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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Monday, June 2, 2014

Veeder and Maves Get Plastered and then Plaster Others in Plaster City

(A Jimmy Veeder Fiasco)
By Johnny Shaw
352 pages
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer (May 1, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1477817581
ISBN-13: 978-1477817582

Bobby Maves, Jimmy Veeder's best buddy, has always been wild, but since he broke up with Griselda Villareal, a sheriff's deputy from Imperial County, he's been on a total tear: drinking bouts that last for days and punch-outs in every desiccated dive within three hundred miles of Indio.

Getting Maves under control is the task facing Veeder in Johnny Shaw's Plaster City. As portrayed by Shaw, the editor of Blood and Tacos, the crime fiction e-Zine reviewed here recently, it's dangerous work: the book begins with a bar-room fistfight that costs Jimmy a gold-crowned tooth and proceeds through a number of other beat-downs, shootings and face-offs with underworld thugs.

Did I mention the dogs? Yeah, dogs: Jimmy gets mauled by a pit-bull and a Rottweiler fairly early in the story. (As high as Veeder's blood alcohol level is through most of the book, it's amazing the animals that bit him didn't immediately die of ethanol toxicity.)

All Veeder wants is to settle down with his live-in, Angie, and Juan, his son by another woman. Instead, he is repeatedly sucked into Mavescapades -- manic drunken capers that threaten his domestic life, keep him from tending his farm and put his liver at risk -- not to mention his teeth.

At the moment when Jimmy thought Bobby couldn't get crazier, drunker or more violent, Julie, Bobby's  daughter by his ex-wife Becky, runs away from home.

Together, Jimmy and Bobby set off to search of the sixteen-year-old in a quest that takes them from the upscale suburb of La Quinta to a beat-to-hell Yuha Desert redoubt where Bobby's father Rudy lives. Ultimately they wind up in the namesake of the book, a former gypsum processing settlement where the calcium sulfate dust is so thick it covers the ground like snow.

On the way, they encounter Mexican biker wannabes, a failed businessman reincarnated as a porno czar, runaway girls forced into pay-per-view gladiatorial combat, the notorious Tomas Morales, a Mexican crime lord who is trying to move his operations north of the Rio Grande, and a motley assortment of desert rats, whack-jobs and hangers-on.

There's murder, assault, breaking and entering, car boosting and human trafficking. There's also gallons of beer, Jack Daniels, tequila and vodka.

Trying to find the girl and fetch her home requires a really ingenious plan. Unfortunately, every time our heroes come up with one, it turns out to be more of a notion than an actual strategy.

All this mayhem is served up by Shaw with his customary dose of twisted humor. 

Author Johnny Shaw

Examples? We have 'em:

In describing an acquaintance's Mormon wedding, Jimmy says "an alcohol-free wedding reception is like masturbating for an hour without reaching orgasm. It's fun at the beginning but after a while it's just exhausting and depressing and you want it to be over. Like that, but with dancing."

After a drunken friend's wristwatch cuts him during a fist-fight, Veeder comments, "I didn't know people still wore wristwatches. As the old saw says, you really do learn something new every time you get punched in the face."

At one point, Veeder describes the town of La Quinta as "Palm Springs Light" where "old white people and Mexicans could live together in peace, as long as the Mexicans were doing the dishes and mowing the lawns."

While sitting and getting drunk in a run-down motel, he flips back and forth between the only two things  on TV -- a Spanish language news show and Mexican music videos. "Mexican music was too happy for the occasion," Veeder says. "The lyrics might have been the saddest in the world, telling the story of a mother's grief for her baby in a well. But once you throw in a tuba and an accordion, it's got all the seriousness of a circus."

And Veeder describes a visit to a county hospital in Indio as "chaos. In all its noise and turmoil, the waiting room bordered on self-parody, almost too over the top to be believed. It was like an angrier version of the DMV, but with dying and bleeding people yelling in Spanish and kicking vending machines. Okay, it was exactly like the DMV."

Though the story is told from Veeder's point of view, he doesn't get all the funny lines.

For example, during a discussion of his plan to become the kingpin of vice in Southern California, the gangster Morales tells Veeder that the U.S. is just as corrupt in its way as Mexico "only more expensive. Rather than a little mordida here and there -- some strategic friendships -- everyone in the U.S. wants a piece. You can't just bribe a few cops or a politician. You have to run the money through the system, the courts. In the U.S., it's the lawyers that make all the profit."

Maybe this type of deadpan snarkiness isn't to everyone's taste, but I got at least one good chuckle every time I turned a page of Shaw's book.

To be honest, prior to March I had never heard of Johnny Shaw but I was lucky enough to catch him in a panel discussion during Left Coast Crime in Monterey this spring. The guy was so funny in person that I worried his books couldn't possibly be as humorous as the comments he shared with the audience.

I am delighted to say that my concerns were completely misplaced. As I mentioned in my earlier review of Blood and Tacos, the shorter pieces he writes and selects keep me in stitches. Fortunately, the stitches aren't the kind Veeder and Maves frequently receive from emergency room doctors.

Plaster City is every bit as amusing.

My biggest regret is that I appear to have discovered Veeder and Maves just as Shaw appears to be retiring them: Plaster City gives every indication of being the last of a three-book series featuring the two knuckleheads. Fortunately, I have both of the earlier Veeder fiascoes in my Kindle, so I have many hours of enjoyable reading yet to come.

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