I Am a Loser in a Bad Jam. I Like Reading About Losers in Bad Jams. Here Are 14 Stories About Losers in Bad Jams.
“I’m not a cop, private investigator, ex-military, or a mercenary. I’m an almost-average civilian with no special surveillance skills to speak of. I don’t know how you evade a pursuer. I had only basic logic and a strong survival instinct, and the feeling that maybe this transaction wouldn’t go down as seamlessly as I would like.”
— THE PASSENGER, by Lisa Lutz
“I think bearing witness to struggle can, as hard as it is at the time, make for damn rich ground to mine. We’re not talking about not getting the car you wanted for your sixteenth birthday, or having to hold off a few months to get the latest iPhone. We’re talking about missing meals, about deciding whether you keep the lights on or buy a few groceries. We’re talking, as Rick Bragg once put it, ‘about living and dying and that fragile, shivering place in between.’ That’s pay dirt for a writer.”
— Author David Joy, in Pank magazine
"Some of them are running from lovers, leaving no forward address. Some of them are running marijuana. Some are running from the IRS. And late at night you will see them, in the cheap hotels and bars, hustling the senoritas while they dance beneath the stars."
— "Banana Republics," Steve Goodman
"I don't need an alibi. I need a fire escape and an open window."
— "My Bag," Lloyd Cole & The Commotions
I love losers. Stories about losers, that is. Specifically, crime-fiction stories about losers who get into colossal jams through bad choices or unfortunate circumstances, are forced to confront the forces aligned against them, and find when they dig deep down that maybe they aren’t such losers after all.
I find these ordinary-person stories much more compelling than those of the usual suspects in crime fiction: professional bad guys, or cops, or crusading reporters, or cynical private eyes, or ex-military badasses muddling along the peripheries of America.
Why? In a word: arc.
If you are pressed into a corner, and have no choice to fight your way out of it, and have no special skills and no friends with special skills to help, how will you get out out of that corner?
I find the answer to that question must more compelling than any posed to a character who knows how to handle a gun or pick a lock or take a punch. Or how to walk into a room full of Russian mobsters or redneck kingpins and not get carved to death with a rusty carrot peeler.
The path is longer, the pit deeper, the descent darker. Consequently, the arc is wider.
Think of it this way: Watching a lone professional or a team of professionals overcome organized, skilled opposition is like watching a football team overcome a ten-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Impressive, and yet less than surprising.
Watching an ordinary person plausibly overcome professional badasses with fresher resources and home-field advantage? That’s like watching a five-touchdown comeback against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Which would you find more satisfying?
The delicious improbability of the five-touchdown comeback is what made Breaking Bad—a series often described as the high-water mark of television’s new Golden Age—such a satisfying story. Who would have expected mild-mannered middle-aged high-school chemistry teacher Walter White to become the methamphetamine king of New Mexico?
It asks: How deep can an ordinary person get into trouble? How can that person keep digging his way out of trouble, way above his pay grade, against professional death merchants? How dark will their heart become along the way? How many things will they do that they once could never have imagined himself doing? How can they hang on to some molecule of their moral center along the way?
All questions I ask myself almost every day these days.
As I write this, I’m a loser, and I’m in a jam.
I’m out of work, and I'm almost out of money, and my options are, right now, not good.
I was a newspaper editor for a while. And if you know what happened to newspapering, you can guess what happened to that. Then I was a book-manuscript editor for a while, and that seems to have dried up over the last year to the point I can no longer count on it to be anything close to a self-sustaining career. Then I had to turn my housesitting work from “once in a while if it's someplace cool” to “I’ll take whatever I can get, however it pays, as long as I have a roof over my head because I can no longer pay a market-rate rent. Or even a sub-market-rate rent.”
That drove me out of my hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Right now, I’m in Chicago, three weeks from the finish of my latest housesit, living on cheap gyros and discount cereal and the lining of my stomach. The plan after this was to spend the winter in the lakefront guest cottage of friends in north-central Florida and retrench. But, if you’ve followed the story of Hurricane Irma, you can guess what happened to that.
