Proving Ground by Peter Blauner is a sweeping crime novel, an intricate story about the quest for redemption, and a vibrant portrait of contemporary New York City.
Proving Ground is Peter Blauner’s first novel in eleven years. Since his last, Slipping Into Darkness, he has been writing for television shows such as Law & Order: SVU and the CBS series Blue Bloods. If one can say nothing else about his script writing work, it’s this: it did nothing to diminish his skills as a novelist or to dull his sharpness as a social observer.
Proving Ground is a compelling read from start to finish, a masterful novel that speeds along telling its tale of crime, urban life, family, and war. Every major character in it has wounds and deals with a degree of corruption in their soul, but how each person responds to these stresses is what differentiates them. We are in a complicated, dangerous world where motives are ambiguous and victories temporary. Still, the only final defeat is death. Until that happens, you have to keep fighting.
The novel begins in Iraq where Second Lieutenant Natty Dread—real name Nathaniel Dresden—is on a house-to-house search for an Iraqi target the US military wants. This mission turns into a disaster for Natty and will haunt him for the rest of the book. To make matters worse, his father David—a prominent leftist New York attorney—is murdered after Natty gets back to civilian life.
The killing occurs by Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the main detective who investigates is Lourdes Robles, a smart and dedicated New York City cop who herself has been tarnished by an on-duty incident that went south on her not long ago. What happened with her is less grave than what befell Dresden in Iraq, but the punishment she received for her part in the misadventure is a constant reminder of where she could end up for good if she can’t acquit herself well on the new case.
In alternating chapters, the novel follows Natty and Lourdes through the limited perspective of each, and the reader is privy to their internal struggles as they navigate through, from separate tracks, the mystery surrounding David Dresden’s death.
Page by page, scene by scene, Proving Ground’s plot builds. Blauner develops his threads and twists with precision. The narrative’s forward momentum never flags. Yet, at the same time, Blauner shows how the past often intrudes on people—especially people like Natty—suffering from the effects of war. After his experience in Iraq, he can be in an innocuous place and see, feel, or hear something that returns him at once to a life or death situation:
A skinny boy on the couch looks up from playing with an iPhone, midmorning sun streaming through the picture window behind him. And all at once, Natty is out of the law office and back on the stairs in Sadr City with the sound of falling snow on his head. Here, he reminds himself. Not there. Now, not then. Siudo. The kid’s not even Iraqi, let alone Arab. He’s African or Caribbean, blue-black skin contrasting with white earbuds.
It’s all Natty can do sometimes not to let the past eat him up and destroy him, while Lourdes, by contrast, does her best to keep her eyes on the future. She’s overcome enough difficulty herself:
Spent her nights watching Kojak reruns and reading Dorothy Uhnak novels while Papi was starting his bid upstate and Mami was out getting high. And now that she’s finally made it to a detective squad, she’s not looking back. Other people got into the job for the benefits or because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. But Lourdes always knew she had the calling. While other girls she grew up with at the projects were getting pregnant too young and soft-minded with reality shows and self-pity, she was sharpening up like a Westinghouse scholar.
Blauner breathes life and complexity into both Natty and Lourdes. You feel as if you know these people and have sat down to dinner conversations with them. But they are just two of many people in a book full of interesting characters; no one in this book is not vividly etched. Whether he’s describing an experienced Irish-American detective, housing project residents, a jailed former drug dealer, or nattily dressed federal prosecutors, Blauner gets everyone—of all social classes, male and female—right. As the saying goes, “Everybody has their reasons,” and this is the kind of nonjudgmental crime novel that follows this credo to the max.
And Blauner, as a New Yorker, presents a portrait of the city as a hub of mutts: Lourdes has “a blanquito Dominican father and a dusky PR mother”; Natty has a white Jewish father and a biracial mother whose father, with “his big Afro and a Malcolm X stare” was a “big deal activist himself.” That very New York City tradition of liberal blacks and liberal Jews banding together to take up civil rights causes is quite distinctly evoked here, and Blauner explores the tensions that can fester when a child is raised in a house thick with the outrage of social justice warriors.
The sense that the city is ever changing comes through strongly also; Brooklyn in particular is put under scrutiny, sometimes to bitingly comic effect.
Nowadays the whole damn park is an ad for healthy urban living. At least when the sun is up. Private foundations and citizen volunteers had poured dollars and hours into protecting the trees, saving the ducks, bringing in the Metropolitian Opera, and chasing junkies away from the band shell. Any Saturday or Sunday, the six hundred acres are fields of well-tended flesh; world-class runners, Tour de France wannabees, Audubon Society bird freaks, Olympian volleyball players, and Ivy Leaguers dragging their $500 congas to the African drum circle in the grove.
If there’s anything on which more of a premium is placed in the city than real estate, that would be news to a lot of New Yorkers, and Blauner nails this obsession with houses and value perfectly. Natty’s parents’ house is in upscale Park Slope, and Natty’s mother—though she fashions herself anti-bourgeois—expresses frustration that she and her husband missed out on the “Great Bourgeois Real Estate Boom.” As Lourdes, talking to her, reflects:
“People in this neighborhood talk about houses like they’re superhero origin myths. Can you believe a piece-of-shit brownstone that they bought for seventy-five grand just sold for two million?”
Proving Ground melds plot, character, and action into a seamless whole, all while giving us a clear look, a bracing look, at the New York City of right now. I live in New York, in Brooklyn as a matter of fact, so the book hit home on a number of levels—but this is a novel that I’d recommend to almost anyone. It’s tense, funny, insightful, and simply hard to put down. And Lourdes Robles, to all indications, will be coming back.
I await her next case.
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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.