The Wolves of Fairmount Park
nolead ends nolead begins By Dennis Tafoya

Minotaur. 336 pp. $25.99

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Reviewed by David Hiltbrand

Everybody's an investigator in this gritty crime novel, even the junkies. It makes sense. In Dennis Tafoya's bleak depiction of Philadelphia, there's a surfeit of illegal activity going on, enough to occupy the entire population.

The action begins with the shooting of two teens, one of them a cop's son, outside a dope house on Roxborough Avenue.

Right from the start, the story is firmly anchored in the Philly landscape. Here's a couple discussing their future:

" 'Seriously, you ever been more than five miles from the Schuylkill River?'

'I was down the shore with my mom a couple times. Before she lost the house.'

'That doesn't count. Everybody's been down the shore.'

'You want to leave?'

'I don't know, Orlando. Some days I just want to know where we're going, I guess.'

'We're going down the Wawa on Ridge Avenue.' "

All the characters in Tafoya's second novel, to be published Tuesday, live in a closed urban circuit of substance abuse, crushed dreams, and crime.

The book's title comes from the druggy reverie of a hit man who dumps his bodies in the Schuylkill.

Tafoya's East Falls tragedy establishes the same mood that permeates Richard Price's novels – the looming of implacable and unavoidable violence. The poor protagonists can't help themselves and they can't save themselves. Meanwhile, the pain-saturated cops just try to keep this mess in the semblance of a box.

The tone is so unrelievedly dismal that about half way through, you begin to feel buried alive. Except that Tafoya, a Philadelphia native who now lives in Bucks County, writes with ample energy, none of it wasted.

Here's the backstory for a Center City barmaid: "She was Mennonite, from somewhere out near Lancaster. Her family had a place in Reading Terminal Market, a butcher shop. She'd been working there since she was nine and one day when she was sixteen she'd just taken what was in the till and walked out. Figuring it was what she was owed for working the shop for seven years. All those years, she said, standing behind the counter watching the girls come through and looking at their clothes, their hair."

An unlikely innocent, a saint of the streets, is introduced at the end to bring the story to a climax. She seems oddly out of place in Tafoya's detailed but dark portrayal of Philadelphia.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or Read his recent work at daveondemand.