Matt Forney
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Steel Toes by Eddie Little

I’m honestly starting to think that Eddie Little’s death was one of the great tragedies of modern American literature. You’ve read my praise for his debut novel Another Day in Paradise, a roman à clef about growing up as a streetwise tough in the seventies, but Steel Toes blows that story out of the water and into orbit.

If there was such a thing as “karma,” James Frey would die a thousand deaths for plagiarizing Little.

Steel Toes is easily one of the best novels of the 21st century so far. It takes the gut-punching prose and hustle of Another Day in Paradise and kicks it up several notches. Little doesn’t simply rehash his first novel, he expands upon his oeuvre, to the point where you’re left wondering what he’d be putting out if he were alive today. Fair warning though: if you haven’t read Paradise, a lot of what makes Steel Toes great will be lost on you.

The novel is a sequel to Another Day in Paradise, picking up where the ending left off. Following the death of his girlfriend Rosie, Bobbie Prine ends up on a botched job and overdoses on smack, landing himself in an Indiana prison, a nightmarish “gladiator school” of ass-rape, murder and racial animosity. Every dirty detail of Prine’s life behind bars is meted out in Little’s typical 100 mph prose:

“Tellin’ ya, boy, a calf is the ticket. Slap your pecker into its mouth and it thinks it’s mama’s tit, starts suckin’ and won’t stop until it gets a gallon. God ain’t made the woman yet that can suck a dick better than a new calf. Shit howdy, don’t got no fuckin’ teeth, just keep on gummin’ at your organ till you’re howlin’ at the sky.”

Bobbie’s penchant for getting into racial brawls lands him a one-way ticket to a supermax prison, which he evades through a last minute escape attempt with his buddies Phil, a cross-eyed peckerwood from near the Kentucky border, and Big George, one of the few blacks in prison he’s on speaking terms with. They flee across the border to a Chicago-area farm run by one of Bobbie’s old associates, and from there the plot spirals into Bobbie’s attempts to reintegrate into civilian life and feed his growing heroin addiction:

Before there’s time to wonder if the drugs are going to fuck this up I am responding to Michelle from all the way inside me. Picking her up and kicking the front door closed and carrying her into my bedroom and watching her undress, large breasts covered with small freckles, tiny waist and fuck-me hips. Kicking my way outta my jeans, coming together, not like enemy ships but like motherfuckin’ poetry in motion. Those brown, orange-amber, gold eyes locked on mine as we draw apart and come together, making something bigger and better than either of the halves.

Steel Toes’ big change is a tonal shift. Another Day in Paradise was very much a coming-of-age novel, albeit a twisted and black one. Bobbie Prine may have been a killer, a junkie and a petty criminal, but he was also a fourteen year old, still full of a certain optimism and naivete about the world. This is all gone in Steel Toes; the death of Rosie plus years in the joint have permanently altered Bobbie’s disposition for the worse.

The other recurring theme of the novel is Bobbie’s complete inability to escape his life.

As I’ve written before, redemption may be a possibility, but most people are too selfish and short-sighted to take it. The two constants in Bobbie’s life are his heroin addiction and his impulsivity in feeding it, and how he’s constantly getting himself into trouble and alienating his friends because of it. He reunites with a number of characters from Paradise, including his surrogate mother Syd and his friend Ben, and manages to drive them all away through his constant poor decision-making. His attempts to blend into high society fail every time his streetwise junkie instincts flare up, such as in one bizarre scene where he meets a wino in Boston and gets loaded on Wild Irish Rose. He meets a nice upper-class Boston girl named Michelle and drags her into the criminal underworld.

And as the book’s climactic, bloody ending shows, nothing short of death will get Bobbie off of the path he’s stuck on.

This is the reality of life: few if any people can escape their own stupidity. The average moron will keep on making the same mistakes again and again until he dies. Magical transformations are nearly impossible to pull off, and anyone who claims to have done one should be looked at with deep skepticism. Eddie Little understood this; he died barely a year after Steel Toes was published.

This is not a happy book or an uplifting book, but it’s a funny, gripping and real one. Steel Toes isn’t just a viciously honest portrayal of drug addiction and the criminal life, it’s a scathing commentary on American society and human nature. If you haven’t read Another Day in Paradise, read it; if you have, Steel Toes should be next on your list.

Click here to buy Steel Toes.

Read Next: Another Day in Paradise by Eddie Little