“The Good Thief” by Hannah Tinti (The Dial Press, 326 pgs., $25)
Hannah Tinti treats readers of her first novel much like a runaway train does its passengers: She takes off on her fantastical tale knowing they’ll have no choice but to hang on to see how things end.
The hero of “The Good Thief” is 11-year-old Ren. He’s the agent of persuasion at the center of a story that at various points involves a giant returned from the dead, a roof-dwelling dwarf and grave robbers who can win over even the most callous cynics.
The fact that the twists and turns — yes, boys, there’s a high-speed chase — don’t seem all that surprising just shows off Tinti’s talent as a storyteller. (She was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for her book of short stories, “Animal Crackers,” and she edits the short story publication One Story.)
Who else could elicit guilt-free laughter from story that begins with a one-handed orphan who was left on a rainy night at a monastery where monks beat little boys with sticks? The story takes off as Ren is adopted by a man claiming to be his long-lost brother, and his offbeat guardian graduates him from stealing a horse to stealing from the dead.
Ren’s mischievous ways earned the character comparisons to Huck Finn and Oliver Twist. And the plot, which winds its way through a mousetrap factory and the memory of a family tragedy, certainly give him a literary playground in which to frolic.
The high jinks propel you through what is basically a story about matters of the heart (isn’t that the root of all, really?). But the tug between good and evil seems slightly ill-fitting, even irrelevant, since the story’s strength is its sense of fun and thrillerlike suspense.
While the characters’ experiences are unlike anything in our reality, their inner lives feel exceedingly familiar. After all, Ren lives every child’s fantasy, to leave a mundane life for an adventure in which he discovers who he was supposed to be and who he could yet become.