Monday, November 11, 2013

Somebody Put That Bartender Out!

Last of the Smoking Bartenders
by C.J. Howell

3 out 5 stars with magnetic strips for tracking purposes

(I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for this review.)

A murderous drifter roams the desert of the American southwest while setting fire to things like electrical substation.  No, wait.  Actually, the drifter is an undercover agent trying to thwart the plans of the evil organization called the Network who plans to blow up Hoover Dam.  Which story is true? Read the book and decide for yourself.
Tom is convinced that the Network is real and has lived off the grid for years so he appears to be nothing more than another homeless person to most people.  He thinks that the Network is omnipresent and could track him if he made a phone call or handled paper money because of the magnetic strips embedded in the bills so he will only use change.
When Tom meets a small town drunk named Lorne, the two go on a binge during which Tom convinces Lorne that the Network is real when he attacks a couple of their operations he runs across.  Later, Lorne tells Tom’s story to some meth dealing Native Americans on a reservation and they join Lorne for a meth fuelled rampage against the Network.  Or maybe they’re just on a crime spree.  It gets a little confusing.  Maybe the meth and beer have something to do with that.
Meanwhile, Hailey Garrett runs a one-woman FBI office from her house in a remote part of Utah.  Hailey was injured in the line of duty and along with the plastic hip, she got the perk of running her show out in the boonies and picking the cases she wants to investigate.  While Hailey looks into a bit of Tom’s anti-Network destruction, she finds enough evidence to put her on his trail.
This well written book starts out seeming like it could be a James Crumley style tale of a couple of odd characters on a booze-n-drug fueled road trip, but there’s an intriguing shift about halfway through in which the violence that Tom has inadvertently kicked off contrasts with a quieter exploration of the nature of paranoia.  There’s a long section in which Tom struggles to merely get across a large city in the brutal Southwestern heat.  When you’re a smelly homeless guy who has only a bag full of change and couple of cans of food, crossing the suburbs, industrial zones and inner city becomes an ordeal that could literally kill you.  As Tom struggles, he starts to reflect on his past and question whether his mission is real or a delusion.   If it is real, why must he suffer so to do the right thing?  If he’s crazy, why can’t he just stop the madness and find some peace?
There’s a real dilemma for the reader in how much they want to relate with Tom.  If you think that he's insane, then he’s a decent person who lives a miserable life because of the demons in his head, yet then he’s also a danger to others since he’s more than willing to inflict violence on any he sees as Network operatives.  This makes him both terrifying and pitiable at the same time.
The one bit that rang false was the character of Hailey.  It seems unlikely that the FBI would sanction a handicapped agent working solo on whatever cases she gets interested in.  This may or may not be a spoiler so skip the rest of this paragraph is you want to be completely in the dark.  But I wondered if we were supposed to view Hailey like Tom in that she seemed like a person who may not be dealing in reality.  Yet, she interacts with other people throughout the book as an FBI agent so it seems like that’s exactly what she is.  I think.
It’s an offbeat book with eccentric characters and a full measure of ultra-violence, but there’s also a thoughtful account of a person who is living in the cracks of society as he tries to decide whether he can trust himself.
Also posted at Goodreads.

1 comment:

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