Uncle Janice

By Matt Burgess

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Matt Burgess is not a well-known author –  yet. But he is on his way. His 2011 novel, “Dogfight, A Love Story,” got great reviews, and his second, “Uncle Janice,” is getting even better ones. A native of Jackson Heights, Queens, he makes the borough itself a character in his new book. But he hasn’t spent his whole life in New York City. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Minnesota’s MFA program.

What is this book about?

As Gilbert & Sullivan told us, “a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” That’s also true for a policewoman such as Janice Itwaru, a Queens-based, Guyanese-American 24-year-old undercover narcotics cop – they are known as “uncles” – who is trying to fight crime, her obnoxious bosses and the entrenched police bureaucracy, while also dealing with her dementia-plagued mother and other family issues. She’s in her 17th month on the job: one more good month and she will automatically make detective, something she desperately wants to achieve. But, sashaying around in her hoochie-mama outfits, can she lure enough potential criminals into making  drug sales so that her partner can collar them and pump up her arrest quota? And if she does, will she have sold her soul in the process?

Why you’ll like it:

Reviewers are unanimous in praising Matt Burgess’ s deft ear for the way real people talk and ability to express it in the many voices in “Uncle Janice.” The book’s hilarious dialogue and gut-punchy story has earned him coveted comparisons to such contemporary noir masters as Elmore Leonard (pretty high praise indeed) along with predictions that this one is his breakout book. Here are some thoughts Burgess shared in an interview by Tin House magazine:

“Well, the book is set in Queens because I grew up there and I can’t yet seem to get myself to daydream about anywhere else. Stoops, park benches, pool halls, alleyways: they’re these charged spaces for me. I grew up telling and listening to stories, and it’s almost impossible for me to segue to fictional storytelling as a novelist without taking those places with me. . . . We try to cope with all this craziness by turning it into stories, and that’s what my books are trying to do. . . . I’m going to borrow a line from one of my heroes, the novelist George Pelecanos, and say, “the most valuable research I do comes from just hanging out in the neighborhoods and listening.” I was talking to a friend mine who’s an undercover cop and I asked him what was the scariest part of his job. I’m expecting him to say getting shot at. Instead he tells me he’s constantly worried that his bosses might try to screw him over. Working the streets was less stressful than navigating office politics. That was a revelation for me. It’s hard for a lot of us to relate to police officers, but my friend’s most chronic problems—how do I navigate this massive bureaucracy while retaining some sense of self?—were things almost anyone can relate to . . .”

“Before I knew her name or anything else about her, I had her job. That was first. I wanted to write about undercovers. Statistically speaking most undercovers are people of color. Because it’s a fast track to detective—if you last 18 months in Narcotics without getting killed or sent back to patrol, you automatically get your gold shield—most undercovers are also young and ambitious, without any of the internal connections that might get them promoted via a less dangerous route. So I knew those things about her: young, ambitious, a person of color, in this case Guyanese, because I thought that was a culture that has been underrepresented in fiction about New York. And I say “her” even though in the first few months of writing this book the protagonist was a man. I made the switch after realizing a female character might face particularly difficult challenges working her way through the male-dominant culture of the NYPD. That’s how character construction tends to work for me. I start with a job, a vague idea of a person, and then I put them under as much pressure as possible. Chase them up into a tree and throw rocks at them to see what they’re made of. And it turns out Janice is made of some pretty strong stuff.”

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: The uncle of the title of this gripping, well-written book set on the mean streets of contemporary Queens is an undercover narcotics officer in the NYPD. “Uncle” Janice Itwaru, a New Yorker of Guyanese descent, poses as a drug addict to make “buys” of crack and other controlled substances; she is shadowed by a “ghost,” a fellow officer who makes the arrests. Burgess has crafted an urban picaresque, though Itwaru’s undercover identity and activities are potentially dangerous. But the relatively low level of narrative momentum (this is not a genre novel) is well compensated for by the rich, vibrant portrait of Queens’s vast underclass—from the suffering addicts and smalltime dealers to the cops who are more concerned with doing their job, surviving the tedium and drudgery, and moving their way up the NYPD food chain than making the streets safer from the scourge of drugs. Burgess (Dogfight, a Love Story) has a finely honed eye and a gift for rendering street-smart dialogue that is both credible and comic; he fully realizes Itwaru’s world and makes the reader understand just how futile most of the skirmishes in the war on drugs really are.”


