Atlanta noir

Take Quentin Tarentino and cross him with Kinky Friedman and you have Fred Willard’s take on the dope smugglers, money runners, small-time criminals, street people and assorted lunatics who inhabit Atlanta, the city (in Willard’s words) “a city that may be too busy to hate, but isn’t above taking a little time off to steal.”

“Down on Ponce” is Fred Willard’s debut novel. Sam Fuller, a former dope runner living the low life off the proceeds, delivers himself into a world of trouble when he accepts a nervous yuppie’s offer of thirty thousand dollars to kill his wife. When somebody else does it for him, and burns down Fuller’s trailer as well, he pushes himself deeper underground on Atlanta’s shabby and dangerous Ponce de Leon Avenue. There, he makes the acquaintance of some small-time riff-raff — among them Stinky, a wheelchair-bound homeless man; Bob who has to take his clothes off when he imagines them catching afire; and Charley, whose ambition to make crime a career is an imaginary respite from his true job stacking bodies at a funeral home.

With such an unlikely crew, Sam concocts a scheme to gain revenge on the drug runners and money launderers who tried to ice him and collect a little money on the side as well.

In fact, with Willard’s skillful depiction of life on the edge of disaster, it’s not until you get deeper into “Ponce” that your realize it’s a caper novel with an edge. You got your gunfire, you got your homicidal maniacs, you got your eccentric characters — especially the Jackson brothers, white Rastas twins who talk with a Brooklyn accent — and you got the seedy side of Atlanta. It’s an extremely grim story at times, and you may cock an eyebrow at some of the cultural references (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” among them), but Fuller and crew recognize the absurdity of their life, of life in general, and of the inequalities that lead them into the pursuit of essentially petty crime that could get them killed while bankers do short time in country club prisons for looting savings and loans, and manages to find comedy in all of that.

“I’m a sucker for sad stories with happy endings,” Fuller muses, and if you’re a sucker for them too, then check out “Ponce.” And while I’m still talking, let me offer this prediction: if Willard writes a few more books like “Ponce,” you’ll be hearing people talking about him like they do about James Lee Burke and Patricia Cornwell.