Review of Big Maria

Last year signaled the arrival of an exciting new crime novelist.  Arguably the best first novel of the year, Johnny Shaw’s Dove Season didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, perhaps in part because Amazon published it as part of their new Encore line of trade paperback originals.  Whatever your feelings might be about Amazon’s business practices or their impact on publishing and bookselling, ignoring the novels they’ve printed and the authors they’ve introduced is a mistake.  And in the case of Shaw, you’re only hurting yourself.  So, if you haven’t read Dove Season, you should correct that error right away.  While you’re at it, you should also pick up a copy of Big Maria, Shaw’s second novel that came out earlier this week.

For as much as I enjoyed Big Maria, I still think Dove Season is a stronger book.  For all its moments of humor and clever turns of phrase, that debut novel allowed Shaw to explore the deeply human aspects of its characters in a more compelling and compassionate way, even if he did call it a “Jimmy Veeder Fiasco.”  Shaw’s approach in this new novel represents a dramatic departure.  Big Maria is a wild, wild ride of amazing proportions, a low-comedy crime caper that dredges the depths of human folly.  Think of the Three Stooges hunting for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the direction this yarn takes.

In some ways Shaw’s writing is more polished and confident in this second novel, but Big Maria plays for laughs from start to finish, and despite a few truly touching moments – one in a church comes vividly to mind – this is a deeply silly book.  But that’s the whole point.  Shaw is actually breaking new ground here by pushing his “ridiculously awesome” aesthetic to its limits.  Those familiar with Shaw’s quarterly e-zine Blood & Tacos, now on its third issue, will recognize this terrain.  In both Blood & Tacos and now in Big Maria, the familiar, groan-producing tropes of men’s adventure fiction are lovingly and self-consciously parodied to expert comedic effect.  By the second half of the book, the bizarre turns become almost expected in their unpredictable way, but Shaw’s still such a talented writer with such perfect comic timing that you’ll keep turning the pages even as the gags get so thick you can barely keep track of them all.  I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises.

As a minor note, I feel I should offer a warning for sensitive readers.  With Big Maria’s vast collection of gross-out moments and adolescent slapstick, some readers are going to be turned off for sure.  Before you buy this one, you might want to read through the first chapter and see if you’ve got the stomach for this novel.  Our hero, a not-quite-loveable loser named Shitburger awakens in a drunken stupor to find that not only has he passed out on the toilet in dive bar, but he’s vomited into his own underwear.  He ignores the pounding on the stall door and passes out again, this time to awaken next to the dumpster out back.  His pants have been pulled up, but they’re still full of cold vomit.  If you think this is funny, or could be, grab yourself a copy of this book and enjoy the romp.  But if you’re turned off by the first chapter, you should know it doesn’t get any more noble between here and the absurdist deus ex machina ending.

I loved Big Maria.  It’s page after page of rip-roaring action and gut-busting laughs; however, I also felt like some of the opportunities for real pathos, particularly around the character of Ricky, were forcibly shoved aside so we could get back to the comedy.  I know, it’s harder to laugh at somebody getting smacked in the balls when you too closely identify with them as a person.  But as a reader I like making that human connection with the characters in a novel, and I missed that here.  Still, that’s not where Shaw wanted to go with this novel, and the places he does take us are absolutely beyond compare.  My own favorite episode is the encounter with the mountain lion, but I won’t say any more about that or the rest the novel’s gold nuggets of comic action because you’ve really got to experience the splendor for yourself.  Johnny Shaw and Big Maria will show you a grand time!

Review of An Ordinary Decent Criminal

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I recently read An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy.  It has a great cover — dark, dark blue with the title in somewhat flawed white block letters, the author’s name in also somewhat flawed red block letters, and the distant outlines of a little night-lit town along the bottom.  Presumably the photo shows us the sleepy berg the novel’s title character will be menacing.  Winnipeg.  Yeah, that seems about right.  I’ve never been to Winnipeg, and probably you haven’t either, but we’d both guess that it would look like this.  And Winnipeg seems like exactly the quiet type of place a violent ex-con might settle down if he was trying to clean up his act, make his marriage work, and raise his infant son in peace and safety.  Which, it turns out, is exactly what our eponymous narrator Montgomery Haaviko has decided to do, and Monty really does seem like an ordinary decent criminal, though the local sheriff labels him with that sobriquet somewhat facetiously.  As a narrator, Monty is charming and instantly likable.  You care about him and want him to do well.

The trouble, as the jacket blurb from Michael Koryta suggests, presents itself on the very first page.  Despite our hero’s stated desire for a nice boring life, this novel (in Koryta’s words) “would have Quentin Tarantino smiling from page one.”  Regardless of how you feel about Michael Koryta and Quentin Tarantino, the blurb gives you a good idea of whether this book will suit your tastes.  Other reviewers have also drawn the comparison between Van Rooy’s novel and Tarantino’s films, though I would suggest that ultimately a better comparison might be to an Elmore Leonard character attempting to live on Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane.  Monty has an undeniably troubled past and he still harbors dark impulses and an encyclopedic knowledge of criminal skills, but he’s a thoroughly sympathetic character who really seems like he’s trying to be good.  But Winnipeg (in Van Rooy’s version of it) proves to be full of nasty nosy neighbors and corrupt cops.  Monty has to turn bad again just to survive on these Canadian mean streets.

Overall, this book is a lot of fun, and I’d recommend it with four (out of five) stars.  The narrative voice works.  You care about Monty and want to hear him tell his story, even when you’re not sure if you should entirely believe him.  In the first half of the book, the pacing can be uneven – it drifts into too much detail about the Haaviko home and Monty’s attempt at domestic bliss – but things pick up in the second half and the climax of the tale delivers the goods (with just a couple minor false moves in the storytelling).  I was very pleasantly surprised that ODC turned out to be one of those debut novels capable of getting you very excited not only about the book you’ve just read but also quite eager to see more from the novelist.  Luckily, although this first novel just came out in the US, Van Rooy turns out to be a Canadian author with three books under his belt so there are already two more books waiting to be published in this country.  Of course if you have more money than patience, like one reader I know, you can track down the next two novels down and pony up for shipping to get them sent to your door from their Canadian publisher.  There are worse ways to spend your hard-earned money, and you can bet Monty’s continuing adventures will keep us well entertained.

If you like your crime novels hard-boiled with plenty of wry, dark humor and unpredictable twists, you should read Van Rooy.  You won’t be disappointed.