Peter S. Rush’s Young Americans follows the rough-and-tumble life of Tommy Logan, a young drug dealer in central Florida in the mid-1970s.
After a brief prologue depicting Tommy’s scary experience in a Columbian jail, the narrative regresses a few years to Tommy’s first meeting in Atlanta with Harry Burr, a slimy thug and friend of Tommy’s girlfriend—a man who promises to promote Tommy to the big time.
At first, Harry does appear to be Tommy’s connection to something bigger. But soon, Tommy ends up over his head as deceptions and double-crosses put everyone’s life in danger.
The story also contains a creepy subplot regarding the sexual abuse of Harry’s surrogate adolescent daughter by Harry’s enforcer. Worse, Harry knows about it and couldn’t care less. That hits home for Tommy, whose childhood rape by a priest still haunts him, leading him to plan for righteous vengeance. Meanwhile, Harry seeks retribution of his own—against Tommy.
Young Americans is a pulpy deep dive into a world of crime, vice, and hard-charging action delivered at a rapid pace that’s enjoyable—provided readers can tolerate unremitting seediness, coarse characters, bad attitudes, and endless streams of profanity, as in: “Listen, you dumb motherfucker, it doesn’t matter to anyone if you care or believe in anything…. They only care when your shit gets in the way of their shit.”
What the novel largely lacks, however, are characters readers can care about. Tommy particularly disappoints. There’s nothing wrong with a perpetually bad seed protagonist, but he should be interesting, at minimum. Other than fleeting moments of bravery and loyalty, Tommy is constantly high, obnoxious, crass, and often utterly unlikeable— even though the narrative intermittently tries to convey him with a moral conscience, at least enough to differentiate him from the monstrous characters around him.
Regardless of this flaw, Young Americans never bores, and it does a fine job of illustrating the gritty world of drug dealing and its inherent viciousness.