Kirkus’s starred review says: “The multicultural stew pot that is contemporary Queens is served up steaming in this pungently uproarious novel about a frenzied young policewoman advancing her career one drug buy at a time. . . .This crime novel written by Queens native Burgess evokes some of that hurly-burly as it chronicles several tumultuous weeks in the life of Janice Itwaru, an NYPD covert op desperate to climb from the dreary if sometimes-hazardous swamp of petty street buys to a detective’s gold shield. In the process, Janice, who lives with her sickly Indian mom in Richmond Hill, must cope with the ribald taunts and elaborate pranks of her fellow “uncles” (as in undercover narcotics cops), whether on assignment or in their nondescript HQ labeled “the rumpus.” . . .  she’s also pressured by her superior officer to meet her shifting quota of buys and bullied by an Internal Affairs cop from Manhattan into helping him get the goods on a shady “uncle.” Less a conventionally plotted procedural than an anecdotal stream of harrowing encounters, scatological slapstick and polychromatic repartee, this is a multitextured chronicle of coming-of-age, or, perhaps more precisely, coming to terms with what it means to be a responsible grown-up struggling for truth, justice, love and value in a post-millennial urban universe where once-familiar boundary lines get blurrier every day.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “In Burgess’s outstanding sophomore effort, 24-year-old Janice Itwaru is an “uncle” for the NYPD, making controlled buys as an undercover narcotics officer, withstanding the good-natured ribbing of her fellow uncles, and counting the days until her 18 months comes up and she makes detective. But the Big Bosses have instituted a quota, and Janice, if she wants to earn that gold shield, needs to step up her game to include four buys a month, in an area where she is fast becoming a known face. As Janice attempts to scheme the hapless drug dealers of Queens in locations dank and desperate, while tending to her mother’s descent into dementia and generally avoiding her alcoholic father, she begins to crack under the bureaucratic pressures of modern-day policing—and Internal Affairs may be watching her every move. VERDICT This fresh take on the cop novel genre retains the madcap energy of Elmore Leonard’s best fiction while introducing the most irresistible police precinct this side of Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Station.”

Barnes & Noble says: “ …. Burgess wrote Uncle Janice long before Mike Brown and Eric Garner, the riots in Ferguson and the mass protests in New York City. Yet the book, set in 2008, does allude to the Sean Bell shooting, and its thoughtful treatment of undercover work’s moral ambiguities suggests Burgess knew he would have to walk a fine line to avoid either lionizing and demonizing his heroine. Uncle Janice is in many ways a perfect book for our time, and our conversation about what we expect from the police. It reminds the reader just how dangerous and noble a cop’s job is, but at the same time it refuses to shy away from difficult questions about the compromises, missteps, and sometimes outright criminality that undermine the public’s faith in law enforcement.  . . . but it is also an awful lot of fun. Burgess has already earned comparisons to that king of comic crime writing, Elmore Leonard. Like Leonard, he has the lifelong eavesdropper’s ear for dialogue and a fine-tuned sense of the absurdity of life on both sides of the law. . . .Also like Leonard, and like all the great crime writers, Burgess takes a setting and makes it his own, his jealously guarded turf. Leonard had Detroit; Charles Willeford had Miami; James Crumley had the fastnesses of Montana; James Ellroy has Los Angeles. Burgess, who grew up in Jackson Heights, is well on his way to being the Hard-Boiled Bard of Queens, evoking the character of the borough as only a native could. . . .One of the joys of reading Uncle Janice is seeing a real place lovingly described, warts and all, with the warts a disproportionately large part of the appeal.”

When is it available?

Uncle Janice is waiting for you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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