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Killers with character

DIRTY WHITE BOYS

By Stephen Hunter

Random House, $21

Reviewed by Jean Heller

Dirty White Boys is a violent thriller about escaped convicts who will do anything to stay out of prison and one Oklahoma state trooper who will do anything to put them back or see them die. Even more than the satisfaction of a tremendous story well told, you take away from the book a marvelous sense of human texture. The heroes have crippling weaknesses. The villains have true redeeming virtues. Even the bystanders have depth in a novel that is, at once, edge-of-the-seat exciting and palpably touching.

Lamar Pye is king of the white inmates at McAlester State Penitentiary, and the black inmates leave him alone. But the day comes when Lamar's cousin and fellow con, Odell Pye, a man/baby born with a cleft palate and an IQ of about half his waist size, disses the leader of the black convicts. Rather than retaliate against Odell, who hasn't the capacity to realize what he's done, vengeance is to be exacted from Lamar. Unfortunately for the inmate who corners him in the shower, Lamar is quicker and can fight dirtier, and the attacker winds up naked and dead with a large bar of soap lodged deep in his windpipe.

If he stays in prison, Lamar knows, he's dead meat. So he takes Odell and a third convict and flees. The third man, Richard Peed, is a wimpy and deeply troubled artist whom Lamar shelters because Richard is adept at drawing lions, and Lamar loves lions.

This odd gang sets off on an odyssey of crime and terror that crisscrosses Oklahoma and dips into Texas, leaving a lot of people dead. Eventually, they pick up a fourth associate, a young woman named Ruta Beth, who several years earlier shotgunned her mother and father to death as they slept. She now lives in their country house and sleeps in the very bed in which her parents died. She even keeps a coroner's photograph of their blasted-away faces on a closet shelf. Lamar falls in love with her. He treats her with gentleness and warmth. Both take care of Odell as if were their own sweet child. Richard gets over his fear of Lamar and gives himself totally as an artist-slave, drawing and redrawing lions as Lamar requests. The four become, in a very twisted sense, a loving family, albeit with not an iota of resemblance to Ozzie and Harriet. Not even to the Bundys.

On the other side is Oklahoma State Patrol Sgt. Russell "Bud" Pewtie, 48, strong, thickening and in love with the young wife of a trooper he trained, Ted Pepper.

Ironically, Pewtie is teamed with Pepper at the outset of the manhunt for Lamar's gang, and Pepper confides during their drive across the state that he's having serious doubts about his ability to handle the pressure of a state trooper's work. He needn't worry. He won't have to handle it much longer. Pewtie and Pepper are the first to happen upon the Pyes and Peed, and both go down. Only Pewtie gets up. He's seen his partner butchered by Lamar, and that's enough to drive him through the rest of the story with retribution _ and Ted's widow _ foremost on his mind. Even when Pewtie's commander finds out about the affair and orders an end to it, Pewtie cannot bring himself to let it go. Eventually, it is their affair that drives the book to its stunning conclusion.

If there is a basis for a quibble about Dirty White Boys, it is in Pewtie's sincere assertion, repeated several times as the story unfolds, that he never wants to lay eyes on Lamar Pye again. These vows are followed inevitably by headlong, and headstrong, rushes back into the fray, always alone, even when there's plenty of time to call for backup. It doesn't ring true, so just ignore it. Don't let it spoil the fun.

That no character is irretrievably evil nor naively and uniformly good gives the story its sense of realism and, ultimately, redemption. A film playing to nothing but the story's violence and bloodshed would lose that essence. Since I have no faith in Hollywood to do otherwise, I strongly suggest you read the book.

Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thriller, Maximum Impact, and a member of the editorial board of the Times.

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