Former bouncer Joe Pendergast is starting a new chapter in his life as owner/operator of Joe’s Takeaway Food Truck with a major strike against him—he’s in the early stages of dementia. It’s a condition he discovered only after he engaged in a punching match with his long-time boss and ended up in the ER.
Club owner and small-time loan shark Maxie Smith had been Joe’s boss for years, ever since they were boys growing up along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. Maxie’s always been the boss, and Joe has always been happy to play the subservient role. But when Maxie tosses him out after years of dedicated service as Maxie’s chief collections enforcer, Joe is humiliated, and decides to get even.
Fadeaway Joe by Hugh Lessig
2023, Crooked Lane Books
His plans are sideswiped when 20-year-old auto parts store clerk Paula Jessup, who is facing a few major problems of her own, decides to take on Joe as a project.
Not only can Paula help Joe get back at Maxie without bloodshed, but she can solve her own issues and start to make a better life for herself. And surprisingly, Joe finds himself wanting this young, wise-ass, wanna-be detective to have that better life.
Joe has a violent history and is disturbingly at ease with meting out corporal punishment, but Lessig digs under Joe’s tough-guy exterior to reveal his basic humanity. I might not be comfortable meeting Joe in a dark alley, but I sympathize with his plight. I want him to be well and live out his remaining days in peace, not looking over his shoulder.
A victim of childhood trauma, Paula is even easier to like. She might have adopted a hard-shelled attitude, along with tattoos and a Mohawk haircut to match, but inside she’s a softie. She cares about people, like the young neighborhood girls she sees being victimized. She even cares about Joe. It’s easy to pull for Paula to make that 180-degree turn toward a life of meaning and fulfillment.
A supporting cast of been-through-the-wringer characters help to round out the story, and Lessig brings them to life with crisp, snappy phrasing and a judicious use of thug-talk.
As an added bonus for those who have spent time on the Virginia Peninsula, Lessig weaves recognizable and iconic landmarks into the story. It’s fun to picture the characters driving down Interstate 64 (and getting stuck at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel), spying the naval ships at the Newport News shipyard or Norfolk Naval Base, or enjoying the sun at Buckroe Beach.
My bottom line: Masterful writing, great story telling.