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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

April 25, 1993|CHRIS GOODRICH

JOHNNY'S GIRL: A Daughter's Memoir of Growing Up in Alaska's Underworld by Kim Rich (Morrow: $22; 302 pp.) True crime books tend to be variations on a theme, writers attempting to reconstruct a sinister event or phenomenon and then explain how certain people can do such things. Some books in the genre transcend the formula, however, and "Johnny's Girl" does just that, mainly because author Kim Rich has a special stake in her narrative. Personal involvement often compromises a story's credibility--it's difficult for a participant to avoid being self-serving--but one quickly gets the sense that Rich wrote Johnny's Girl not to exploit her family's criminal history but to understand it. Johnny Rich was a charming, high-profile grifter who ran a series of gambling dens and massage parlors in 1960s Anchorage; his wife, Ginger, was a stripper and sometime prostitute who likewise loved the thrills of on-the-edge night life. The couple had one child, Kim, but she was an orphan by the age of 15: Ginger died of cancer in 1972 after years in mental hospitals, while Johnny was killed 18 months later, execution style, by another underworld figure. The publisher pigeonholes the book as an account of "one American dream gone horribly wrong," but one of the best things about Johnny's Girl is that Rich has no interest in making that sort of judgment. Johnny loved the life he chose, even though it proved far too much for Ginger, never complied with his expectations and indirectly killed them both; Kim Rich, for her part, led an odd and difficult home life but not a destructive one, always able to ask herself when people wondered how she survived so many years among cons, crooks, addicts and gun-toting rivals, "Why shouldn't I be okay?" Rich, clearly, is just fine, partly because she has the courage to look at her life with a gimlet eye.

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