"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The family that steals together, stays together
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Hot Plastic
By Peter Craig
Hyperion, 341 pp, 13.00 dollars

Fraudster, confidence artist, sharpie, flimflam man, grifter, hustler--call him what you want, but the clever guy who makes his living by pulling the wool over the eyes of his victims instead of pulling a gun on them has always been a popular cultural icon.
Never mind for a moment that the heroic thief of popular fiction, who robs exclusively from the rich and corrupt, bears little resemblance to the real crooks who line their pockets with the life savings of gullible seniors and struggling families. The guy who is able to cheat, lie, trick and fast-talk the hapless mark into handing over his cash is admired for getting something for nothing, using only his wits and a snappy line of patter.
Peter Craig's Hot Plastic shows us the evolution of fraud and credit card technology in the 1980s by following the growth of top-notch grifter from teenage tagalong to international pro, and also introduces a family of thieves whose sum is both greater and less than its parts.
Hot Plastic opens cinematically, with a man bleeding from a gunshot wound into a stolen coat in a stolen car being smuggled by his partner past the watchful eyes of the police, and proceeds in flashbacks tells us how he got there.
Kevin Swift starts out on the road with his father at age 12. His mother has just died and his dad is fresh out of prison. An obsessive kid with few social skills, Kevin has a number of personality tics, including a pathological need for rigid order in the matter of packing and unpacking suitcases and an insistence on eating nothing but pancakes and sliced oranges, that seem to be a reaction to the otherwise complete disorder of his life.
Kevin's father, Jerry, is a small-time crook traveling the United States pedaling fake credit cards with real numbers, running up huge charges on stolen card numbers and generally living off the land, stealing whatever he needs one way or another. At first, Jerry tries to keep his work a secret from Kevin, but by the time Kevin turns 15, the two are working partners. With Kevin laid low by the flu the day a major deal is to be made, Jerry is forced to hire a hooker to babysit. Colette isn't much older than Kevin and the boy develops a lasting crush on her even as she is falling for Jerry. The three start working together, with Colette teaching Kevin how to shoplift, a craft in which he eventually surpasses her--to the extent where he regularly steals the family groceries a cartload at a time.
After a few years, Colette falls out with Jerry over her ambition to move into more elaborate, lucrative and longer-term cons and he and Kevin settle down in Los Angeles with Jerry's new wife. Kevin, in school for the first time in half a dozen years, finds it a struggle, and eventually one of Jerry's scams blows up in his face, landing him in prison and leaving Kevin on his own.
A few years later, after his own brush with jail, Kevin flees to Europe with Colette. Eventually, the three are reunited for a final scam they hope will allow them to retire.
Each of the three main characters are drawn in detail with their unique voices and very real identities and motivations hidden beneath all their deceptions. The odd love triangle breeds divided loyalties and wholly believable conflicts that shape the fabric of the characters and story. Craig never cheats on plot details by pulling story elements out of thin air, but instead gradually, and with an enviable subtlety, develops his complex plot to its de rigueur, yet still surprising, shock ending.
Hot Plastic has all the Hollywood playfulness of The Sting compellingly combined with the dark grittiness of Jim Thompson's The Grifters.

No comments: