Sugar Street

Sugar Street, Jonathan Dee's pitch-dark eighth novel, is an intense character study of a man in crisis. It's a bleak tale of someone running from a troubled past into an equally perilous future, and Dee (The LocalsA Thousand Pardons) succeeds in maintaining the tension about his character's fate throughout. The unnamed protagonist takes to the American road heading eastward, lacking ID, credit card or any discernible resources save for an envelope stuffed with exactly $168,548 in cash. He alludes often to unspecified transgressions, alternating between expressions of remorse and self-justification over those events.

Soon making his way to an unidentified city, he finds a barely habitable room in the home of a hard-edged woman named Autumn, paying her six months' rent in advance. Autumn and her secretive tenant play a cat-and-mouse game, with the suspicious landlord intermittently threatening eviction, while her boarder fitfully attempts to ingratiate himself with her.

What ensues is a precisely drawn portrait of the near futility of attempting to lead a life totally off the grid. The narrator, a once-privileged, highly educated (he has a law degree) white male, ruminates obsessively on his personal predicament while sharing acerbic observations on the "cesspool" that is modern life. With the skill of a virtuoso, Dee plays his character's shifting voice over its full emotional range--cunning, desperate, cynical, resigned and more.

At barely more than 200 pages, Sugar Street is a novel that easily can be consumed in a single sitting. But that brevity is deceptive, because it's far from a simple book, and the feeling of unease it induces makes it an unsettling reading experience. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

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