In an intensely polarizing year, it’s hard to find a subject more relevant than attitudes towards police. Between the shootings of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice (among others) and protests for “Black Lives Matter” as well as pro-police “Blue Lives Matter,” it seems as though everyone has an opinion regarding the role of cops in the United States. Whether your recent thoughts toward the boys in blue have been critical or defending, it’s important to step back and realize one universal truth: when it comes down to it, policemen are just everyday people. There are going to be good ones and there are going to be bad ones, and sometimes it takes one appropriately timed book to bring this to light.
January 6th, 2015
“Uncle Janice,” the sophomore novel by Matt Burgess (“Dogfight, a Love Story”), is a refreshing cop novel featuring an unlikely yet necessary hero: Janice Itwaru, a mixed race, take-no-shit young policewoman from Queens. It’s Janice’s attitude toward her career choice, motivated substantially by both the need to support her dementia-stricken mother and her childhood love of superheroes, that allows the reader to step back from recent good cop versus bad cop dialogues and view the profession from a subjective point of view.
Janice’s role in the NYPD is that of an “uncle,” an undercover cop who tries to buy drugs off the street so her backups can arrest the dealer for possession charges. It’s a dangerous job, and Janice is quite literally dying to become a detective, a job that requires a certain amount of “buys” off dealers before she can be promoted. Janice wants to be a detective more than anything, and “Uncle Janice” follows the titular character as she pushes through adversity from her co-workers to make her last buys. This is all while navigating dangerous drug slingers, her personal life and her deteriorating sanity.
Burgess’s portrayal of working class New York City provides a view unseen in popular works like “Sex and the City” or “The Wolf of Wall Street.” This city is a community of working-class people trying to get by, and sometimes that means taking on a dangerous career that requires no college education, like a cop or drug dealer.
The witty internal monologue Burgess gives to Janice allows the reader to melt into her world, as one could be listening to a friend as she trashes her colleagues after a long day of work or explains how her lack of a boyfriend is due to the time commitment her job requires. Janice Itwaru isn’t a typical narrator, but that’s what makes her character so believable and endearing — even when her decision-making skills lead her into cringe-worthy situations. Like a real person, Janice has good qualities and bad ones, and she makes both good and bad decisions. The reader follows her through the realization that she may or may not be an alcoholic like her father and that she may be falling prey to the same early onset dementia as her mother. “Uncle Janice” may be primarily a cop novel, but its strength lies in the fact that this is a novel about people, and realistic ones at that.