Pop Culture Vulture reviews Young Americans

Dave RichardsPop Culture Vulture

I was born in 1976. So for me the ’70s is a decade I can only experience by looking back at history or some of the film, television, books, comics, and music that was produced in that era. It seems pretty clear though that decade was a great time for crime fiction and it’s also a great era to set a pulp crime tale; the mob was this organization of almost mythic power and corruption was everywhere. In his new novel “Young Americans” writer Josh Stallings takes readers back to that time period, by melding a heist story worthy of the great Richard Stark with a subculture he was part of and loved, the Glam Rock era. The result is a powerful, fun, and exciting crime tale.

“Young Americans,” (named after the David Bowie album) kicks off in mid December of 1976 in Northern California. In the opening chapters we meet Sam, a stripper who has run afoul of a powerful rural crime boss and the only way to save herself is by returning to the family business, thievery. So Sam returns home to San Francisco and assembles a heist crew to help her get out from under the crime lord’s thumb and perhaps start a better life. We follow her and her friends and family as they form a plan, gather the materials they need, and case their target. We then go along on the daring New Year’s Eve heist of a packed disco and then the story picks up even more power and momentum as the aftermath of the heist puts Sam and company in the crosshairs of a number of powerful and dangerous enemies.

So “Young Americans” is a fun and exciting tale full of twists, turns, and great action, but it’s real strength is it’s great cast of complex, fun, and well developed characters. Our chief protagonists are Sam, a tough and cunning thief with a devotion to both her biological and chosen families; and her brother Jacob whose smarts got him shut out of the family business. So when we meet him Jake is a bright kid obsessed with the great films of his era and the great rock ‘n roll, and when his sister comes home he insists on being part of her plans to get out of trouble.

Jake’s friend Terry, a smart jock turned glitter rock kid also becomes part of the crew. Rounding out the team are Sam’s old partners in crime Candy and my favorite character in the book Valentina, an African American transgender woman. I don’t want to spoil anything by talking too much about why I like Val, but let’s just say she’s incredibly charismatic and a bad-ass.

We also meet a number of colorful, eclectic, and cool characters over the course of “Young Americans.” One of my favorites ended up being Jo jo a gay, kindly, mob enforcer with a love for ’70s TV.

“Young Americans” shines a light on how cool, capable, and tough Stallings core cast is, but the author also really shows off their humanity as well. We get to see them in their element and we get to see them dealing with the physically and emotionally taxing consequences of their actions. Those are my favorite types of crime novels; the ones where you get both thrills and excitement and the brutal and painful costs of violence. It’s a type of novel that Stallings is a master at telling too. He proved it with his Moses McGuire trilogy of novels and proves it once again here.

So “Young Americans” has a different kind of feel than Stallings previous work, but it contains all of the elements I’ve come to love about his writing: fun action, gritty street level crime, fascinating characters, and powerful and poignant drama. For me it reads like a mash up of the lurid, lightning charged rock of the post-glam punk band the Cramps and Richard Stark’s awesome Parker novels.