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Published: Saturday, 11/16/2002

New Yorkers get into a coal-town feud

BY EILEEN FOLEY

ABSOLUTE RAGE. By Robert K. Tanenbaum. Atria Books. 354 pages. $25.

This novel takes Tanenbaum's New York odd couple - Roger “Butch” Karp, a wannabe apolitical guy interested in justice by the book, who finds himself in the very political job of chief assistant district attorney of New York City, and his wife, Marlene Ciampi, “beautiful in a Mediterranean way,” whose take on justice tends to do-it-yourself - from their Long Island North Fork summer retreat, “the old Wingfield farm,” to a murderous union fight in a company town in the coal “hollers” of West Virginia.

It is not a place accustomed to professionalism, in assassinations or anything else. On the contrary, they tend to be messy, explosive even, their perpetuators with as little regard for collateral damage as the nations that plant minefields.

They are brought to this place - Marlene, her Neapolitan Mastiff, Gog, Butch, their language-genius daughter Lucy, their now 10-year-old twins, Zik, who prefers his given name of GianCarlo, and Zak, for Isaac - as a result of a beach camaraderie forged between Marlene and Rose Wickham-Heeney. Flowing from this relationship came a kind of pairing between their children - Zik and Lizzie Heeney on the beach, and 18-year-old Dan Heeney, a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whom girl techies call a “lollipop,” because “everyone's dying for a lick,” and Lucy Karp, who's at Boston College.

Rose went to Vassar and hoped for a career, but found the men in her life too vapid, so she signed up for VISTA, what she fondly recalled as “the Foreign Legion for white girls,” and wound up in West Virginia, in a county “kept alive by miners' pensions.” Half of it looking “like moonscape from the strip and pit mines.” It was a hapless existence until the day Ralph “Red” Heeney, “an Irish roughneck dragline operator,” came to talk. The years haven't polished him much. Marlene describes him and 20-year-old son Emmett as looking “like the guys the IRA sends by when you're getting too cozy with the Brits” and Red as a fellow who “manages to combine the worst features of fascism and communism.”

Rose is on the North Fork divesting herself of a family place at Crab Point, which the Heeneys can't afford to maintain, and, that done, she heads back to West Virginia, where someone has already shot the family dog.

They scarcely arrive, Dan is still at the Karps' house, when Emmet calls to say someone has murdered both Rose and Red as well as Lizzie. The local law has conveniently fingered a retarded man who once did odd jobs for the Heeneys, which leads Dan to call Marlene to defend him. Just a couple of days, she thinks, with Gog along for company, until she finds a good West Virginia lawyer. A mentor of Butch's, doing a favor for the West Virginia governor, brings him to the scene.

The New York sophisticates know that they can't do it themselves, that they need help to accomplish what must be done. Marlene more than Butch. So Lucy's childhood Vietnamese babysitter and bodyguard Tran, now a mob boss in Connecticut, is called in to execute a vengeful finale that, in its audacity and its criminality, shatters Marlene's relationship with her husband.

Tanenbaum, who keeps improving as a writer, plotter, and master of smart dialog, is at his best in this novel, which could well mark a change in the Karp family. And he draws a reader in from the first sentence: “Killing people is so easy that the iron laws of supply and demand make it hard to earn a decent living doing it,” he begins. Who could stop reading there?

(Eileen Foley is a Blade associate editor.)



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