CALLING all middle-class rebels: Here's the life James Frey wished he had lived. Steve Geng is an ex-thief, ex-junkie, ex-jailbird and ex-actor (who specialized in playing thieves, junkies and jailbirds during his hot streak on TV's "Miami Vice"). Now 64, and lucky to be alive after decades of methodical self-destruction, he has chronicled his scarifying odyssey in "Thick as Thieves."
Geng isn't, of course, the first author to recount his descent into drugs, petty crime and pointedly bohemian dissolution. Born in 1943, Geng was just old enough to catch the tail end of the Beat era and lucky enough to live in Paris (as a teenage military brat) during the height of its postwar funkiness. The heroin-ravaged Chet Baker was his idol, and there's a definite whiff of Beat-like hedonism wafting from the book's pages.
No, what makes "Thick as Thieves" memorable is that it's a double portrait. The author's sister was Veronica Geng, a brilliant contributor to the New Yorker and the quirky dark lady of Manhattan's literary scene, celebrated for her deadpan essays and revolving-door sex life. The divergent trajectories of brother and sister are ultimately more intriguing than the author's raffish roll in the mud.
They parted ways early. During their Philadelphia childhood, the bookish Veronica often withdrew into "some remote, inner landscape." Her baby brother, meanwhile, discovered the joys of arson and theft -- and those irritating pangs of conscience that would pop up throughout his life.
"Sometimes I stole for no reason other than the exquisite thrill of getting away with it," Geng writes. "I once took a twenty-dollar bill from Mom's purse, a lot of money in the fifties, and was so intoxicated with that much dough that I got scared and jammed the bill in the corner mailbox -- no candy bars, no backslapping from fair-weather friends, just the subversive power and unknown repercussions that were left to my wild imaginings."
The subversive power of stealing would not relinquish its grip on Geng for many years. Both siblings eventually gravitated to New York. While his sister patiently climbed the editorial ladder and author, Geng became a heroin addict and a virtuoso shoplifter, whose sticky-fingered expeditions to music stores earned him the nickname Record Steve. When he wasn't in jail or nodding off in some squalid shooting gallery, he would sometimes cross paths with Veronica, often from a distance.
"I'd be wracked by terrible feelings of loneliness and jealousy each time I glimpsed my sister and her friends through the plate-glass windows of a [Greenwich] Village saloon," Geng recalls. "I felt like a hobo watching from a street curb ... as the family sat down to a cozy dinner, always on the outside looking in. Those people went home to real apartments, got up the next morning, and went to real jobs. How the hell did they do it?"
Jealousy, even loneliness, wasn't all he felt on such occasions. Jack Kerouac famously remarked, "I'm not a beatnik, I'm a Catholic." And Geng, a product of the same educational environment, with its "nuns in habits and classes on catechism," always retained at least a secular sense of guilt. He would never put it that way. Sin was a notion for squares. Yet he did own up to "a hustler's notion of karma, the run of the cards, and poetic justice." That may account for his stoical attitude toward beatings, bad dope and several scary stretches in the penitentiary.
Chronology gets a little fuzzy in "Thick as Thieves" (it was probably a little hazy at the time too.) It's hard to figure out exactly when Geng reconciled with his widower father, got off junk and began his acting career. In any case, the 1980s were kinder to him. And writing about other people -- his father, his increasingly glamorous and erratic sister -- tightens up his prose. (There's a reason narcissists make lousy writers.) You could extract these chapters and assemble them into a concise, touching memoir.
That's not what Geng did. The intermittent portraiture of his sister, who died of a brain tumor in 1997, displays a lovely mixture of tenderness and vexation, and Geng sometimes navigates his way through the demimonde with real flair. But much of the language is sloppy and generic.
The author's appetite for tough-guy diction also gets him in trouble. At one point he describes his milieu as "deadbeat and Runyonesque," and that's clearly the tone he's shooting for. "I'm not the type to sit around and boohoo. It was a damn good run I'd had at life on the edge.... But as the bookies say, I'd lost my good looks. Lady Luck had jumped ship many moons ago." So, apparently, did the editor who allowed this caravansary of cliches to remain in the manuscript.
To his credit, Geng doesn't conclude "Thick as Thieves" with a dose of uplift. He denies us the easy satisfactions of a recovery memoir, where the author's demons are conveniently stuffed back into the tube. For that reason alone, it feels churlish to dwell on the book's defects. You want to like it more than you do. Still, it's Geng who notes at one point: "People didn't always work out, but a sentence you could usually get straight." Hey, Record Steve, it's harder than it sounds.