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'Green Sun' tells a compelling tale about a Vietnam vet-turned-cop policing the mean streets of Oakland

Author Kent Anderson traffics in archetypes without lapsing into tired storytelling.

Green Sun By Kent Anderson Little, Brown and Company 352 pp.
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  • Erik Spanberg

It’s the oldest cliché in the book when it comes to authors: Write what you know. And, with Kent Anderson, there is no doubt he does just that.

Anderson’s résumé includes fighting in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret, teaching English at Boise State, and working for police departments in Portland and Oakland during the 1970s and 1980s. In his new novel, Green Sun, Anderson’s protagonist, a frustrated idealist named Hanson, shares the exact same résumé.

Whatever the author’s actual adventures may have been, he has rendered a fictional version that manages to be both taut and leisurely in its pacing. And if a reader emerges from the new novel thinking it might make for a pretty decent movie, there’s a good reason: Anderson has dabbled in screenplays, including collaborations with John Milius, whose credits include “Apocalypse Now” and two entries in Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” series.

Anderson’s writing is reminiscent of that of James Lee Burke, blending pathos, violence, and corruption with long-shot hope and glimpses of natural wonder. Look no further than the opening paragraph, where Anderson sets a powerful scene.

“It’s winter in Idaho, past midnight, and it should be dark, but the wind-driven snow crackles with lightning and shakes the clattering glassy branches of frozen trees,” Anderson writes. “Green and blue curtains of aurora borealis flare and furl and curtsy across the northern horizon.”

Who wants to say no to that story?

Anderson doesn’t stay in Idaho for long. The book quickly shifts to Oakland circa 1983. Hanson is a 38-year-old huffing and puffing his way through the police academy, looking for a fresh start after previous stints with, yes, the Portland police department and a teaching gig at Boise State.

Or, as Anderson describes the circumstances: “He was not what they wanted, and they were not what he wanted, but he needed the job. They thought he had a bad attitude, and he did.”

Hanson drinks too much and he bucks authority. And he tries to minimize antagonism in the rough, drug-riddled streets of inner-city Oakland, where his is one of the few white faces.

Many of Hanson’s co-workers hassle the often poor, minority communities they patrol – racking up much-needed quota arrests and treating petty crimes as excuses to inflict physical, financial, and mental anguish.

With excessive, often foolhardy brazenness, Hanson wades into volatile situations and tempers the worst instincts of his often drug- and alcohol-addled suspects through sheer audacity. Many of his reports are summed up, simply, by the phrase, “Problem solved upon departure.”

Hanson wants to survive 18 months on the OPD and then go to a smaller town for a lower-stress policing job. But, of course, even as he tries to avoid intimacy and anything bordering on a mission, Hanson stumbles into a friendship with a good-hearted but street-wise 11-year-old boy named Weegee and falls in love with a victim of domestic violence. The newbie on the force, already viewed with suspicion by some of his bosses and colleagues, he also unintentionally strikes up a fragile, brief détente with Oakland’s most powerful drug dealer.

Somehow, Anderson traffics in these archetypes without lapsing into tired storytelling. The characters are flawed but, in many cases, likable, especially Weegee, whose aunt raises him as a single parent.

Weegee and Hanson bond over burgers and ice cream and a shared enthusiasm for bird-watching. Yes, really.

“Green Sun” builds to a fraught but satisfying finale, one that likely marks the final literary chapter for Hanson. This is Anderson’s third novel with the Bronze Star-winning hero – no need to ask whether the author won two Combat Bronze Stars of his own – and it holds up just fine as a standalone (which it was for this reader).

Promotional jacket copy on the back cover heralds Anderson as a favorite of Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, George Pelecanos, and James Patterson. They know what they’re talking about.

“Green Sun” avoids over-the-top action but maintains narrative tension. Indeed, Anderson’s lean but limber style makes this novel a suitable companion for just about anyone. Put differently, it’s anything but for the birds.

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