Set inside New York City’s hip-hop scene and the surrounding neighborhoods, ghettoes, and clubs that house its supporting players, Mark Blatte’s Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed is shaded by skin of varying color and thickness. A broad cross-section of races shows up, an extreme mix of attitudes and sizes, with and without connections, talent, ambition, or moral compasses. There are hierarchies of respect, hills and mountains of greed. There’s lust, pride, people climbing over each other, positioning themselves, stomping all those who would get in their way.
As a whodunit, Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed has its share of cops, detectives, killers and wannabes, thugs and criminals, onlookers and bystanders. Good guys with dark sides, bad guys with hearts of gold. Blatte, a Grammy–winning songwriter and Wittgenstein scholar, wields language like a knife, and the corpses and philosophy abound. He blasts the genre into new territory with his prose rhythm and sense of style, understanding at a meta-level how to approach the cacophony and demonstrate scholarly knowledge in subtle ways.
“Black Sallie Blue Eyes was one of New York’s most decorated cops. The name on his Italian birth certificate and his American passport was Salvatore Fortunato Messina…. Sal was built tight, wiry, and had this pitbull aggressiveness about him. He worked out, ran marathons—New York, Boston, San Francisco—and he played b-ball. From three-point range he was killer, and unlike many small guys, he wasn’t afraid to take it to the hoop even when it meant he’d get bounced by the big guys underneath…. He also had the gift, or as some guys called it, ‘he could smell the gun,’ which, simply put, meant he would know what you were gonna do before you did it.”
And then there’s Pashko, the Kosovar immigrant:
“‘Now if you growed up where we did, where all kinds of devious, derelict, atrocious shit is going down, you ain’t ever gonna say Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall. That’s ridiculous. The first thing you gonna say is Humpty Dumpty was pushed. Right? And the next thing you gonna say is let’s find out who had didded him and get that low-life motherfucker for real, bro. You feel me?’”
These words are heard by Pashko’s cousin, Vookoo, as he stares at Pashko’s corpse. “Someone’s gonna pay, old-world style,” he promises his cousin. “Bet yo. I’m a see to it.” But who’s gonna pay? Blatte conjures up a nasty cast of victims and suspects, treating all with respect even as he skewers their accents and big-lug ignorance.
“Spahiu Congoli—the name on the passport, a.k.a. Vooko, his street name—came to the Bronx happy to be alive from war-torn, piss poor Kosovo, exactly two years after the Serbs started their rape/kill, rape/maim, kill/kill ‘ethnic cleansing’ of his people… He loved watching the fantasy of bad guys and mayhem on TV, and he had a lot of fun wasting thugs, punks, and assassins on his PlayStation 3. The non-stop screen action reminded him of home, only the shit that went on back there was for real.”
Turns out, New York is every bit as real as Kosovo. The search for the murderer leads far and wide and into the heart of hip-hop society—you start to feel like an insider, as if the bouncers have let you past the nightclub’s velvet rope, while everyone else is left waiting outside.
“Scholar’s cousin [Biz] was a playa and producer-writer for the owner of the all-time biggest record label in hip-hop, Sunn Volt. And Biz, well, what could they say? They had just seen his ass on BET. The boy was lookin’ good. It was slick, the way he’d bigged up his latest joint. He was the pride of the hood, no doubt about it.”
Sunn Volt, a.k.a. “The Buddha,” works out of an oak-paneled office with framed quotations on the wall, on or about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, surrounded by eclectic photos of Miles Davis, Einstein, Colin Powell, and others. The quotations are hung there to remind Sunn of “just how limited a communication tool words can be.” When Black Sallie Blue Eyes comes seeking information to help him solve his murder cases, Sunn tells him his clients are sometimes unable to distinguish their image from reality: “Look, I deal in dreams, but with my artists, by and large, what makes them successful is their ability to separate playing the thug for an audience and being one in real life…. Unfortunately, some people believe the hype. When that happens, you have such incidents as I’m talking about.”
These philosophical quandaries—the real self versus the performance, the inability of language to describe the world—add a cerebral element to Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed, but without slowing down the thrill-ride. Blatte’s plot is thick with twists and turns, and the broad spectrum of his characters keeps things interesting. By the end of the novel, readers have experienced what feels like the whole spectrum of human behavior crawling the boroughs and islands of New York. He takes the edgy pleasures of the traditional street novel—guns, complex sexy women, lost souls, true talents—and injects the whole experience with high-voltage energy. A dissonant medley of natives, elitists, and immigrants comes to life in Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed, their dangerous flaws and wild humanity intact.