Matt Burgess has claimed a slice of New York City as his own. Like his debut, "Dogfight: A Love Story" (2010), Burgess' latest novel takes place in and around Jackson Heights, the extraordinarily diverse neighborhood where he spent his youth. Equipped with a curiosity-raising title, "Uncle Janice" is an agile cop story with a disarming main character, a sophisticated understanding of police work and a bracingly specific sense of time and place.
Burgess, who went to grad school at the University of Minnesota and now teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, sets the action in 2008 in "a post-mortgage-crisis Queens stuck in developmental limbo." Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are vying for their party's presidential nomination, and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is about to be taken down by a prostitution scandal that the city's tabloids will cover with headlines such as "Ho No!" and "Hooker Happy."
Against this backdrop of political and financial upheaval, Janice Itwaru is trying to make a change of her own. She's in her mid-20s, a relatively new police officer who works as an "uncle," an undercover street cop on the narcotics beat. For various reasons, Janice, who's Guyanese-American, is viewed as a nice fit for the job. "Young, brown, from the city, no college, desperate to move up, single and childless, without anyone to collect her pension if she got killed in the line of duty, she looked on paper like the perfect uncle," Burgess writes, "a narco lieutenant's dream."
Janice is closing in on a promotion to detective, but to get it she needs to start making more appearances on the 115th Precinct's new "buy board." The board tallies undercover busts, and its presence suggests that department bosses have enacted an unspoken arrest quota, encouraging officers to be more aggressive with potential suspects.
The story follows Janice from nightclubs to methadone clinics to public housing developments as she tries to secure her four monthly buys. She's smart and resilient, a bit of a loner. You root for her, even as you sympathize with some of the hapless users and dealers she's paid to target. Meanwhile, you're hoping Janice's personal life gets a bit easier — that her mom, who has dementia, doesn't suffer; that she's able to reconcile with her estranged father and her mercurial sister; that the recent reappearance of her teenage boyfriend provides her with a sorely needed sounding board.
Janice patrols a colorful urban landscape, which Burgess describes in note-perfect detail. Tracking her progress as she heads down one of Jackson Heights' major arteries, Burgess conveys a sense of the borough's multiethnic flavor: There are "Filipinos outside the Philippine National Bank … and a Mexican guy selling roasted peanuts." A little further ahead, "the streets were turning increasingly Latin, with the ubiquitous travel agencies beginning to advertise South American vacations only. The curried chicken puffs on Sixty-Fourth Street, the soy garlic Korean fried chicken wings on Seventy-Second, and the flavorless grilled-chicken deli sandwiches on Seventy-Sixth all became chicken mole tamale carts, Argentinian chicken empanada stands, the famous Pollos a la Brasa Mario with whole birds roasting in the windows."
Burgess understands his main character; he sympathizes with the demands of her job, and he's lived in the neighborhood she patrols — all of which make "Uncle Janice" such a confident and convincing novel.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.