So here I am, close to broke, with no paying gigs in the queue, wondering what the hell I’m going to do.
I’ll be honest: I’m in this position because every time adversity came knocking, I hid beneath the sagging couch of my comfort zone. There I built a blanket fort of sorts, protected with piled-high sandbags of diversionary books, movies and TV and my own antihero daydreams. If complacency were a drug, I'd have snorted a line of Colombian gold flake for breakfast. I didn’t want to stretch out and learn something new. And probably that’s because deep down I’m afraid that I’m not smart enough to learn it.
And now that I’m more flexible about it, I have no more room to explore it.
(I had an opportunity to go to Florida, to train to be a field adjuster for Irma-related home-damage claims. Good coin. But I can’t get there in time to take advantage of that first-flush gold rush, and even if I could get there sooner than later, I can’t scrape up the front money for gas, food and lodging until I’d get paid anyway.)
I’m fifty-two. I’ve got some health problems (and, of course, no health insurance). And I’ve got no particular skills suited for the job market, apart from a modest talent for knowing where the word “only” belongs in a sentence.
As much as I love my crime fiction, I’m no criminal. I’ve never fired a gun. Never robbed anybody of anything more valuable than a Charleston Chew candy bar (in sixth grade, and I got caught, and given a lifetime ban from the drugstore). No bags of banded cash have serendipitously flapped into my lap. The last time I threw a punch? Sometime during the first Clinton administration. And my memory of that is fuzzy, beyond crying and bleeding from the nose into a bath towel on my way to the emergency room.
What will happen to me? What can I make happen for me? I don’t know.
Maybe this story has a happy ending, with a job I can do for a wage I can live on, on terms I can live with. Or maybe I’ll find a bag of non-sequentially marked fifties in the bushes behind an interstate rest stop. Or maybe it all ends a month from now outside a highway motel in rural Missouri, prowling cars in the parking lot for whatever change I can pilfer, and getting shot in the pancreas for my trouble by a traveling salesman with a Sig Sauer in his sample case.
Probably nothing bad will happen. I’ve been in bad jams before and found my way out. But if that way out came in the form of somebody in sunglasses in a dark bar offering me three grand to drive a van over the border … well, I won’t lie: I’d seriously consider it.
The suspense is killing me. In every sense of the word. And, truth be told? I’m kind of digging the darkness of it.
So, while I work out the next act in my story, I’ve been working through stories of people I imagine to be a little bit like me. People who are complicit to one degree or another in their own complications. Ordinary, desperate people. Losers, even, until they find a way not to be losers, if only in their own over-fevered minds.
(I’ve been trying to write these stories, too, but the more I write, the more it’s starting to look like I’m one of those writers who can’t actually write.)
It occurred to me not long ago that I don’t read crime fiction to escape from my reality, I read crime fiction to escape into it. I read to find the fifty-percent-better me, the one that’s smarter, stronger, better-looking and more deeply steeled to deal with the shitballs that life regularly pitches over my plate. The ones I usually take without taking the bat off my shoulder. Through those stories, I find myself wanting to step into life with some serious-ass psychological lumber and a willingness to put everything into a swing.
What follows here is not intended to be a survey of the Everyman/Everywoman crime-fiction sub-subgenre. It’s just a list of what I’ve read and liked over the last several years. A list intended to spark your contributions to it, for the enjoyment of everyone.
THE PASSENGER, Lisa Lutz. When I first read it, I thought it was a zippy but disposable thriller, clever but full of give-me-a-break plot twists. But something nagged at me for more than a year to give this woman-with-a-past-on-the-run story another shot. And when I did, I found a beating heart of existential bleakness that I found not just darkly appealing but starkly relatable.
