The Last Thief

by Lee Lamothe
ISBN: 1550225995

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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.

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