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The Roofer by Erica Orloff
(Mira, $12.95, R) ISBN 0-7783-2072-3
Erica Orloff has written several books for Red Dress Ink, but her latest novel is a far cry from those lighthearted “Sex and the City” romances. It’s also her best book to date, a dark, brutal story that feels as if it emerged straight from the author’s soul. After reading The Roofer, it’s difficult to imagine returning to Chick Lit novels in which the biggest challenge facing the heroine is paying for that new pair of Jimmy Choos.  

Hollywood has long glamorized gangs and organized crime in movies like The Godfather and television shows like The Sopranos, but Ava O’Neill knows that the truth is a lot less alluring. The youngest child of Irish gang leader Frank O’Neill, Ava grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, in the company of murderers, thieves and alcoholics. She learned how to play poker before she learned her multiplication tables, and after school she’d sit in a dingy bar waiting for her father to finish conducting business. During Frank’s periodic jail sentences, and after her mentally ill mother committed suicide, Ava, brother Tom and sister Carol were looked after by her father’s crony “Uncle Two,” a two-time (at least) murderer and their Uncle George, a policeman whose behavior blurred the distinction between good guys and bad guys.  

As a young adult, Ava drinks more than she should and spends her energy caring for Tom, now a policeman with severe drug and alcohol addictions. The book opens as she prepares to attend her father’s wake and funeral, while looking back over the pivotal moments in her life. Three years earlier, a journalist wrote a story about Frank O’Neill, detailing the brutal crimes that gave him the nickname “The Roofer.” Instead of leading to a law enforcement investigation, the article attracted the attention of a Hollywood director, and soon Frank was hobnobbing with movie stars who considered him a colorful character.

During the filming, Ava met Vince Quinn, the 35-year-old actor who played her father, and fell in love with his gentleness and goodness. But she knew that their relationship was doomed to be short-lived because she didn’t want to taint Vince with the ugliness of her life. More importantly, she could never leave Tom, the only other person who knew the full extent of the desperate act that the O’Neills had taken to protect themselves. In the process of burying her father, is Ava burying any hope for a life away from Frank’s shadow?  

From the first sentence – “My first instinct was to look at the corpse. It’s what all the Irish do.” – the novel lets you know it isn’t for wimps. What you learn about Ava’s life in the first few chapters is nothing compared to the truths that are revealed in the last hundred pages, and it’s all horrifying. Her daily experiences include violence, mental illness, sexual harassment and alcoholism, yet somehow she manages to avoid being sucked down into the worst of it all. While Ava is obviously no saint, you strongly root for her to find a way to escape the life she has always known. Vince Quinn at times seems too good to be true, but you admire him for seeing the vulnerability behind Ava’s tough exterior and for holding out the possibility of a happy ending.  

The chilling portraits of the men in Ava’s life elevate this novel to keeper status. They’re a study in fascinating contrasts. Frank O’Neill loves to watch the “Creature Feature” horror movies with Ava snuggled up next to him, but also thinks nothing of backhanding her if she exhibits disloyalty to the family. The picture of tough gang warriors like Uncle Two grocery shopping for the motherless O’Neill children is unforgettable. By far the most disturbing man in the book is Tom O’Neill, Ava’s savior and jailer, who is losing his grip on sanity as he struggles with the burden of being The Roofer’s son. Even after the secret that linked Ava and Tom together forever is revealed, you can’t help pitying this violent drug addict.  

The Roofer is not a book you want your children to pick up; the violence, explicit language and dark tone are inappropriate for any but the most mature readers. But those readers, if they are brave enough, will find a remarkable, career-defining novel that should earn Erica Orloff critical and commercial acclaim.  

--Susan Scribner

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