I’ll confess to being somewhat skeptical when I started reading the new Windy City Dark book by Richard Thomas. DISINTEGRATION, the first entry in the series, was such a beautiful rendering of the dirty underbelly of a Chicago that never was that I was sure there’d be no way to outdo it. It would be a tall order to even match the greatness of that book. It only took me a few short chapters to realize how mistaken I was. BREAKER is an outstanding, heartbreaking motherfucker of a book that takes us into the lives of Ray and Natalie, two deeply scarred, beautifully drawn characters struggling to survive in a world that has seemingly discarded them.
There are many elements that go into the making of a good story, but there’s only one thing that can take a good story and turn it into a great one and that’s character. If your character development is strong, all the other elements tend to fuse together, becoming mutually supportive of the overall story, which is ultimately about the characters. And it’s this element that makes BREAKER a great novel. Natalie and Ray are so real, so poignant and emotional that you can’t help falling into the conflict with them, getting caught up in their trials and cheering them on, hoping beyond hope that they will come out okay. But BREAKER is a very dark, hard hitting story that deals with the very real issues of abuse and abandonment, and the strength and self-torment of its survivors. And Thomas’ voice, combined with the strength of his characters, sets a perfect mood for this often disturbing, always brutal, gritty noir tale:
“For now, I sit and rest. Sunglasses on, I retreat farther into myself, hiding in plain sight, and yet every woman that walks past me shifts her purse or bag to the other side, out of my reach, as the seats on both sides of me stay empty.”
Another element that helps to make a story strong, one that Thomas is adept at, is setting. With spare, blistering prose and concise description he paints a world that is both bleak and appealing at the same time, drawing the reader in the way a master painter draws a viewer’s eye to the focus of a painting:
“I pull the door open and step inside, bracing myself for the heat and noise, but there is nothing here tonight. Just a few lights flicked on, running up and down the walls, and one long solitary bulb directly over the ring–a soft yellow glow emanating from the metal cage wrapped around it.”
Overall, I can’t say I liked BREAKER better than DISINTEGRATION. Conversely, I couldn’t say the opposite was true. What I can say is DISINTEGRATION set an astronomically high bar for the Windy City Dark series and BREAKER jumped right over that fucker. If you haven’t read Richard Thomas yet, you need to remedy that asap. Start with BREAKER and then go read everything else he’s published.
Living alone in the dusty apartment where he grew up, Ray Nelson is a mystery to his neighbors and an unbeatable foe to the brutal men he fights in the ring for money. But a life defined by sinister secrets doesn’t stop Ray from trying to do the right thing for his dangerously high-flying sister. Or for Natalie, the young girl living next door. As a sadistic murderer’s ominous white van trolls for young victims throughout the Windy City, Ray is determined to protect Natalie from both predators and a bleak future.
When she sees a bruised and beaten Ray return from late-night fights, Natalie spots a kindred spirit. Still, she cannot imagine the darkness just beneath, or what’s hidden in the rooms he calls home. Now, as the horrors of his own past creep back to life with a twisted vengeance, Ray may not even be able to save himself.
About Richard Thomas: (Portrait by Erik Wilson) Richard Thomas is the author of seven books: Three novels, Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections, Tribulations (TBA), Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), and Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press); as well as one novella of The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, Gutted, and Shivers 6. He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: Exigencies and The New Black (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk (finalist for the Bram Stoker Award). In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. He has taught at LitReactor, the University of Iowa, StoryStudio Chicago, and in Transylvania. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit http://www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.