Cake is a smart, speedy little bomb of noir fiction by a writer whose nom de plume is simply “D.” This slim novella is the latest offering from a new “street-lit” imprint called The Armory, from edgy Brooklyn house Akashic, and if you detect a whiff of coded language in the term “street-lit,” then you won’t be surprised to find that Cake is the unapologetic story of a young black drug dealer and a week in his violent world.
The anonymous narrator has fled to Atlanta after a murderous drug deal gone wrong flushes him out of Brooklyn, and despite half-hearted efforts to go straight, he inevitably gets caught up in the same hustle. When the narrator’s bungling cousin skips town, he is left holding the bag on a small-time drug operation that quickly escalates into a gang war. The maneuvering of the rival factions is relatively conventional crime-thriller stuff, but D’s descriptions of the atmosphere — the hopped-up cars, strip clubs, seedy apartments and motel parking lots — are quick and vivid. The dialogue sounds, to a bookish middle-class white man at least, authentically clipped and slangy. When the book accelerates toward its violent denouement and a final, jarring twist, there is no denying that D has mastered the tightly plotted structure of the genre.
The only criticism one could make of this mayhem-filled book is that, paradoxically, it perhaps doesn’t go quite far enough into the darkness at its heart. For all his badass hip-hop bravado, D retains an old-fashioned Raymond Chandler sense of character: he is very careful to preserve the moral center of his hero, who gets involved against his better judgment out of loyalty, and who never kills unless he has to. It would be hard to say for sure, but I suspect that a true gangster would be ugly on the inside and out, and no better than his surroundings. Whether this represents a failure of fictional nerve is hard to say. What we can say is that Cake updates the crime thriller with juice and grit to spare.