||A Review of: The Last Thief
by Steven W. Beattie
The Last Thief, Lee Lamothe's novel about the Russian underworld,
is many things: violent, misogynistic, repellent, and amoral. It's
also fascinating, in the way that watching paramedics pry dead
bodies out of the charred and twisted wreckage of an automobile
accident is fascinating. The observer stands frozen at the curbside,
or watches from the window of a passing car, stricken, at once
appalled and unable to turn away, as the gruesome scene unfolds.
In the same vein, the experience of reading Lamothe's novel is
simultaneously compelling and profoundly disturbing.
Disturbing in no small measure precisely because it's so compelling,
Lamothe's novel is a veritable catalogue of the degradations and
humiliations humans are capable of visiting on other humans. There
is gang rape, dismemberment, sodomy with carving forks and broom
handles, and genital mutilation (all in the first 70 pages!). And
through it all, the reader is propelled forward, the pages turning
ever faster-wanting to stop, unable to stop, now wincing, now
cringing, now (surprise!) laughing uneasily at some stray bit of
darkly humorous banter among the criminals who populate the novel.
The Last Thief opens in a Soviet gulag where Fyodor Sliva, known
in the criminal underworld as Bone, is incarcerated. Thirty-five
of Bone's sixty-three years on Earth have been spent inside the
gulags, but unlike some of the younger prisoners who "counted
out the days of sentences, sometimes even the hours, looking forward
to mad feasts of orgasm, gluttony, violence, and chance," Bone
is not motivated by an overwhelming need to experience life outside
the confines of his prison. "He'd served his prison sentences
enveloped in a dull, internal chill, with the certain and indifferent
expectation of experiencing his death behind bars. Inside the wire
or out, it made no matter: he walked with a persistent cold inside
him that no sunlight could penetrate."
Bone is a strict adherent to the zakone, the Code of the Thieves,
that governs the Russian criminal class. Thieves who live by the
Code do not marry, they are honour-bound to help each other in bad
times and celebrate together in good, and they "could only
take, never ask, never bargain." The Code is rigid and
unforgiving: any violation of its edicts is a capital offence,
punishable by death. In his unwavering loyalty to "his precious
zakone," Bone is something like a criminal ascetic: he is even
described as having a face like a "parsimonious monk's."
When Bone is released from prison, he encounters a new element at
work in the criminal underclass. This new order, which flourished
in the anarchy following the collapse of the Soviet Union, is made
up of "bureaucrat-criminals": corrupt politicians,
businessmen, and spies who parlayed the collapse of the State into
wealth and power and have become "agents of chaos that could
disrupt the harmony of organized theft." Summoned to the dacha
of Simeon Mikhailov, one of the Circle of "new reality"
criminal biznesmen-which includes Bone's arch-nemesis, Dimitri
Razinkin-Bone is offered an opportunity to join the new criminal
class on the assumption that if he renounces the Code, his few
remaining peers will do likewise.
But rather than betray the zakone, Bone slaughters Mikhailov in a
scene of unbridled Grand Guignol, and flees, eventually winding up
in Toronto, where he is drawn inexorably toward a confrontation
with Razinkin, whom the Circle had put in charge of the Russian mob
in the "north of America."
The Last Thief is an amoral book, not just because it takes as its
subject an amoral milieu and cast of characters. The same charge
of amorality could be-and indeed has been-levied against Bret Easton
Ellis for American Psycho or Michel Houellebec for The Elementary
Particles. But whereas Ellis's novel was a satire, and Houellebec,
for all his apparent nihilism, is steeped in a kind of righteous
indignation at the world which we have wrought for ourselves, in
his book Lamothe seems to play it relatively straight. Bone could
never be described as a hero-even calling him an anti-hero is
stretching a point-but he is nevertheless the least reprehensible
male character in the novel, if only because he lives by some sort
of code of conduct. That his particular code allows for misogyny,
and murder is, in the universe of the novel, not an issue.
Bone is the least reprehensible male character in the novel. There
is a female character who is perhaps more sympathetic, despite the
fact that Lamothe obviously stacks the deck in her favour. Dagg,
the gypsy woman who befriends Bone, is a Fairie, a kind of distaff
equivalent of a Thief. She is described in a manner that typifies
the male characters' repugnant attitudes toward women as little
more than pieces of meat to be used for their own, frequently
perverse pleasures: "She had been beaten to the point of fouling
herself, fore and aft, she had been made to bark like an animal,
to lick wastes. She had been frozen and baked and stretched and
torn, and the woman of herself remained a wrapped gift of which
only she knew the within."
Dagg never really comes to life as a character, and her affair with
Bone seems somewhat forced and unconvincing, but their scenes
together provide the few moments in the novel that even approach
tenderness. Dagg is the only important female character in the
novel, and significantly, she is the only female in the novel who
acts, as opposed to being acted upon. Whether she acts out of love
or out of self-interest is open for debate, but at least she brings
a leavening influence to the book, which in her absence would have
been, to quote another author who was unafraid to tackle amorality
as a subject, "too dark-too dark altogether."
Even the book's humour-such as it is-is darkly hued. It is possible
to snicker at the criminals who refer to each other with increasingly
outrageous, insulting nicknames-"steroid whore," or
"peanut penis"-and I must admit that the conceit of having
the Russian gangsters carry their illegal guns around in a Gap Kids
bag struck me as gleefully subversive.
In the final analysis, then, is The Last Thief worth the going?
With its glorification of the criminal milieu, its graphic depictions
of violence, torture, and degradation, its misogynistic treatment
of its female characters, and with its lack of a moral centre, it
is very easy to see how people could be put off. But for those
willing to be disturbed, the book is a chilling glimpse into a world
most of us-thankfully-will never encounter at first hand.