warning, this review is full of spoilers, and I didn't feel like trying to figure out where they all were and hiding them individually. So don't read if you don't want to be spoiled.
I was disappointed when I read this book for the first time, not long after its publication. I was still a very sheltered teenager and expected my books to have likeable (or at least empathizable) protagonists and relatively hopeful endings. This is not that kind of book. It’s unrelentingly grim. Absolutely humorless. I did not enjoy reading it, then or now. But this time, reading it as an adult with decades more experience in life, it surprised me with its social commentary - its sort of, well what do you expect is going to happen when people have finally Had Enough?
“All his life he’s been on the move, busted out of a place as soon as the ‘good folks’ have got all the maryjane or hashish they want, as soon as they’ve lost all the dimes they want on the wheel of chance. All his life he’s heard a bad deal called a dirty gyp. The ‘good folks’ got roots; you got none. This guy, Halleck, he’s seen canvas tents burned for a joke back in the thirties and forties, and maybe there were babies and old people that burned up in some of those tents. He’s seen his daughters or his friends’ daughters attacked, maybe raped, because all those ‘good folks’ know that gypsies fuck like rabbits and a little more won’t matter, and even if it does, who gives a fuck. To coin a phrase. He’s maybe seen his sons, or his friends’ sons, beaten with in an inch of their lives… and why? Because the fathers of the kids who did the beating lost some money on the games of chance. Always the same: you come into town, the ‘good folks’ take what they want, and then you get busted out of town. Sometimes they give you a week on the local pea farm or a month on the local road crew for good measure. And then, Halleck, on top of everything, the final crack of the whip comes. This hotshot lawyer with three chins and bulldog jowls runs your wife down in the street. She’s seventy, seventy-five, half-blind, maybe she only steps out too quick because she wants to get back to her place before she wets herself, and old bones break easy, old bones are like glass, and you hang around thinking maybe just this once, just this once, there’s going to be a little justice… an instant of justice to make up for a lifetime of crap –”
This rant is by the chief of police, who knows these things and yet still actively participates in the injustice, because that’s the way things are and too bad if you’re on the losing end. Halleck, the “protagonist”, knows these things and feels bad about them, he winces inside when his boss tells n****r jokes but laughs along, he’s disgusted by the pillar of the community treating patients while coked up but doesn’t intervene, he cries at this assessment of the situation but is still unmoved in his resolution to regain the status quo.
And in the end, nobody wins. There is no redemption, not for anyone. I still don’t like this book, I haven't even really touched on all its flaws, but it was interesting, and I dislike it less.
One last note: I wonder if later editions (maybe after the movie adaptation?) changed the ending, because the reviews I’ve read indicate a different, slightly more redemptive ending for Halleck, where he doesn’t give his wife the pie, but instead just falls asleep and wakes to find she and their daughter have found it and eaten it. My version, copyright 1984 and with a 1991 bookplate inside the cover, has Halleck giving her the pie as a “peace offering” and falling peacefully into sleep while listening to her eating the pie down in the kitchen.
I read this book for the Booklikes Halloween Bingo 2019, for the square Paint it Black: Any book with a cover that has a lot black or has the word black on the cover, in the title, author or as a character name, or involves rock and roll in some way. My edition has a solid black cover with large red handprint and the title and author in thin (ha ha) white block print.