Crumbtown by Joe Connelly

There’s bad luck, rotten luck and then there’s “crumbluck” — the brand of luck that seems something less than random, something closer to fate. It’s the cloud of despair and desperation that envelops Don Reedy, career criminal and recovering romantic, and every other resident, it seems, of Crumbtown, the decaying town-that-never-was that serves as the setting for Joe Connelly’s novel of the same name.

Crumbtown feels like a familiar place. It carries the vibe of a Northeastern American city on the skids, a cousin of New England factory towns like New Bedford and Fall River, places where its fatalistic denizens realize prosperity isn’t returning anytime soon. The streets have names like Felony and Lemmings. The rich live on Padlocked Hill and drive cars called Eldiablos and Bollingers. Don, the hero of Connelly’s big-hearted, if somewhat slight, satirical novel, turns to crime out of a pure absence of alternatives. But his Crumbtown-infected nature even rebels against the idea of making a success out of theft. Instead, he steals cars, sabotages them in almost undetectable ways, and returns them to their unsuspecting owners. Eventually, his so-called life of crime lands him in prison for a 15-year stretch.

When Don is sprung, he comes home to a seemingly healthier, higher-rent Crumbtown. New storefronts. Freshly painted barber poles. But this isn’t a case of another Massachusetts Miracle. Instead, in Don’s absence, Crumbtown’s sheer seediness has made it the location of choice for television cop shows searching for that gritty edge. The entire town has been handed over to actors and producers, including desperate Hollywood director Rob Landetta. Rob’s high concept is to adapt Don’s criminal career to the small screen, altering small parts of his history (meaning everything) in order to transform Don into a modern-day Robin Hood. Rob’s producer isn’t quite on board. It’s a crime show without cops, he complains. “Crumbtown is post law enforcement, post Bill of Rights,” Rob pitches.

Don, in the midst of falling in love with a Russian bartender, never warms to the idea of having his life absorbed into television. And his former criminal partners, the dim-witted “half-twins” Tim and Tom don’t like it much either once they find out that their roles have been rewritten as Hispanic and African-American to make them more demographically correct. Don becomes even less enthusiastic after Little Eddy, the former child star of a popular sitcom that sounds like Diff’rent Strokes reversed (a black cop adopts a white kid) is cast as him. Eddy is a megalomaniac cokehead who slowly comes to believe that he is, in fact, a real criminal — and later an authentic police officer.

Connelly, whose first novel was the darker Bringing Out the Dead, is attempting to script an affectionate satire concerning the blurring of television and reality. The problem — and it is a formidable one — is that we have all been here before. The marriage of television and “reality” now surrounds us. A crime show without cops? That would be, of course, the most celebrated TV program in the land, The Sopranos. That there is, at the end of the day, little distinction between working in Hollywood and a life of crime? Try instead Elmore Leonard’s superior Get Shorty, which played it straight. A town that serves as the subject of a perpetual television show was done (with admittedly mixed results) in the movie The Truman Show. And then there remains the granddaddy of works about fictional media manipulation, the stunningly prescient film Network, in which TV execs allow a delusional anchorman to host an evening variety show and partner with a terrorist cell to air a weekly hour of leftist violence.

This isn’t to say Connelly’s message doesn’t contain some merit. Using a light touch that never comes close to preaching or patronizing, he illustrates how it won’t be long before television, once content with exhibiting the reactions of real people placed in awkward situations (e.g., The Real World, Survivor, Joe Millionaire, et al.), will soon move on to exploiting real-life social conditions. It isn’t the people of Crumbtown who are being used by Big TV in Connelly’s novel as much as it is the beleaguered state of Crumbtown itself, with the viewer given a voyeuristic look at how the other half — the poverty-stricken and hopeless half — lives. (Indeed, we are not far away from this, as evidenced by CBS’ plans for a real-life Beverly Hillbillies.)

Connelly also insightfully notes how television and film images merge with our own memories to create an unreliable record of our lives. When Rita, the Russian bartender who becomes Don’s lover, tries to recall the face of an old boyfriend in Odessa, she finds that she cannot:

Now that she had time to think about it, [Victor] looked more like that actor whose name she’d forgotten. That’s why she was so confused, because for the last few years whenever she would think about Victor, she would always see this actor’s face. But now she knew he didn’t look like the actor. She had to admit; she couldn’t remember what Victor looked like.

As Connelly’s story nears its resolution, reality and television become so intertwined that his characters and their TV counterparts seem to lose track of their identities. Is a robbery pulled by Don real or fake? Are any of the police officers chasing him actually real — or are they actors? The narrative stands at right angles to itself, with multiple points of view describing the same scene from different perspectives, not unlike the functions of multiple cameras on a movie set. The novel itself is written in highly cinematic form, with sections marked off as “scenes.” And a character like Rita isn’t so much a “real” romantic interest for Don as she is a cartoon sexpot given a silly-but-identifiable “Russian” accent.

The result is a work that is resolutely anti-realistic and overly dramatic — like a movie — another course in the now neverending meal that is postmodernism. The irony (or perhaps the it was the intent all along) is that the book would work splendidly as a film. Considering that Connelly’s first novel later was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese, a cinematic version of Crumbtown surely is a possibility — and something that will further muddy the demarcation in the book between reality and fiction and art and commerce. Who will play Don and Rita? And who will play the actors in the book who play Don and Rita?

The only question remaining will be the film’s scale. Does it go big, a major summer popcorn blockbuster with, let’s say, Colin Farrell as Don and Jennifer Connelly as Rita, with the satirical elements kept to a less confusing minimum? Or maybe it would work better on some culturally minded backchannel cable station — a movie more faithful to the book — with some integrity-projecting actors at the ready, maybe Stanley Tucci and Lili Taylor. Or maybe we’ll go with a straight crime drama on the USA Network. Keep the bullets and car chases and jettison the social commentary. Get Billy Baldwin on the phone. Is Shannen Doherty available?

The possibilities are endless. And in Crumbtown, so is television.