The Crook. When it comes to family, Jake Ahn, the lockpicking protagonist, has no real emotional ties. After a childhood riddled with abuse, he’s become a bit of a sociopath. His only real blood tie, a reminder that he belongs to something larger, is his brother.
The Brother. Whereas Jake is clearly acting out his brokenness through his profession, his older brother, Eugene, is quietly dysfunctional, masquerading as a successful businessman with the perfect, beautiful wife. On the surface, his is the happy life of a Korean American who made good. In truth, the brothers’ lives are on disastrous parallel tracks. Jake’s thievery and detachment are matched by Eugene’s failed marriage and descent into alcoholism, which he inherited from their father. Both men are emotional train wrecks waiting to happen. And they do happen, when Jake drops in for an unexpected “visit.”
The Hitman. Jake arrives at his brother’s house having been shot by his heist partner, Bobby. Jake believes he’s left Bobby for dead, but he’s wrong. Bobby is a true psychopath. He owes tough guys money and he doesn’t care whom he kills to get free of this debt. Jake, his target, is on borrowed time.
The Wife. What really gives this book its sense of urgency and suspense is the relationship between Jake and Rachel, Eugene’s soon-to-be-ex-wife. The infertile Rachel is a lost soul in the woods. We get glimpses of her childhood. She is a girl eager to find purpose and build a home after the death of her parents. She hasn’t been happy in her marriage for a long time. She quits her job with no real direction. Eugene is emotionally unavailable, so she becomes enamored with Jake and is drawn in by the secrets he’s hiding. She is attracted by the finesse and subterfuge of his thievery, the excitement of his life. She wants in.
Rachel is an odd saving grace for Jake, a beacon of light at the end of his tunnel, and someone to run to when a job goes bad. Through it all, she hopes, but fails, to overcome her numbness: “I’m getting a divorce and I don’t care. I’m never going to have kids. I don’t care. We’re going to steal diamonds. I don’t care.” Still, she does have ethical concerns, and can’t fully understand Jake’s life:
“Doesn’t it bother you that you take all these things people saved for?”
“But it’s every man for himself, I guess.”
“Something like that … My life would suck if I didn’t try to make myself happy. You do whatever it takes, that’s my philosophy.”
Stealing comes easy to Jake, and Chang does a superb job of mining her protagonist’s trade for captivating literary material, describing the use of various drills and lock picks with a researcher’s precision. And Chang is just as deft in his handling of drama: Jake and Rachel’s secret, stolen moments of hungry, wanting sex; the sense of secret betrayal that hangs in the air the moment they encounter one another, reminiscent of scenes between Raylan Givens and Ava Crowder, his nemesis’s wife, on the FX series Justified, where Chang was a writer and producer. (He’s currently a writer-producer for the same network’s series Snowfall, conceived by John Singleton.)
The book opens with Jake being pursued by zombies. I wasn’t quite sure whether I’d accidently picked up The Walking Dead, until the narrative turned to Jake’s obsessive thoughts about the heist-gone-bad. As the plot develops, it’s clear that the zombies are Jake’s recurring hallucinations, residual traumas from when his father would lock him and Eugene in the basement while he brutally beat their mother. These zombies provide a key to Jake’s childhood wounds, and also explain how he became such an adept lockpicker. His job becomes a metaphor: he’s trying to unlock the basement door — the closed spaces of his childhood — and that door may open on a whole new life, or may never open.
Jake steps back into Eugene’s life at a time when Eugene’s career is at an end: the business he helped build is now foundering, and so is his marriage. He remains a defeated little boy in the basement, practicing karate moves he could never use to stand up to his father. And Jake, who does stand up for himself one night, is beaten unconscious; he awakes to embark on a life of crime.
Chang’s novel is, indeed, a labyrinth from which his characters can’t seem to escape. Everyone is trapped — either in a failing marriage, in debt, in a race against time, in the past, or in dreams for the future. But it is also a gripping, dramatic read. We cannot help but root for these rich, flawed characters as they struggle to free themselves from the traumas of childhood.
Shonda Buchanan is the author of Equipoise: Poems from Goddess Country (San Francisco Bay Press, July 2017) and editor of the poetry anthology, Voices from Leimert Park Redux (Harriet Tubman Press, October 2017). She is currently working on a collection of essays about the first migration of Free People of Color from the Southeast to the Midwest.