Shades of the Duke, the King and even Fagin: Benjamin Nab spins stories that have them all beat. Wanted on 17 separate charges, he can usually come up with the necessary lie to get out of the fix. Even when he can't, it's not for want of trying, but because the real truth is even more creative.

Ren is the pawn in this 19th-century chess game, a 12-year-old boy who is struggling to grow up in the hardscrabble reality of a monastic orphanage in small-town New England. Despite having lost a hand in infancy, one of the survival techniques he has learned is petty theft: "Ren was responsible for most of the lost things being prayed for at the statue of Saint Anthony." So when Benjamin drops by the orphanage one day to adopt Ren with the idea of training him to assist in the ongoing con game of his life, it's not quite the stretch it might be for other orphans. And if adopting Ren means Benjamin has to say the boy is actually his brother, well, it's no worse than any other lie he's told.

Hannah Tinti was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Animal Crackers, her collection of short stories. She's also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of One Story magazine. Her first novel, The Good Thief is in several places a stark, dark shark of a story that will make the reader gasp, but the tale eventually ends up in relatively calm and healing waters, where hope seems to be a possibility after all.

One of The Good Thief's strengths is its world of one-of-a-kind characters: the dental comedian; the chimney dwarf; the affable, though murderous, former "corpse"; the corporate malefactor. They are strange, weird and often lovable, as long as the reader can suspend judgment in favor of the general idea that all God's children have their good points. This quirky crew of thieves and grave robbers might be Ren's only hope for discovering the truth about his heritage. For all its hijinks, The Good Thief minces no words, and hides no happenings. Still, somehow it manages to leave the reader with a smile.

Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.


 

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