Review: 'Smiley and the Hero', by Ryan Campbell
San Fernando sounds like a bleak place! It’s a small island port that has sunk into squalor, tyrannized by a giant, sadistic gangster, “Smiley O”, Smiley O’Hannigan – a wolf so massive that he seems to be literally bulletproof – and his predator thugs. The isolated town has been written off by the rest of the world:
‘But … but nobody leaves San Fernando!’ It was true. The nearest port, they had said in school, was two weeks’ journey by boat, north to the southern tip of Galway. Nobody could get visas anymore. No one was allowed out. (p. 68)
Johnny Ludlam is a sixteen-year-old jackrabbit, the fatherless son of an elderly music teacher. In happier days his father was the local hero, a lifeguard who had saved almost forty people from drowning before he disappeared in a rescue gone bad.
Today the inhabitants of San Fernando are all dispirited, and the impoverished Johnny and his mother are about to lose their apartment. Johnny’s sole friend is the streetwise junkie Rab, a color-shifting, normally pale-green anole. Johnny’s mother is reduced to giving him her valuable clarinet to pawn for rent money, but nobody will buy it. Nobody has time for music any more in San Fernando.
Johnny dreams of becoming a hero, as his father was. And he may have a crazy chance.
Rab has scrounged a key to a hidden back door of Smiley O’s cliffside nightclub, Cloud 9. Smiley’s headquarters. His hideout. His fortress. His “treasure vault”! For years the insane gangster has been extorting and outright robbing San Fernando of its wealth, and just tastelessly piling up the loot in the back rooms of Cloud 9:
[Johnny] looked around the room. Now that his eyes had adjusted to the light, he could see that it was enormous. The walls were lavishly decorated with rich purple draperies, and hanging from them were signed photographs of various celebrities, gold and silver records, an assortment of weapons both ancient and modern, a couple glossy guitars, and from floor to ceiling, a variety of paintings, including landscapes, ships at sea, portraits, nude women, and abstract art. Johnny recognized some of those from art classes back in school. Various sculptures were placed around the room in a haphazard configuration, some even turned toward the walls.
Against one wall sat a large display case filled with colorful, glittering items: tiny carvings of jade, turquoise, ivory, inlaid with gems; glittering necklaces; odd red vials; unusual coins; and a collection of jeweled knives. Littering the bottom of the case as if discarded were gems, rings, and other small items. Huge stacks of hundred dollar bills were piled next to the case, barely leaving room for a closet door behind it. A huge steel vault door with a spoked wheel was set into the wall opposite the closet door. Between these two was a ten foot high door that was no doubt the exit, a heavy metal slab with a sliding panel through which one could peer out. This door was slightly ajar.
The room was filled with so much treasure that Johnny could hardly believe it. It was more wealth than he had seen in all his life put together several times over. Smiley, though, had no apparent regard for its beauty: the room was arranged with no sense of aesthetics. It was simply a rich warehouse; a place to store and amass wealth, not to display it. (p. 38)
Johnny also meets Smiley’s slightly less massive sister Tess, who has grown tired of his cruelty and paranoia, and being kept in closely guarded splendor. Tess is amused by Johnny’s nervous bravado and helps him sneak almost $20,000 out of the vault. He is dismayed when his mother is not as enthusiastic about their fortune, and she reveals that his father was not a hero; he was killed when working as one of Smiley’s early, minor gang members.
The following weeks were not what Johnny had envisioned when he first rowed back from Cloud 9 with a shopping bag full of money. Tess had warned him about spending recklessly, sure, but the way his mother was handling the money, it was as if they weren’t rich at all, as if they were still poor. Okay, his meals these days had a lot more fresh vegetables and the portions were larger, and a few times he was given money for ice cream, but that was it. No bicycle. No new clothes. No big feasts. And his mother kept working just as hard at the factory and at the waitress job, as if Johnny had never brought money home at all. (p. 61)
Johnny finally resolves to follow his father’s legend, not the reality. He will be a hero like San Fernando has never known before. He, a lowly jackrabbit, will (with Rab’s help) bring down the gangster wolf and his hoodlums, by secretly turning the gangsters against each other.
But that is easier said than done. As reality grows more dangerous than the two teens expect, they become just as distrustful of each other as the criminals. Can Johnny really trust the crack-smoking lizard? Can Rab trust the overly-naïve bunny-boy? Then the worst happens; Smiley finds out about them, and the murderous, invulnerable giant wolf comes after them personally…
FurPlanet has become so well-known for its Furry adult erotic books that it is a surprise to find what might be called an old-fashioned teen adventure, with a Furry cast. It is modern in that the setting is grim & gritty, with drugs and mature swearing, and a villain who glories in killing his victims in slow, sadistic ways. But all of the characters act intelligently (even the psychopath). Its protagonist is a young idealistic, wanna-be hero. He may get scared, especially in the most desperate straits, but he never loses track of his goal to become a hero. Smiley and the Hero, despite its unpleasant setting and its sometimes brutal action, is basically a feel-good adventure for older adolescent readers. Recommended.