Tanya is smart, but often just a little less smart than she thinks she is, and that creates a blind spot in her perception that gets her into trouble at least as often as it gets her out of it. Along the way, she develops a do-whatever-it-takes instinct. And notes with almost clinical detachment how it erodes her soul even as she’s convinced of the righteousness of her rising body count:
“If I had to do over again, I probably would. But I would do it knowing that the person I used to be, the person I dreamed of returning to, was completely gone. It wasn’t as simpleminded as a shift from good to bad. I wasn’t evil. But some kind of disease was spreading in my gut, and eventually it would take over my entire body. I hadn’t yet realized anyone could see it from the outside.”
EVERYTHING TO LOSE, Andrew Gross. The persistent appeal of the “Holy crap, I found this big bag of money” sub-subgenre parallels the persistent appeal of the fantasy. Who wouldn’t want a magic path out of their financial problems? (And who doesn’t have financial problems?)
This novel lays out the stakes for single-mom Hilary in a few brutal strokes: “I was thirty-six, an eyelash from being broke, months behind in my school payments, with a house my ex had left me that was now completely underwater and a son who ate up every cent I earned.”
Hilary comes across the scene of an accident and finds a black leather satchel in the back seat. Takes it without allowing herself to think about it. And because she’s not thinking about it, she leaves all kinds of traces of herself behind, and can’t quite lie plausibly enough to cover for them, and that draws the attention of all sorts of bad people. But because she’s “just” a woman, and a civilian woman at that, everybody underestimates her, and that’s what gives her the room to find a lethal sort of strength.
(See also A SIMPLE PLAN, Scott Smith; THE COLD KISS, John Rector; and GOOD PEOPLE, Marcus Sakey.)
A companion tale of sorts to EVERYTHING TO LOSE. Danny Goodman is a widower and struggling writer who’s also struggling to keep his teenage daughter in the high-priced private school she loves. He doesn’t find a big of money; a bag of money finds him, in the form of a unsolicited loan from the shadowy financier father of his daughter’s best friend.
But where dirty money flows, federal agents follow. And soon Danny is forced to walk an impossibly fine line between his new friend—and the unfriendly people behind him—and the forces of justice that are just as willing to throw him away as they are to use him.
THE EXECUTIONERS (a.k.a., CAPE FEAR), John D. MacDonald. Sam Bowden is a lawyer, but this is no legal thriller. In fact, the novel’s brilliant, trope-inverting conceit is that Sam is smart, but the bad guy is smarter, and uses the law—the thing Bowden trusts and holds sacred—to beat Bowden to within an inch of his life without ever laying a finger on him.
But laying a finger, and more, on Bowden is precisely what Max Cady wants. And at some point Bowden, who prides himself on his professional detachment, has to get dirty and deeply personal as Cady menaces the most vulnerable members of Bowden’s family. An associate of Bowden’s spells out the challenge going forward: “There isn’t one man out of fifty who is ever worth a damn after a thorough professional beating. They have rabbit blood for the rest of their lives.”
Is Bowden full of rabbit blood? Or does he have a hidden tiger inside? The irony is that Bowden will have to turn rabbit to find out.
THE AX, Donald E. Westlake. “I drove back home, and cleaned the Luger, and oiled it again, and replaced the three missing bullets in the clip, and stored gun and clip separately in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, and didn’t touch them again until I was ready to go out and see if I were actually capable of killing one Herbert Coleman Everly.”
Westlake, best known for his criminal’s-criminal stories, here neatly turns the ordinary-man-under-siege trope on its head: What do you do if you believe your only way out of a jam is to commit preemptive murder?
Burke Devore is as Everyman as any man gets—he’s a middle-aged middle manager with a mortgage and a wife and kids he loves. But he’s lost his career, and is slowly losing his savings, and he’s got to get back to work. Soon. And the most efficient way, he figures, is to eliminate the competition.
Like most Westlake novels, THE AX is slyly satirical, but beneath the sendup is a stripped-bare portrait of the Mad As Hell And I’m Not Gonna Take It Anymore genus of American male. We may not do what Burke Devore does. But I’d bet anything that we’ve thought about it. Maybe even talked about it. Maybe even spoken about it, to reference similar characters in similar straits in the play (and movie) GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS.
