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Literature

Dope” debut

Tafoya’s Thief is a nuanced character study—with an extraordinary finish

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Edward Pettit

“Ray was thirty and he felt like he’d come to the end of the life he’d been leading. He just didn’t know if that meant he was going to change or if he was going to die.”

Dope Thief is the debut novel of Dennis Tafoya, and, while it bears all the hallmarks of a crime novel, it is also something more, a finely nuanced character study of a criminal trying to get out of the downward spiral of his crimes. Ray is a small-time crook whose new racket is posing as a DEA agent, raiding drug houses and confiscating the money and drugs. Of course, his luck runs out and he finds himself on the run from criminals more ruthless and violent than himself.

The first two-thirds reads like a typical crime story: “There was only so much luck and then it was gone ... It couldn’t go on forever. Everyone was high. Everyone was stupid. Everyone had guns.”

This isn’t really a plot-driven, genre book, however. Nor is Dope Thief a noir novel. Ray, like most noir protagonists, is a fallen character about to take an even greater fall. But Tafoya provides Ray with an un-noir-like coda, not just to wrap up the story line, but to bring his character to fruition, to tell the story of a man trying to make a life for himself.

Even when he’s on the job, casing a meth lab, Ray can’t keep his mind from drifting, reminiscing, fantasizing about the life he could have had, or the life he might have one day, if only he’d get a break. But every time he starts to believe, he’s reminded of the cold, hard facts of a bleak world: 3

The Details

Dope Thief
Four stars
Dennis Tafoya
Minotaur Books, $25.
Amazon: Dope Thief

Dope Thief begins like a father/son tale with the father missing. Ray’s father was also a small-time criminal and is now in jail. The son hates the old man, but can’t help following in his footsteps. The father’s absence is an unmistakable void, something missing. Ray doesn’t need him, but he must come to grips with his legacy.

Ray spends lots of time thinking about his family, or lack thereof. He wonders about the families he’s destroyed and blunders into making one of his own. Through it all is the doubt: “Just grit your teeth and give it up.” I thought Tafoya overwrote some of these scenes, especially the ones between father and son (I wonder what this novel would have been like with only the ghost of the father to haunt Ray), but that’s a small caveat in a novel so rich.

Dope Thief took me by surprise. Tafoya’s prose alternates between a staccato, hard-boiled cadence and a beautiful, near florid style, like a mid-career Bruce Springsteen album. Dope Thief could be all the stories from Darkness on the Edge Town (and a few from The River) rolled into one narrative, characters searching for meaning and a way to make a life on the streets at night.

Over Dope Thief’s final 90 pages, Tafoya’s coda elevates his book to the extraordinary. Ray wants something more. He cannot escape his past, but longs to have what his father could never provide, a sense of family And Dope Thief, in the end, is about just that: a man trying to make a family even though he feels he doesn’t deserve one.

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