Book review: Safe, by Ryan Gattis

A literary novel and a thriller with more twists than a DVD box-set make quite a combination, writes Stuart Kelly

Ryan Gattis PIC: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

There is a lathed quality to Ryan Gattis’s prose, which is reminiscent of Raymond Carver or Ernest Hemingway (indeed this book has a little homage to the six-word short story about baby shoes). It is also the kind of literary novel that tinkers with genre forms like more recent work by David Ray Pollock and Josh Bazell. Gattis is superb with the staccato sentence, honed to a few words.

The fact that the book comes with endorsements from Paula Hawkins and Joyce Carol Oates, David Mitchell and Michael Connelly shows that Gattis can bestride the narrow world of classification pretty well.

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The title of Safe is a pun from the outset. Parts are narrated by Ricky Mendoza, also known as Ghost, who is a safe-cracker, working at times for the Drug Enforcement Agency. When they find a locked box, he is the expert who can crack it. That he himself was once a drug addict is part of the novel’s multiple ironies. But it is also a novel about what it means to feel safe; the security that gang culture can bring and the tightness that love might provide.

Early on we learn that Ghost is convinced that the cancer he survived may have returned. It makes him into someone who has nothing to lose. So when he is asked by the government to put his diamond-tipped drills to a recently uncovered safe, he takes the opportunity to swipe some of the money he finds in it. Some, in this instance, means nearly a million dollars. Certain people will be curious as to where their stash now is.

The other sections are seen from the perspective of Rudy “Glasses” Geyes, a lieutenant to “Rooster”, a major underworld figure involved in drug-trafficking from Mexico. He is not your average thug, and the novel stresses he is not the linebacker type. He is smart, he is damaged, and he has as many secrets as Ghost. Both of them have intersections on the novel’s Venn Diagram of characters, most notably the DEA officer Collins. Glasses is seeking Ghost after his opportunistic theft, but Ghost is more like Glasses than he knows.

The doubling is exercised on the level of the sentence. The use of both slang and Spanish in a single line is both disorientating and convincing. But the technical excellence of this thriller is in repetition. A few examples: “Hell yeah, he says, with the kind of toughness that isn’t toughness at all”; “Glasses is clicking on what needs to be clicked”; “See everybody knows everybody”; “a safe is just a safe”; “So this is the last time? Or just the last time till the last time?” These are just a few examples of what is the novel’s signature device. It is at its most eloquent when it is dealing with the lack of a synonym.

It also has a remarkable section where we learn that “Rooster” has a very special way of not speaking. To avoid phone conversations that might be intercepted – and a lot of phones get trashed in this novel – he communicates with Glasses using sign language. The sections on how the body itself might become comprehensible and even communicative are astonishing, and they are not restricted to the threatening exchanges between boss and lackey.

It is always difficult reviewing a thriller, as you have to give enough background and not give away much. The one flaw I would say the novel has is a propensity for the cliff-hanger. There is, for a novel of under 300 pages, a lot of plot. There are background tragedies, unknown connections and sudden reversals on almost a four-page beat. This kind of structure might work on a DVD box-set, consumed by the hour, but can be wearying on the page, consumed in minutes. You almost expect that there will be a next twist, even if you can’t figure out what the twist will be.

That said, one of the novel’s great strengths is its moral haziness. It is a space where good men have to do bad things and bad men want to do good things. The real villains are the fence-sitters and clock-watchers. Despite its laconic and lapidary prose, it is a place where “keep them talking” is a priority. It is also about narratives – which is why it is more a literary novel than a dime-store read. Ghost describes “little axes of words getting sunk deep into your heart”; part cliché and part profound. “Rooms like this is” – and the “is” here is beautiful, because an “are” is coming up – “where I learned that stories are worse than bullets sometimes, because bullets can pass through you or be taken out but stories can’t. Stories stick”.

I have previously been enthusiastic about Gattis’s polyphonic All Involved; this duet shows he is as assured on a closer frame.

“Sometimes years after you heard it a story can change you”. True.

*Ryan Gattis will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 15 August at 4.00pm. Safe is published by Picador, £12.99