IN THE DEATHROOM, Stephen King (from the story collection EVERYTHING’S EVENTUAL). “He was a newspaper reporter and had never killed anything much larger than a hornet, but if he had to kill to escape this room, he would.”
This short story is such a perfect example of the Ordinary Person genre. Fletcher, a newspaper reporter in an unnamed South American country, is the prisoner of four government agents. They’re interrogating him about his role in a coming coup attempt. He knows he’s going to be tortured and then killed. What would an ordinary person do in such circumstances to save their life?
There’s no inverting tropes here, there’s just pleasure in letting a master craftsman lead us by the nose to the place we want to go—and know we’re going from the get-go. It’s all in the details, in the incremental suspense, in the setting of sky-high odds. Imagine THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, only with a small-town milkman in a sealed space instead of a big-game hunter in an island jungle:
“Neither Mr. Maybe They Will or Mr. Even If I Do could help him; they were only distractions, lies his increasingly frantic mind tried to tell itself. Men like him did not talk themselves out of rooms like this. He might as well try inventing a third sub-Fletcher, Mr. Maybe I Can, and go for it. He had nothing to lose. He only had to make sure they didn’t know he knew that.”
(See also: BIG DRIVER, the King novella in which a writer of cozy mysteries gets into an uncozy jam. And gets out of it in deliciously bloody style.)
THE BLANK WALL, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Lucia Holley is in an existential jam: Her husband is away at war. Her domineering father is a stand-in of sorts, and her kids seem to take their cues from him rather than her, boxing her into a narrow existence as a helpmate and blank slate.
Then she’s freed from her prison of complacency in the strangest way: an older man who came to the Holley property to lure away her impressionable daughter is found dead. Lucia acts on a cold instinct she never knew she had: to make the body disappear elsewhere in the lake on which she lives. That works until the dead man’s associates turn up, looking for money, and Lucia’s will and resourcefulness are put to the ultimate test.
What appeals to me about THE BLANK WALL is the extent to which Lucia must fight for the mere room to breathe. Somebody always needs her for something, and every attempt to claim a private moment for herself is greeted with incredulity at best and hostility at worst. Even her kids treat her like a simple-minded house slave. Consider: If it’s all she can do to keep her head above water, then how can she possibly make it to the shore?
THE BLANK WALL ultimately loses the courage to carry through on Lucia’s journey toward agency, sidelining her at key moments while an unlikely male ally does her dirty work. But that shouldn’t discount the startling things she does simply to get the point of turning an adversary into an ally. (See also: THE DEEP END, the latest of two films based on the novel.)
Finn Roose is the kind of cocky young guy who can play it cool as long as he’s not seriously challenged. Managing a restaurant? No problem. Hooking up with the occasional customer? Easy as pie. Missing girls? Way beyond his pay grade.
But when the noose of suspicion begins to tighten around Finn’s neck, he shows unexpected resolve—and an unexpected moral center: “He was getting tired of thinking about it and the only way to make it go away was to confront it, something he rarely did but shit, things change when your best friend’s blood is on your hands.”
A great debut novella, and bonus points to Chen for her startling insight into the thought processes, booze-soaked and sex-tweaked as they are, of the young male douche-bro.
DOWN ON THE STREET, Alec Cizak. “He’d experienced it too many times in the past—a nice girl gave him the time of day, he smiled one second too long, and the nice girl ran like she was being chased by Frankenstein’s monster.”
Lester Banks, broke-ass Indianapolis taxi hack, is the saddest of sad sacks. He’s stumbling into middle age, barely scraping by, unable to summon the will to get into shape. And heckled daily by a Greek chorus of grotesque Golden Girls on the stoop of his sad-sack apartment building.
But then Chelsea Farmer, college-age knockaround girl, staggers into his orbit, and Lester falls ass-over-cereal-bowl in love. His desire to protect her, and protect his ability to protect her, leads them into a desperate money-making scheme in which he become pimp to Chelsea’s prostitute. And that leads them into conflict with corrupt cops. And the kind of customers who think nothing of knocking around a knockaround girl.
