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Way Past Legal by Norman Green

Sarah Weinman

What elevates this book far beyond other page-turners is Green's acute understanding of the emotional bonds between people: father and son, husband and wife, boss and subordinate.

Way Past Legal

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 272
Price: $24.95
Author: Norman Green
US publication date: 2004-06

Much as we don't often wish to admit it, people are more likely to be defined by what they used to do and who they were than their current actions and appearances. It works both ways; an upstanding citizen who is seen as a pillar of the community based on past deeds may engage in less-than-savory activities, but won't be seen as anything but upstanding unless there's a compelling reason. Someone with a shadier, more criminal past may be in the throes of rehabilitation but will likely still be judged by his previous crimes. Such judgment is even more probable if there's a family history, an earlier tragedy. It's hard to outrun the past and strive to do better -- especially if the latter isn't necessarily a conscious choice.

Past misdeeds are at the crux of Norman Green's third urban crime novel, Way Past Legal, a mesmerizing tale of a young man who never thinks to be anything other than what he was -- a criminal -- until an impulsive act forces him to change everything he's ever believed about himself, other people, and the world at large. Heavy decisions, especially when the act in question also endangers others and puts those he loves in peril. Green uses the thriller format to ask some startling questions, arriving at difficult conclusions.

Mohammed is a lifelong New Yorker who never thought to go anywhere else. But then, he has spent his whole lift in a state of flux, ever since he was left in a dumpster as a baby, unloved and unclaimed. Growing up in the state's foster care system didn't do much to give him a sense of permanency, and it's not long before he realizes his main talents lie in criminal pursuits. His specialty is burglary, but Mo's latest score involved fleecing a couple of million bucks from some angry Russian mobsters. The problem is that he worked the deal with a partner who's a little too trigger-happy, and everything's become a big mess. Realizing the money's hot and cops are looking for him, Mo grabs the only thing that has any meaning to him: his five-year-old son Nicky, cast away in foster care and seemingly destined to repeat his father's life trajectory.

Mo changes his name to Manny Williams, and he and Nicky drive out to the backwoods of Maine to hide out and forge a new life. The rural town with its acres of farmland and lack of activity comes as a severe culture shock to Mo:

New York City was lost to me now. She had cast me out, left me in these strange backwoods, I thought she was closed to me forever, this beautiful hideous bitch goddess whore mother of a city had turned her back on me and left me out here with Opie and Dorothy, River City before Harold Hill, Jesus, who wouldn't cry?

As time goes on, the shock fades and father and son learn to adapt to their new lifestyle. Mo starts trusting the townsfolk he meets, like Louis and Eleanor Avery, a doomed older couple who takes the two of them in, and Taylor Bookman, the crafty police chief, and finds, to his amazement and delight, that he's accepted as part of the community. It means that when the proverbial shit does hit the fan, in the form of the appearance of the aggrieved Russian mobsters and Mo's partner, that the potential loss is far greater than he could have ever imagined. Having learned to love his son and trust those around him, the stakes are far higher and the potential costs far greater. And it's up to Mo to decide whether to do what he usually does -- cut and run - or stay behind and fight for what's most important to him.

The bare bones of Way Past Legal are fairly standard thriller fare, but what elevates this book far beyond those other page-turners is Green's acute understanding of the emotional bonds between people: father and son, husband and wife, boss and subordinate, and most importantly, the ties that forge casual acquaintances into strong friendship. Green, the author of two previous novels, Shooting Dr. Jack and The Angel of Montague Street, populates the small-town Maine of his creation with characters struggling with their own demons who are also trying to come to terms with their own fears and losses. As strong as the supporting players are, they never overshadow the main story of Mo and his metamorphosis from a victim of the system doomed to repeat the cycle of his background into someone who tries his hardest to make himself better for the sake of his son. The bond between himself and Nicky strengthens throughout the narrative, and the level of unconditional love he feels for the youngster becomes the driving force behind his future decisions:

All the things I had thought unattainable were now within my reach. It was a frightening thought, I guess because I realized that if I wanted it to work, I would have to turn my back on everything I knew. It's not so easy, when you're a survivor, to let go of those tools you have used to stay alive, no matter how dark they are. The thing was, survival was no longer my sole objective. Now I wanted more.

There are no quick solutions in Way Past Legal, although the ending does come perilously close to a deus ex machina. Yet there is a sense of rightness about it, because Mo has struggled so hard to conquer his instinctive nature to do right by Nicky. Ultimately, Norman Green succeeds in painting a portrait of a man's turnaround, and his introspective prose style gets the reader deep in Mo's mindset, allowing us to believe and root for him. Way Past Legal is a must-read for those who want a something extra with their crime novel fix: an urban tale with emotion and heart.

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