It’s fair to say that some folks might begrudge David Schickler. He published one of his first stories (“The Smoker”) in The New Yorker in 2000, sold the movie rights, got a book deal for a reported half-million, and published a well-received collection, Kissing in Manhattan, in 2001. His first novel, Sweet and Vicious, is the tale of Henry Dante, a two-bit hood who “bust[s] people’s heads” for Chicago crime kingpin Honey Pobrinkis. Henry goes AWOL while in possession of Honey’s one-of-a-kind diamond collection, the Planets, and is helped along by Grace McGlone, a ruby-haired, religious femme fatale. The story begins when a hawk, clutching an albino squirrel, crashes into the windshield of the Buick driven by Henry and his goon buddies Floyd and Roger. Equally violent and implausible antics ensue.
Schickler is capable of savory description (“rain slams on the hood in long silver nails that look like prison bars”) but too often resorts to less effective crowd-pleasing lingo. His characters sound as if they’ve been thumbing through the same dictionary of gum-smacking gumshoe-isms. And throughout Henry’s journey, Schickler backtracks into each character’s life—Floyd was a one-high-school-play-hit wonder, and Roger is a womanizer who masquerades as a master’s student. But while the biographical tidbits are compelling, they’re also as jagged as the opening chapter’s broken windshield.
At times both entertaining and aggravating, S&V is not quite worthy of your envy. In an attempt to tip his fedora to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (referenced twice), Schickler hasn’t matched the sophistication of his debut. It also may be nocoincidence that S&V reads like a treatment—Schickler has already sold its film rights and is writing the screenplay. The adaptation of his breakout story is expected within the year. At this point, Schickler doesn’t seem concerned with penning a masterpiece; with Natalie Portman on board for The Smoker, who needs readers?