by Richard R. Becker
Genre: Literary Fiction / Coming of Age
Print Length: 326 pages
Reviewed by Warren Maxwell
Raw and compulsive, a story of young manhood in 1980s Las Vegas
14-year-old Brady has lived through the suicide of his father, the death of his grandmother who raised him, and the torments of his sadistic mother. After moving from the gritty inner-city of Cleveland to a desert’s edge suburb of Las Vegas, he finds camaraderie and brotherhood with a scruffy group of older boys who love Dungeons & Dragons.
In the summer before his sophomore year, everything takes a turn for the worse when an ominous figure named Alex leads Brady’s tight knit group into a world of hard drugs, gun games, and cartels. Caught between preserving the sliver of belonging that he’s cultivated with his best friend Mick or doing what he thinks is right—either of which could get him killed—Brady navigates drug deals gone wrong, police at his house, his mother’s tyrannical rule, and the sudden attention of Cheryl, a beautiful girl six years older than him.
“She was like a ray of sunshine bleeding into this dingy establishment, a bright glow that cut through the darkness just like the one that encompassed us every time someone opened the front doors. It was a reminder, just like she was, that beauty can be found anywhere if you look hard enough. Except I must have been lucky because I wasn’t looking.”
The promise of youthful nostalgia pulled me into this narrative right away, but just as quickly, Becker expands his story into something much bigger. Brady’s coming of age is seamlessly blended into a plot that veers from poignant first romance to hardboiled crime. Femme fatales, mobsters and ingenues populate the novel’s world. When it descends into a bleakness bordering on nihilism, Brady’s forthright, sensitive voice keeps the plot bobbing above the grim undercurrents. This is dark material indeed—pervaded with drugs and violence, fickle romances, friends stabbed in the back by one another, and a total absence of easy answers or responsible adults—but somehow Becker has woven a story that navigates the themes of humane cruelty in order to arrive at a sense of hopefulness and love.
“As one song drifted into the next, I kept trying to puzzle out the problem with people. Maybe it’s how everybody is portrayed in books and movies — defined others in one- dimensional terms. Good guys. Bad guys. Nice girls. Naughty boys. None of it’s true.”
Brady is the kind of narrator that doesn’t let you go. He can pull life lessons from Dungeons & Dragons, wax poetic about the desert landscape, or describe a fight in stomach-turning detail. Written from his perspective, an authentic, youthful voice emerges out of the prose, giving rise to nuggets of wisdom as well as refreshing naivety. Brady’s clumsy attempts to reciprocate Cheryl’s flirtation are a case in point—lifelike and startlingly fresh. He inhabits an awkward space between a naive child and a world weary adult. Direct, no nonsense writing sustains this tenuous balance and builds to a magnetic conclusion.
“Neither one of us said anything. We were locked in the moment. Two people on the fringe of nowhere, watching a city come to life while most other cities were drifting off to sleep. I could see what she meant now, daydreaming that all these little lights were flickering stars, and we were somehow standing above them all.”
The landscape and cast of characters are also beautifully rendered. A sense of place and time marks this story without ever relying on cliches or drawn out descriptions. The 80s exist as a mood that informs the story. Likewise, the suburban environment and lonesome desert locals are part of a gritty reality that doubles as a symbol for the crises taking place in Brady’s life. Subtle literary references link Brady to Dune’s Paul Atreides and Great Expectations’ Pip. In every case, the desert stands in for foreignness and isolation.
A remarkable debut, the harsh realism of Third Wheel packs a punch. Its deep insight into the human condition resonate long after impact.
Thank you for reading Warren Maxwell’s book review of Third Wheel by Richard R. Becker! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.