Kraj is unlike any tough guy you’re liable to come across in hard-boiled fiction. If he’s cool, it’s not because he delivers “tough guy” dialogue before he sorts someone out. And if he’s feared, you wouldn’t know it by the reactions of those around him. No, what recommends Kraj as a character, and this new book of stories by veteran Rusty Barnes, is his ordinariness, which is to say, Kraj’s motivations are often the same as ours: to get a pizza, drink a Pepsi, rent a better apartment, down a domestic beer, have sex. But in Barnes’ capable hands, Kraj’s earthbound desires, and his highly ordinary reluctance to go to work, are what recommends him most to readers.
Kraj (pronounced Krai) is a Croatian immigrant, a veteran of the Balkan conflict of the early 1990s, something which uniquely shapes his psychology and the ways in which he works—more on that later. He operates as a loan shark collector for a low-level mobster who runs a dance club in central New York near the Pennsylvania border–what setting could be more ordinary?– but he also moonlights as a petty thief and underground street fighter in a gambling ring. He just wants to do his job and collect his pay, however unpleasant it may seem at times. Indeed, Kraj seems to accept his place in the pecking order, though he’s not overly joyed about it. Nor does he relish the bone breaking and general ass kicking he carries out daily. In fact, he’s unnerved and physically sickened when he has to bust up a client in the presence of his wife and kid. But this is what he must do, go to work, like all of us who serve bosses not unlike Tricky Ricky, who can be demanding and unsympathetic, even downright exploitative. To be sure, Kraj is no mob boss, not even a “made man.” He’s a mere employee. Barnes explains it well: “Johnny was a target, his wife and son would be collateral damage. Tricky Ricky lived for the collateral damage, because his reputation got made that way. Only difference was that Ricky never had to worry about going to jail. Kraj had trapped himself on the wrong side of the power equation. It wouldn’t last forever, but Kraj had to live with it now, even if memory told him he’d be here forever and then some. He shook his thoughts away. There was work to be done.”
The dark “memory” Barnes refers to surfaces much in the book, and it’s central to Kraj’s ability to do his job, but also part of his malaise. Kraj has seen horrors, including the rape of his sister and the disappearance of his mother and father in a war zone famous more for its war crimes than for any conventional military conflict. In another writer’s hands, the material could easily come off heavy handed, but Barnes’ weaves in the references in clever and subtle ways, and always in such a manner as to give the reader a suggestive glimpse of Kraj’s complex psychology, of what he might be thinking or feeling, but without laying it out there too plainly.
It must be noted that, although Kraj lives an “ordinary” life in some respects, his daily rounds are nothing but that. The book is filled with tension, with clever moments of detection, realization and action. Whether on a white-water rafting trip where he must avoid a den of snakes, or on a collection stake out, the energy is high and the pace is quick. What Barnes has managed to do in the Kraj stories is deliver a psychologically complex character, one whose violent past intersects with his day-to-day work to create a kind of writing that’s gripping for both its action and fully formed main character.
Kraj, the Enforcer is a fine book, a unique and refreshing addition to the hardboiled genre, and something readers would be remiss not to pick up.