- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

One of the most heart-stopping moments in Robert Ferrigno’s action-packed “The Wake-Up” does not involve the book’s bad guys, of whom there are many, or blood, of which there is a lot, or drug-laced scams that keep readers guessing about loyalties, culpabilities and who lives, who dies.

No, in “The Wake-Up,” the prize for a bit of motiveless terror inflicted on humans (and one of the novel’s most startling and funny set-pieces) goes to a rodent, an actual rat who midway through the book holds its hero, Frank Thorpe, in an inscrutable and menacing gaze that could well stand for all the malign intent in the book.

Readers meet the rat, who makes only a fleeting (scurrying) appearance, at just about the point at which the book’s first story line merges and yields to a second, more significant one.

At the book’s start, Frank Thorpe is involved in a special-ops sting that, while it seems to possess no discernible ties to any particular U.S. agency, clearly occupies a space reserved for good guys. His mission involves money, drugs, disreputable people and a beautiful woman named Kimberly, who is trained in special ops and is his mistress.

Before long, a miscalculation by Thorpe leads to mayhem, the death of Kimberly and the revelation that someone Thorpe thought was an ally is not. The whole episode forces Thorpe to take a vacation.

It is on this vacation, as he is set to board a plane at LAX, that Thorpe sees a poor young boy get knocked over by a self-important businessman named Douglas Meachum, racing to his BMW. Right then, Thorpe decides that this obnoxious man needs to be held accountable for roughing up the innocent Paulo.

Thorpe makes it his off-duty mission to seek revenge against Meachum on Paulo’s behalf, thus providing a “wake-up” that treating the less fortunate badly is unacceptable.

With his skills as a seasoned intelligence type, Thorpe is able to trace Meachum to his home, discover his place of business (Meachum is an art dealer) and set this plan for revenge in motion. Along the way he meets a scruffy cast of characters that includes a drug dealer who has his own clothing line, his tyrannical, social-climbing wife, her dim but violent brother and a cast of other thugs such as “the tall skinny ultrawhite Vlad” who murders. Thus the first story line of the book is established.

However, as Thorpe sets off on his plan to bring Meachum down by exposing some fake Mayan art, his personal life begins to take on different dimensions — a new lady friend, Claire, and a new awareness of his own spiraling-down life. And at this juncture he becomes aware that what he has plotted as revenge has brought him right up against the very bad guys who were the source of trouble in his first sting.

Enter the rat.

Frank’s love interest Claire and her girlfriend Pam are living in a house in Southern California. Sent into hysterics by the appearance of a rodent in their kitchen, they take to countertops in their skivvies, shivering and shrieking for Frank, who has spent the night at their place.

While Claire and Pam perch, Thorpe goes to work. “[He] opened the cabinet, gently nudged aside cereal boxes with the head of the golf club. The rat stared back at him, a big one, too, just like Pam had said, dirty brown and beady-eyed, his whiskers brushing the face of the white-haired Quaker on the cardboard oatmeal canister.

“‘Do you see anything?’ asked Claire.

“Thorpe shifted his weight. The rat followed his movements, turned its head, and seemed to make eye contact with the Quaker. Thorpe whacked the rat with a golf club, but it was a glancing blow. The rat scurried across Thorpe’s hands and onto the kitchen floor.

“Bam! Claire swung the putter, missed and smacked the floor. The rat’s legs slipped on the tile as it tried to get away, its claws squealing, desperate now. He swung the golf club again, hit the rat a glancing blow, and sent him sailing. The rat bounced off the stove and lay stunned. Claire advanced on him, the putter raised high. The rat got to its feet, reared back, showed its yellowed incisors, snarled at her, eyes bulging.

“‘I think he’s in love with you,’ Thorpe said to her.

“The rat made a dash toward the living room, then cut back as Claire swung and missed, headed back toward the doggy door.”

With this scene Mr. Ferrigno unabashedly provides some comic relief to what is otherwise a canvas of greed and relentless violence. One could argue that it is a little difficult to accept the fact that a hardened professional like Thorpe would take up the case of an orphan he barely knows, but because the writer doesn’t belabor Paulo’s plight or take himself too seriously, suspension of disbelief is easily accommodated.

One enters this bad world of losers grateful that there are people like Thorpe and Claire to right wrongs and live well.

As the book moves forward, the revenge motif of its first half recedes and the bigger prey and a more complicated hunt are mapped out and higher stakes are revealed. Mr. Ferrigno, the talented author of seven previous novels, including the bestselling “Horse Latitudes,” is a strong and mischievous writer who keeps things moving and provides buckets of entertainment along the way. The audacity and surprise of the novel reminds one of Elmore Leonard at his most playful, and this is a very good thing.

“The Wake-Up” is a perfect end-of-summer read. Fall books with serious themes will arrive all too soon. For now, the crisp plotting and humor of this book are more than welcome. And for those seeking moral bearing, “The Wake-up” has that too. The rat gets out through the doggy door. The real bad guys do not.

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