American Static by Tom Pitts is a fast-paced crime thriller set against the backdrop of Northern California's wine country, Oakland's mean streets, and San Francisco's peaks and alleys, written by a man who knows the underbelly of the city like no one else.
In classic noir stories—fiction or film—it only takes one bad decision or one wrong turn on the highway or one chance encounter with the wrong person to completely upend a life. A life unruffled and mostly stress-free can turn into a nightmare real fast. Such is the case in Tom Pitts’s novel American Static, a book that starts with a mugging at a roadside bus station and never once slackens after that.
The victim of that mugging, a teenager named Steven, accepts help on the spot from the man who offers it. And this one choice made by Steven—an understandable choice at that—leads him into a world brand new to him, where danger and betrayal and death are the norms.
The attackers, both Hispanic, take Steven’s backpack in the town of Willits, California. Without his phone, ID, money, and the three pounds of weed he was delivering to people in San Francisco, Steven has little choice but to say yes to the man named Quinn who offers him a ride in his truck.
Quinn also offers to buy Steven a meal. After they eat, Quinn drives Steven to the next bus station on the route to see whether they can catch the bus and spot the two guys who jumped Steven. Maybe they can get back Steven’s things. Quinn tells Steven to wait in the truck and boards the stationary bus himself. It’s here, with his typical understated skill, that Pitts begins the process of chilling your blood and making you see that Steven’s apparent benefactor must have his own agenda.
Inside the bus, Quinn walked down the aisle, looking from left to right. About two-thirds of the way back he saw two young Hispanic kids. The one closest to the window had a backpack clutched to his chest. They made eye contact. Quinn studied them for a moment, then winked. Both boys furrowed their brows. Quinn turned and walked off the bus.
When Quinn tells Steven his attackers weren’t there but that he can get him to San Francisco, Steven says, “Sure.” He’s not an idiot and wonders whether the stranger helping him can be trusted, but going with Quinn clearly is his best option. In noir, life gives you a very limited set of choices, and inevitably the choice you make is the worst one.
In short order, there is another scene where Quinn tells Steven to wait in his truck while he enters a large house on a Napa Valley vineyard. He meets a man there he knows, and they talk. Their interaction is calm but edgy, and then Pitts deepens our understanding of who Quinn is by presenting sudden though matter-of-fact violence.
The man straightened, turned, and saw Quinn with the knife.
“What’s that for?”
Without hesitation or explanation, Quinn reached forward and slashed the right side of the man’s neck. The man’s eyes lit up behind his glasses. He dropped the bottle to the kitchen floor where it bounced without breaking. Both his hands went toward his neck. Blood was pulsing out, spurting between the man’s fingers…
“What a mess,” Quinn said. “Let’s stop that heart from pumpin’ out all that blood.”
The reader knows more about Quinn than Steven does—which creates a wonderful tension—and from this point on, the book opens up to include a large cast of characters involved in a plot that gets ever more complex and absorbing till the final chapter.
Just released from prison, Quinn heads to San Francisco with Steven in tow. Quinn’s release from incarceration will prove to be the catalyzing event that animates any number of players. Pitts gives us a young, honest cop; a sympathetic retired cop; a corrupt ex-policeman; addicted drug users; low-level dealers; a conniving lawyer; bodyguards and goons; and a rich businessman hiding a vicious criminal history.
The range of characters presented is impressive, and the swirling narrative leads to people at the highest levels of power in San Francisco. Because Pitts knows his characters well, you get to know them intimately, and what’s great is that none of them ever act in an arbitrary manner. Nobody does anything that seems forced; no action undertaken feels thrust upon a character just so the author can advance the story.
American Static keeps a rapid pace and jumps around from character to character, but it never becomes confusing. There are several cat-and-mouse scenarios that unfold at once in various San Francisco neighborhoods—from the affluent areas to the scuzzy ones—and it’s a tribute to Pitt’s precision that the reader can always follow where somebody is in relation to the person they’re pursuing or fleeing. He is a splendid manipulator of action and novelistic movement.
Tom Pitts has written four books now, two novels and two novellas. I’d be hard-pressed to find a dull page in any of his work. He’s a writer who crafts propulsive narratives and expertly folds exposition into his stories so that their momentum is not sacrificed. Information dumps, so-called, are not something you’ll find in a Tom Pitts book.
If I have any quibbles with American Static, it’s only because he set such a high standard for himself with his earlier novel, Hustle. That San Francisco-set tale about two male, drug-using prostitutes who try to blackmail a wealthy lawyer in order to get off the streets and change their lives had more of an emotional heft than American Static does.
While I felt fully invested in the two protagonists in Hustle, American Static is a book I took in a bit more at arm’s length. This could be because I didn’t quite feel all that much for the two young protagonists at the book’s core: Steven and Teresa. Steven is the innocent in the story, and Teresa the one around whom the book’s central mystery revolves. The relationship that grows between the pair is the story's sole predictable development. You know they are going to connect, chastely or not, and sure enough, they do.
Neither is as complicated or interesting as the characters out to get or protect them. By contrast, the bitter, cocaine-sniffing ex-cop Tremblay is a fascinating study in moral rot. On the side of decency is the old warhorse Carl, whose motivations Pitts describes in beautifully succinct fashion:
That night, after a modest supper of canned black beans on toast, Carl sat on the couch before a picture of his deceased wife Barbra … It was his favorite picture of her, taken when she was in her early forties. To Carl, she’d never changed since the photo was taken. She’d never gotten sick, never deteriorated…
“Sweetheart,” he said. “I’m thinking on doing something foolish. Well, I’m not thinking on it,” he corrected himself. I’m goin’ to go ahead and do it. I know I promised you when I was out I was out, but I just can’t sit still anymore … I want to be of some use in this world. I’m not mistaking this for anything it’s not. I know I’m just an old fool, but I think I got a few more in me, honey. I’m not ready to hang up my hat just yet.”
You care a lot about what happens to Carl, and you fear for him considering who he’s up against. A story doesn't need a great villain to be good, but having that great villain certainly helps. Pitts gives us two at odds with each other, and one of these two, Quinn—with his perfect teeth, composed demeanor, and movie star looks—ranks among the most bloodcurdling people I’ve come across in a crime novel since Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.
Quinn is less philosophically inclined than Chigurh, but he’s just as dead inside and just as lethal. In fact, his icy pathology seems so complete and is so well-depicted, I’m not sure I totally buy the one warmhearted sentiment he displays towards a character near the book’s conclusion. On the other hand, even he is a human being, and this is the Tom Pitts way—to demonize nobody.
American Static is an exciting rush of a book, and the sense of menace it creates from its mix of damaged people is constant and palpable.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent novel is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love, available from Broken River Books.