Even as I was nearing the 300 page mark of this 352 page book, Richard Lange’s new novel The Smack presented itself as an entertaining, yet by the numbers thriller the likes of which I have seen from a various number of writers, with Michael Farris Smith’s disappointing second novel Desperation Road coming to mind as I continued to read. But near the end, the book does something that floored and gutted me. I will try not to spoil it with this review, but it is something that happens that sheds some much needed light on the book’s events. Coming into this novel I was worried. I had really liked Lange’s two short story collections, Dead Boys and Sweet Nothing, but I had this itch in the back of my mind that his brand of storytelling might not lend itself to longer forms. And while the beats this book takes are familiar, but no less exciting, it is the bravery of those stories that really sets this book apart from some of its contemporaries: Lange’s world is one of missed opportunities, last chances and no fancy prize for being a runner-up. It’s a world where actions count more than words, and a few wrong moves can get you killed. It is also a world filled with hardworking people and interesting characters who carry a world of hurt on their backs and are constantly in search of a path that will lead to happiness. Rowan Petty is one of those people. A lifelong con man sliding ungracefully into his 40’s, we first meet him while running a phone scam in Reno, a mere underling to the younger Avi whom Petty helped when he was starting out. Two meetings set him on a path toward something like redemption. First, he meets a flirtatious and beautiful hooker who calls herself Tinafey who offers to spend the night with him. Second, he meets with Don, a mirror image of Petty if he lives so long, who gives him a tip on a possible score with scant details. Barely hiding his desperation, Petty and Tinafey head to LA in search of hidden stash that might not even exist. In this search, Lange introduces a myriad of fascinating and well-drawn characters, like Beck, a washed actor and ex-husband of an Oscar-winning actress, Tony, a wounded army vet whose character arc is undeniably the saddest and Sam, Petty’s estranged daughter whom he suspects is one drugs but is suffering in a much more serious way. A few bodies drop, plans are etched and carried out, but it doesn’t always go as planned, and the characters don’t always act, as you’d expect: evil people can sometimes have good motivations; good people can do evil things under pressure. But with all that said, this is also a world where actions have direct and indirect consequences that will break your heart. I was very taken aback by this story and the places it went. It rises above some of its more cliché genre elements and gives us something that feels immediate and important.