BETWEEN HIS NUMEROUS collaborations with David Lynch (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) and a documented love of film noir (his awesome, hard-to-find book of film reviews The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films), Barry Gifford doesn't seem like an author you'd recommend to a kid. But his newest, Sad Stories of the Death of Kings, is young-adult fiction at its most pitch perfect—a coming of ager, set in 1960s Chicago, in which the teenaged Roy is besieged by hustlers, gangsters, and scrappers as he tries to figure out his place in the world. With just enough violence and girl chasing framing this snapshot of an era, Gifford's first foray into YA is an unlikely but strong match.
The book comprises Gifford's crude character drawings and 42 short stories, with Roy playing a prominent role. These are glimpses of a big city full of neighborhood wise guys, orphanage burnings, fast girls, and recent immigrants. Roy is a thoughtful kid who lives with his grandpa, his father dead and his mother off to parts unknown. He hangs with friends named Viper and Magic Frank, watching adventure films and playing baseball, occasionally cleaning up after hours at the local burlesque house. Through his eyes we are treated to vignettes about the more colorful characters in the 'hood—like Cousin Sid, who lost his looks and his marbles, babbling away at the asylum Angels of Victims of Unfathomable Behavior. Or a neighborhood gangster whose nose was slit tip to top, cartilage replaced by a five-dollar bill for "welshing on a bet." Or the local stumblebum who freezes to death outside a bar where Roy and his friend find his blue body.
It's Roy's well-considered observations that keep Sad Stories of the Death of Kings well away from being just tossed-off scenes of violence. It could have taken this voyeuristic direction, but Gifford is a master of dialogue and setting, with a narrator full of heart, even when faced at a young age with a potentially bleak future. "Roy worried that he could end up like Bad Lands Bill or Arne Pedersen, a rummy frozen to death on a sidewalk or in an alley. This was a possibility, he knew, it could happen to any man if enough breaks went against him." Smart kid.