AGE OF VICE, by Deepti Kapoor
Deepti Kapoor’s second novel, “Age of Vice,” is a luxe thriller, set in New Delhi, that rides the line between commercial and literary fiction so adroitly that it will almost certainly move a lot of units, as I’ve heard publishers say about their best sellers.
The book has echoes of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” in terms of its mobbed-up apex predators, and Vikas Swarup’s “Q & A,” the 2005 novel that was the basis for Danny Boyle’s film “Slumdog Millionaire.” There’s no quiz show in “Age of Vice,” but there is a poor boy who slides through a backdoor into a demimonde of degraded sophisticates. He sees things that make him want to unscrew his eyeballs, clean them and screw them back in.
“Age of Vice” is the “Good Morning America” book-club selection for January, and it’s been purchased by FX for a series. It’s easy to see why attention has been paid. As a storyteller, Kapoor is a natural. Her novel offers the pleasures of narrative dexterity. It moves — early on, at any rate — as if on rails.
She does not offer, except rarely, the pleasures of subtlety. Over more than 500 pages, the book’s sleekness bends toward slickness and the magic toward tricks. Its length really hurts it. What might have been a crisp and moody entertainment, in Graham Greene’s elevated sense of that word, distends.
Kapoor, who grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi, also does not offer, except rarely again, the pleasures of interiority. The hot bodies (everyone is gorgeous), the status details, the ambushes, the crunching fight scenes that make the characters resemble video-game avatars, the “shattering” revelations — it all piles up.
The characters (conflicted journalist, wealthy man’s dilettante son, wide-eyed boy from the sticks) are familiar. The politics are not delicate. A Mercedes rams into five poor people, including a pregnant woman, on the first page.
On Audible, the book might really lift the burden of a cross-country car trip. But it doesn’t make you a snob to want more from a novel than you would get from a good evening of Netflix. I kept reading, sometimes admiringly, but mentally I checked out around page 75.
“Age of Vice” is about Ajay, who grew up in desperate circumstances in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India. His parents were scavengers who scraped feces from dry latrines. His father was killed, and his sister apparently dragged into prostitution, after an accident involving a goat.
Ajay is taken away and, to service a debt, sold as a servant. He ends up with decent people, who treat him well and educate him. He later becomes, improbably enough, personal assistant and bodyguard to Sunny Wadia, the half-enlightened playboy scion of a well-known crime family.
Sunny has artistic and moral aspirations. He and his posse, civilized monsters, live large and live well. Ajay first sees them out of the big city.
It becomes Ajay’s job to clean up after Sunny’s wild nights and to fetch him his “warm lemon water with grated turmeric,” his fresh croissants and his newspapers, and run his bath on the mornings after. It’s also Ajay’s job to protect Sunny. He learns to fight, and before long he’s a John Wick-like superstud. He nonchalantly snaps bones, cracks skulls and slits throats.
The third primary character is Neda, a journalist whose newspaper is working on a story implicating Sunny’s family in a host of crimes, not least of which is a plan to clear slums and further impoverish their residents. Yet Neda is attracted to Sunny and his life, and they commence an affair.
Kapoor has a cinematic eye. This novel has a lot of moments that feel lush and screenplay-ready: motorcycle rides on roads that cut through paddy fields, seen as if from a drone; pensive drags on cigarettes; looming goons; flights on private jets; VIP rooms; “Silkwood”-style showers to scrub off bad decisions; gangs of nearly naked men covered in grease who emerge from the roadside, as if from a Cormac McCarthy fever dream, to wreak havoc.
She can be a perceptive writer, one who has plenty to say about modern Delhi and the conditions that spawned and that sustain the Wadia crime syndicate. You sense in Ajay’s fractured Horatio Alger bottom-dog story links to novels like Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger” and Mohsin Hamid’s “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.”
But as “Age of Vice” rolls on, the exigencies of plot trample whatever flowers, in the form of complexities, attempt to bloom. The prose heats and begins to tumble down the page like poetry, and it is hardly good poetry:
“Age of Vice” is the first novel in a planned trilogy. People say the two saddest words in the English language are “What party?” But “planned trilogy” cannot be far behind.
Kapoor has so many gifts that it feels churlish to want more from her than this sprawling pop novel. She’s aimed at a target, and she’s crushed that target.
Better her on the best-seller list than most of what’s there. All hail the new Puzo! When the FX series commences, I’ll bring the popcorn.
AGE OF VICE | By Deepti Kapoor | 548 pp. | Riverhead Books | $30