Morality does not figure high in The Goodbye Kiss, and the only moral of the story appears to be: once a low-life, always a low-life. Callous brutality is a way (and becomes a necessity) of life in this pitch-black, sour noir, but there are enough quirky elements to the story -- and considerable suspense -- to make it worthwhile.
The novel is narrated by Giorgio Pellegrini. Years ago he was part of a revolutionary group, fleeing Italy when one of their actions resulted in the death of a night watchman. One of those involved ratted him out, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment in abstentia. He fled to Latin America, joining an insurgency there.
His political idealism and revolutionary fervour had clearly diminished over the years, and when the book begins he's drifting towards returning to Europe, burning his bridges behind him. Back in France he contacts an old associate and explains that he's going to give himself up to the Italian authorities, and that they should arrange a deal for him, or he'll sell out his old comrades. The revolution is a spent force (nicely presented by Carlotto), but Giorgio gets his deal -- even though it means a few years in prison.
From the first page, Giorgio is presented as someone willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. No more revolutions for him, just self-interest. Prison proves a good training ground for this (even though he notes, with apparent disappointment: "nowadays even prisons aren't what they used to be"), as does his first real job as a free man again, in a strip club. He has ambitions of going straight -- opening a restaurant sounds good to him -- but known to be a police informer (part of his deal with the cops) and working in a strip club, he's a long way off from respectability.
Giorgio begins by skimming a bit at the strip club -- though not carefully enough. Still, his indiscretions aren't enough to get him whacked -- he's just taught a lesson. But soon enough he sees bigger opportunities. Working with a crooked cop, Ferruccio Anedda, he gets out of the lap-dancing business -- and then there's an opportunity for a really big haul:
Attacking armored trucks in Italy was highly remunerative and far from complicated. You just needed to locate the weak point of the route and kill most of the guards.
The idea of killing a few guards doesn't bother him, and he learns about a weak point -- but he needs more people to help him out. Enter Anedda again, who sets him up with some Croatian war criminals and three Spanish anarchists, all very much on the wrong side of the law but willing to do it for the money. Of course, Anedda and Giorgio have no intention of sharing the loot .....
For quite a while the novel reads like a coup-caper, building up to this one heist and what will clearly be a brutal aftermath. It's probably the weakest part of the novel -- a bit too implausible, a bit too little detail, and way, way too messy. But Giorgio gets through it, and then he's ready to rebuild his life, and then it gets a bit more interesting again.
He wants to settle down and live a normal life, and he fortunately has a lawyer who can help him out. They petition to have him legally rehabilitated, which isn't a problem if he can stay out of trouble for a while, and he starts working in a restaurant which he will then officially take over when he's legally clear.
Things go fairly well -- the restaurant is a success -- but Giorgio can't quite escape his old lifestyle. His lawyer has him do a couple of favours for him. And then Anedda shows up, needing a bigger favour .....
Killing is Giorgio's preferred solution: no loose ends, and it's something he has to fall back on quite frequently. Nicely, Carlotto offers quite a few variations on the theme. The suspense is heightened by the fact that, about nine times out of ten, the people Giorgio is dealing with are planning to do the same to him, so it's just a matter of who gets to it first. And then there are the women in his life: the mobster's widow who understands her fate, and his fiancée who winds up knowing just a bit too much .....
Killing isn't an afterthought here, but it's nothing out of the ordinary. Giorgio's actions almost never weigh on him: it's what he had to do, the cost of business (and survival). And so, it sometimes seems, the book merely moves from one body (or slaughter) to the next.
So Giorgio is not the most sympathetic of characters -- no noir hero (or even anti-hero). He's a low-life, plain and simple. But Carlotto's account is consistently gripping -- in part because Giorgio is the way he is. His attitude towards women and sex, for example, shows yet another mean streak, but it's perversely fascinating (and it's nice to see a leading man who likes his ladies older and doesn't always get (or take) the most beautiful women around).
The action, too, holds the reader's attention: there is suspense throughout, curveballs coming from every direction, and though some seems rather unlikely, it's still fun.
Quite a disturbing read and maybe a bit too unconcerned with morality (or cynical, set in a world in which there are essentially no innocents and most are really, really corrupt), The Goodbye Kiss is written engagingly and surprisingly enough to make it worthwhile.
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