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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.

Out of the Gutter REVIEW

OUT OF THE GUTTER 11/17/2015

Josh Stallings has a habit of writing books that elicit strong emotions from his readers. The Moses McGuire series deals with topics that are heavy-handed, leaving most readers feeling righteous indignation towards the treatment of some of his secondary characters. His ability to elicit these strong emotions is what made the Moses’ trilogy such a favorite to lovers of dark, hard-hitting fiction.

Stallings, who commented that the Moses’ trilogy took a lot out of him emotionally, takes a shot at writing a “softer” novel, Young Americans, a straight-up heist novel that takes place in the 70s. The big question for me was could the magic he displayed in his previous books carry over into this one, or would taking away the brutal subject matter render him less effective.

Sam is an accomplished thief. Taught to crack safes and live a life of crime by her grandfather and her father, she enjoys the criminal upbringing until her father gets sent to prison for life. Losing her father causes her to rethink her choices, like moving away from her family and barely eke out a living as a stripper in Humbolt County. After she vouches for a boyfriend in a drug deal, she’s left holding the bag. She winds up in debt to a big time criminal and forced to reconnect with her old crew to pull off the robbery of a mafia owned nightclub to pay off her debt.

Stallings’ amazing writing talents are on full display throughout this fast-paced story. His characters do more than just appear in the book, they jump off the page and come to life. Stalling has a way of making each character unique in their motivations, yet meld them together. And they work well as a team in planning the heist.

As with his previous three novels, Stallings knocks this one out of the ballpark. Like an accomplished actor switching roles from a heavy drama to a more light-hearted role, he makes you forget about his previous body of work and you become immersed in the new world he has created. This world is a lot of fun and it’s a blast from start to finish. Stallings shows his readers they need not worry what subject he chooses to tackle; they need only buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Derrick Horodyski