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The Last Act by Brad Parks

Published by Dutton on March 12, 2019

Many works of fiction ask the reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying the story. Some ask more than others. The Last Act asks too much.

Having said that, I hasten to add that I liked the characters and enjoyed some of the story. I am tempted to recommend The Last Act for the introduction alone, which asks why the drug war has resulted in the lengthy incarceration of impoverished people for petty offenses while the money laundering offenses performed by Wachovia Bank, which enabled Mexican drug cartels to do business in the United States, resulted in no sentences at all. Another part of the books lambasts prosecutors who seek jail sentences for Medicaid fraud that is committed to obtain healthcare that would otherwise be unavailable. The book’s heart is in the right place.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell. Former child actor Tommy Jump is now 27, too big for child roles, too small to be a leading man. A high school buddy who is now in the FBI hires him to pose as a federal prisoner so he can cozy up to an incarcerated banker and learn where the banker has stashed documents that he’s hidden as insurance against reprisals by a cartel. The FBI agent tells him that the documents will let them bring down the cartel. Tommy’s wife is newly pregnant, he has no job, and the chance to earn a large chunk of cash seems too good to pass up. After all, it’s only six months in a federal prison. What could go wrong?

Before we get to what could go wrong, let’s examine what’s wrong with the premise. The reader will quickly suspect that things are not as they seem and will wonder why Tommy doesn’t realize that. But setting that aside, the scheme requires Tommy to go to court and plead guilty to a bank robbery that never happened. Nobody in the system — not the judge, not the Marshals (who would tend to know about bank robberies within their districts), not Pretrial Services — questions why nobody has ever heard of this bank robbery prior to Tommy’s confession. No grand jury testimony, no FBI reports, no victim, no evidence that any bank lost a penny. Our system is flawed, but federal judges do not send people to prison for bank robbery in the absence of evidence that a bank was actually robbed, notwithstanding the alleged bank robber’s confession. Granted, the story eventually explains why things are not as they appear, but the plot never explains how Tommy could be sent to prison in the absence of any evidence that a crime actually occurred.

And the notion that Tommy can’t get himself out of this mess just by hiring a halfway competent lawyer is preposterous. An affidavit from the bank manager explaining that the bank wasn't robbed would persuade even the most hardened judge to ask why the government sent Tommy to jail.

Anyway, Tommy goes off to prison, and of course the plan goes awry. Fortunately, he quickly learns how he can come and go at will. I think it is doubtful that an 8-year sentence for bank robbery would immediately be served in a minimum-security prison or that security would be quite as lax as the novel imagines, but I gave up on the premise long before Tommy got to prison. The ending also depends on the unlikely coincidence of a particular person being in the right place at the right time. It's all too much to swallow.

I liked Tommy. I liked his cellmate. I liked the banker. I didn’t accept the premise, but I liked the humanity with which the story is told. I admired the fluid prose and appreciated that the story moves quickly. Readers who are less troubled by the plot’s impossibility will find reasons to enjoy The Last Act. Readers who expect verisimilitude from storytellers will be disappointed.


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