Philadelphian Dennis Tafoya's second crime novel, The Wolves of Fairmount Park, is a twisting journey into the gray, gritty urban demimonde of dope"“ in this case, heroin"“ and the criminals and addicts who keep it darkly swirling, as well as the cops who stick their collective fingers in the weak, trembling dike of the pursuit and apprehension of the endless flow of purveyors of urban narcotics.
This is a classic whodunit set in the grim glades of Philadelphia's drug subculture— a constantly evolving and always thriving economy where success ultimately comes out of the barrel of a gun, and the ladder to the top is slick with blood and shaky with subterfuge.
Nothing is what it seems, and this is the key to The Wolves of Fairmount Park. Everybody is being played by somebody and the landscape is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope, a heroin haze for the addicts and the dealers and their rent-a-killers and thugs who stumble through it. The cops are a business risk, plain and simple, and their best efforts amount to the proverbial teaspoon bailing out the sea of dope that's engulfing America. They may be smart and knowledgeable in the ways of the street, but they're so vastly outnumbered, outgunned and outflanked as to be little more than ineffectual scorekeepers.
Two dead white boys
Two middle-class teenagers"“ clean-living white boys"“ are shot in front of a dope house on Roxborough Avenue on a Thursday night in June. One dies and the other, a Philadelphia police officer's son, lies in a coma. What were they doing there? Who shot them and"“ most of all"“ why?
The answers are sought by two diametrically opposed characters: Danny Ramirez, a young star detective in the Violent Crimes unit, whose rapid rise resulted from his taking down a high-level dope dealer; and Orlando Kevin Donovan, a dreamy junkie and the half-brother of the cop, Brendan Donovan, whose comatose son had been shot at the Roxborough Avenue dope house, a few blocks from the apartment Orlando shared with Zoe, a renegade Main Line girl who had followed him into the shadow world of addiction.
Mother's tragic hold
Orlando, a Temple dropout, occupies the spiritual center of The Wolves of Fairmount Park. Indeed, the novel's title is taken from this passage, which demonstrates Tafoya's prose at its hypnotic, poetic best in describing Orlando's drunken, wraithlike mother, long vanished, and her tragic hold on him:
"Dogs began to bark then, first one, close by, then others, blocks away, and he remembered his mother telling him when he heard the dogs at night it was the wolves, the wolves in the park that had never been caught and never would. She'd lean over his bed, her breath sweet with wine, swaying drunk and her eyes on fire, and afterwards he would lie awake for hours and listen for them, see them moving in a line down the trails in the dark woods, silver and black under the moon and their teeth snapping, bone white."
Ramirez's hunt is from the outside of the dope world, while Orlando's amateur efforts burrow from the inside, deep into the murky entrails of what is simply known on the streets as "the life." Ironically, his quest for answers also takes him to the foreign shores of suburbia, both at the home of one of the shot kids and to the exclusive prep school they both attended. The set piece at the school demonstrates Tafoya's pitch-perfect ear for the patois of jaded teenagers, and throughout Wolves he captures perfectly the language of the mutts on the street and the cops who chase them. He has listened in the streets.
Tafoya walks many a shaky mile in Orlando's dope fiend shoes with a sure hand that brings to mind Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm, William Burroughs's Junkie or Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries.
There are no chapters in The Wolves of Fairmount Park. Triple spaces between certain paragraphs are the only lines of demarcation, as if Tafoya is typographically communicating that there are no chapters in the lives of his characters— only short breaks as they slide toward the vortex of oblivion that awaits them.
Yet this book is ultimately about redemption. The separate quests of Orlando and Danny Ramirez finally coincide at a dank warehouse on American Street where Asa Carmody, the small, red-haired dope lord who set the events of Wolves in motion, is holed up with his spoils of money and drugs. Shot and dying, Asa's last words are, "You win, you win."
Orlando finds his redemption in seeing his quest to its bloody end, and as the book ends he is in rehab. There is no redemption, even in death, for Asa Carmody, the keeper of the ignorant flame of evil that spreads through the veins of society with each shot of dope. Asa runs now with the wolves.♦
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