Andrew Cotto- Black Irish Blues

A return-to-origin story of Caesar Stiles, an erstwhile runaway who returns to his hometown with plans to buy the town’s only tavern and end his family’s Sicilian curse. Caesar’s attempt for redemption is complicated by the spectral presence of his estranged father, reparation seekers related to his corrupt older brother, a charming crime boss and his enigmatic crew, and – most significantly – a stranger named Dinny Tuite whose disappearance under dubious circumstances immerses Caesar in a mystery that leads into the criminal underbelly of industrial New Jersey, the flawed myth of the American Dream, and his hometown’s shameful secrets…

Having been so impressed with Andrew Cotto’s previous book- Outerborough Blues it is with no small measure of delight that I can bring you a review of the next book Black Irish Blues, and whisk you away to the mean streets of New Jersey in this soulful and compelling read…

Cotto’s rendition of place and atmosphere is astute and perfectly pitched throughout, be it in the fierce pride amongst the deprivation of Stiles’ neighbourhood, or as we get greater insight into what has brought him to this point in his life. The history and travails of New Jersey sing from the pages, as we travel the streets of this neighbourhood and further afield, as Stiles pursues a missing man, and seeks to reconnect with the place, and people, of his formative years.

What is so impressive about Cotto’s writing is the way he integrates such big powerful themes into his books, that it feels somewhat disingenuous to just pigeonhole him as a writer into one genre or another. Throughout the book the themes of loyalty, family, disconnection and reconnection permeate the life of the central character Caesar Stiles. Indeed,  the idea of family in whatever form it takes, be it by blood, childhood connections or the close amity of work colleagues, is absolutely at the core of this book. I like the way that Cotto subtly manipulates this theme throughout as Stiles re-examines his family connections and close friendships, as past misdemeanours arising from both come home to roost distracting Stiles as he seeks to carves a new path for himself, and endeavours to reconnect to others he is estranged from.

Stiles is an incredibly strong central character who really embodies the strengths and frailties of a man who has run from his past and personal loss, but feels the pull of home. He has a resilient moral core, and supportive of friends and colleagues, being blind to colour and influence, and judging those he encounters on their own moral core and codes of behaviour whatever their position in society. He seems to embody the tenet of treating others as they treat you, and proves himself a determined and loyal friend in others’ time of need. As he is drawn back into the criminal realm of his older brother, and experiences the ramifications of this, albeit unfairly, Stiles always steps up to defend and protect those who cannot protect themselves, although a slightly flawed hero himself. And boy, can this man cook too…

Food plays an incredibly important and sensuous part of this book, be it in Stiles’ own establishment but as a way of connecting people in times of celebration, sadness or tension. The smell and taste of hearty and soulful fare punctuates the book, drawing people together, and proving itself the foundation for people to connect be it for pleasure, as basic sustenance, or as the means to build Stiles’ business, and provide gainful employment to those who may slip through the cracks.

Once again Cotto proves his innate skill at character building and scene setting, infusing this book with atmosphere, flowing dialogue, a perceptive look at human frailty and strength, layering in big themes, but also hanging it all on a compelling central storyline amongst the criminal seedy underbelly of this most vibrant and dangerous neighbourhood. I love the soulful edge that Cotto consistently injects into his writing, and the emotional connections of friendship and family that he explores. Highly recommended.

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OUTERBOROUGH BLUES 

A beautiful young French girl walks into a bar, nervously lights a cigarette, and begs the bartender for help in finding her missing artist brother. In a moment of weakness, the bartender–a drifter named Caesar Stiles with a damaged past and a Sicilian family curse hanging over him–agrees. What follows is a stylish literary mystery set in Brooklyn on the dawn of gentrification. While  Caesar is initially trying to earn an honest living at the neighbourhood watering hole, his world quickly unravels. In addition to being haunted by his past, including a brother who is intent on settling an old family score, Caesar is being hunted down by a mysterious nemesis known as The Orange Man. Adding to this combustible mix, Caesar is a white man living in a deep-rooted African American community with decidedly mixed feelings about his presence. In the course of his search for the French girl’s missing brother, Caesar tumbles headlong into the shadowy depths of his newly adopted neighbourhood, where he ultimately uncovers some of its most sinister secrets…

When you read and review regularly, you can sometimes get a little jaded as books can oftentimes meld into one, or display all those bad writing habits of one-dimensional characters, ludicrous plotting and so on. However, every so often an unexpected treasure lands in your lap which restores your faith, and Andrew Cotto’s Outerborough Blues is one such book. Combining the style of some of the best contemporary American fiction (I would draw comparisons with David Prete and Elliot Perlman) and the street savvy social analysis of a writer like George Pelecanos, Cotto has delivered a book that rises above the simple tag of crime novel into a truly powerful and affecting read.

 I won’t dwell on the intricacies of the plot in the interests of keeping it fresh and surprising for you all, but needless to say it is beautifully weighted, with the alternating time frames of past and present, seamlessly melded into the overall story. As elements of our main protagonist Caesar’s former life are revealed, Cotto gradually unveils how the events of the past are so instrumental on Caesar’s actions and for his single-mindedness at righting past wrongs in the present, so the split timelines work well within the narrative.  All of Caesar’s central relationships in the book are dictated to by his highly attuned sense of morality, garnered by his formerly tumbleweed existence and the relationships encountered along the way, before his settling in a community wracked by racial tension and socio-economic problems. Cotto portrays this community and its underlying problems astutely, bringing Caesar into conflict or comradeship with his fellow inhabitants, as he takes on the problems of those around him and seeks to expose the corruption of others. In any of the passages relating to the neighbourhood itself there is a living and breathing vitality to Cotto’s description and the depiction of place and atmosphere is palpable throughout.

 Again, in terms of characterisation, Cotto hits the mark, displaying a natural ease in his portrayal of not only Caesar’s family, but the eclectic mix of people inhabiting Caesar’s neighbourhood and its multi-cultural make-up. All the frailties or false bravado of human nature are exposed throughout these characters and their interactions with Caesar, which again gives a vibrant sense of reality to these protagonists and the parts they play within the novel. This is predominantly where I think the novel rises above the crime novel tag, as this proficiency at characterisation seldom resonates so strongly in a run-of-the-mill thriller and in conjunction with Cotto’s use of powerful imagery in his depiction of place, sets this book apart. The sparseness of the prose and tight dialogue, where more often the power lies within what is unsaid than said, adds to the overall tension of the book as the plot unfolds.

 It probably goes without saying that I was highly impressed by ‘Outerborough Blues’ as it ticked many of the boxes that I look for in American crime writing and fiction. Being a fan of Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley, I would certainly label Andrew Cotto as a comparable read to these luminaries in terms of style, characterisation and its depiction of life in a tough neighbourhood, so what are you waiting for, go find…

(With thanks to the author for providing copies of both books)

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Andrew Cotto is the award-winning author of three novels. He has written for The New York Times, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, Parade, Maxim, The Huffington Post, Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, Italy magazine and more. Andrew has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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