Lester may struggle to stand up for himself, but he’ll be damned if he won’t stand up for the woman he loves—that is, when he isn’t hating her for spitting all over his heart.
Ivy Seidel is a struggling New York writer. Tight on money, she agrees to teach a writing class in a prison upstate. There she meets inmate Vance Harrow: a convicted robber and murderer, and also the most naturally talented writer Ivy’s ever met. That he’s attractive doesn’t hurt, and that she eventually becomes convinced of his innocence seals the deal, but most of all she simply can’t believe that a sensitive storyteller can be a monster.
As Ivy loses her heart, she loses her mind, too: she helps break Harrow out of prison. That leads to a showdown involving the surviving participants of the original crime, and a showdown between Ivy and her illusions in the face of reality on the run.
Peter Abrahams has told a couple dozen stunning Ordinary Person novels over four decades. But in my mind at least, END OF STORY is his master class, his pocket MFA. As with THE AX, there’s something compelling about someone who insists on getting into trouble way above their skill set and somehow has to shovel their way out. Often past a pile of bodies. (See also: BULLET POINT and REALITY CHECK, Abrahams's YA novels.)
CANARY, by Duane Swiercyznski: “All of it, I see now, through the golden glow of hindsight, is seven kinds of sketchy. Mom, I’ll admit it: In the moment, all I can see is his strong, limber frame beneath his shirt and those goofy red pants.”
Sarie Holland, not even eighteen, is a college freshman who gets caught holding the backpack of a boy she met hours before. The backpack contains drugs. The cops give her a choice: Become a convicted felon and lose her place in the college honors program, or become a confidential informant who helps leads the cops to the source of the drugs.
Sarie isn’t street-smart, but she’s smart, and the more time she spends on the streets, the smarter she gets. She plays along with her hardnosed CI handler, searching for time and room to search out Door Number Three on this episode of Let’s Make A Deal For Your Future.
I still marvel at how Swierczynski managed to tell a story that’s half YA and half hardboiled police procedural without ever making me feel that I’m reading two separate novels.
(See also: TRUST ME, by Peter Leonard. Remarkably similar central character and conundrum.)
TAPPING THE SOURCE, Kem Nunn and TO DIE IN CALIFORNIA, Newton Thornburg. Both these novels start with the same premise—a loved one has gone missing in a Southern California coastal community, and a man from a small town feels compelled to follow the cold trail.
Neither Ike Turner, the restless teenager of TAPPING THE SOURCE, or David Hook, the Illinois farmer at the heart of TO DIE IN CALIFORNIA, have any particular investigative acumen. But they have clean noses in a dirty town, and a willingness to blunder into danger if only because they don’t see the danger until it’s almost too late. By the time they do see it, they find they’re just not able to walk away without answers.
DIRTBAGS, Eryk Pruitt. I’m just going to leave it at this, and dare you not to want to read more: “I just aim to make something of myself, that’s all. There’s little else to do since the mill closed, and whatever there is, I reckon to be the best at it. One day I found myself in deep hatred of a fella, then another day, there was another fella. Pretty soon I realized I hated more people than I cared to admit, and maybe hating was something I was good at. Now I aim to see if there’s a living to be made of it.”
THE FORGOTTEN GIRL, David Bell
THE PROPHET, Michael Koryta
BEACH HEAD, Jeffery Hess
SHOTGUN BOOGIE and CALABAMA, Steve Brewer
SPARKLE SHOT, Lina Chern
BOONDOGGLE, Mark Rapacz
BEFORE THE FALL, Noah Hawley
THE WHITE VAN, Patrick Hoffman
THE MISFORTUNE OF MARION PALM, Emily Culliton
The Promise Falls trilogy (BROKEN PROMISE, FAR FROM TRUE, THE TWENTY-THREE), Linwood Barclay