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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. . .

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Mosh it Up! This Slam-Dance is a Slam Dunk for Readers Who Like Characters with Flair, Originality and a Gift of Gab

Mosh it Up!
By Mindela Ruby
236 pages
(Pen-L Publishing; Oct. 1, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1940222702
ISBN-13: 978-1940222707

Let’s get this straight from the Jump: Mosh it Up!, Mindela Ruby’s terrific first novel, probably really doesn’t belong among the hard-boiled, noirish novels I normally review because it really isn’t a book about crime.

Not unless you count the child molestation; the rapes; the sexual battery; the DUIs; the hit-and-run; the credit card fraud; the drug abuse; or the grand theft auto.

The book is actually a novel Dorothy Parker might have written had she still been alive in the late 20th Century and deeply into the North Oakland punk scene.

Mosh it Up! is all about a 23-year-old can of macadamia nuts named Dickenson Park whose friends (and enemies) call her Boop. In it, we learn:

  •                  Boop is a scatterbrain.
  •                  Boop is a flirt (and how).
  •                  Boop is irresponsible to the nth degree and seems determined to stagger through life in a haze of tequila fumes, casual drugs and low blood sugar.
  •                  Boop is a whole hell of a lot smarter than she realizes, but is so unfocused that she seems ditzy.
  •                  Boop is cute – a male friend tells her late in the book that she “cleans up nice” – but lacks confidence and has so little self-esteem that she wastes her considerable charms and ready wit trolling for violent meatheads who should be sitting on a porch in some Southern backwater, drooling toothlessly while they pluck on a five-string banjo.

Mosh it Up! is really about Boop’s struggle to escape the wreckage of her past, learn what she can from it and move forward. It’s like body surfing the crowd at a punk performance, getting banged around in the slam-dancing area that gives the novel its name, sucking up the excitement of the experience, but emerging relatively intact when the music stops.

I’m a crime guy by preference and, despite the various illegalities and hijinx it contains, Ruby's book is not about crime per se. There's no murders, no capers, no getaways or tense interrogation by the cops in a darkened squad room fitted with a two-way mirror. Because of the lack of felonious behavior, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first got a copy of Mosh it Up! 

I needn’t have worried: the novel turned out to be a complete delight to read.

The book unfolds in first person with Boop herself as the ultimate unreliable narrator. Ordinarily I am not crazy about stories about counterculture characters because nothing becomes passé faster than contemporary slang. Usually when one of those obnoxious phrases like “you GO girl!” slips into a piece of prose, it tells me a hell of a lot more about the author than about the character who is supposed to be saying it. What’s more, none of what it tells me is good.

Ruby doesn’t put 1990s slang in her characters’ mouths. Boop speaks in puns and wisecracks, spinning out her characters’ comments in fully rounded sentences that seem like normal speech until you realize she is twisting words, serving up Spooneresque renderings, Malapropisms and other jokes aimed at people who have a functioning brain and some understanding of the larger world beyond their doorstep.

She not only does this well, but disguises the fact she is doing it. She is like a skilled magician who manages to pull endless scarves out of her sleeve. It isn’t until you put her book aside that you realize the reason Boop’s words sound wholly fresh and original is because they actually are!

For example, during a visit to an associate’s apartment toward the novel’s end, she asks the man she finds living there to feed the cat. In response, “Steve’s friend drops his smoke in a beer bottle and ring-tabs a Feline Feast can open.”

“Ring-tabs?” A verb I’d never heard before! It describes an action familiar to anyone who has ever fed a cat (or opened one of those belchy cans of American fizz-water Anheuser Busch insists is beer), but does it in a distinctive way. This sudden appearance of a familiar action described in a unique manner forces the reader to visualize the act, making the narrative cleaner, stronger and more memorable.

The pages of Mosh it Up! are peppered with these creations. Ruby sneezes out so many of them I eventually stopped trying to keep track:

“With my shades on, it’s dark-and-a-half outside.”

“When we got there, the scene looked poky, and Bridgit wanted to leave. But after paying thirteen bucks, I said let’s see if this party improvifies.”

“Networking, baby. Wait ’til we’re the indie chart toppers with people falling all over themselves to meet us. I’m keeping a list of the ignoranuses that blow me off. When my chance comes, I’ll deep-freeze them.”

(I’m particularly fond of ignoranus, a compound of two words that communicates a meaning clearer and better than either of its components. I plan to start dropping it into conversations myself – particularly those involving elected officials in Washington D.C.)

Mindela Ruby: A new Dot Parker?
Her playful way of using language isn’t the only thing about Ruby that reminds me of Parker; her mordant humor is another, particularly when she is writing about her character’s frequently unfortunate sexual escapades. When Boop talks about sex and the men she pairs with, a lot of the words Ruby puts in her mouth are just laugh-out-loud funny.

Not that her liaisons are a laughing matter. She is a magnet for truly awful men – brutes and morons with a sadistic edge. One cretin she picks up in a bar nearly breaks her nose during a “romantic” interlude and later knees her in the crotch during another rut-fest. As she puts it succinctly, “Even though I’ll be sorry afterward, I let the prick I’m with do anything for a thrill.”

In an effort to avoid these unsatisfying and frequently violent unions, Boop joins a twelve-step group for sex addicts, but finds most of her fellow glandular obsessives boring, crazy or annoying. One of the latter is a hapless schnook named Dales, who turns his “confessions” about his hyperactive genitalia into thinly disguised boasting.

After one session in which Dales complains of an inability to get enough poon, Boop lapses into reflection  about the loathsome Lothario’s physical appearance.

“His face reminds me of a crotch— pubic-y whiskers, receding chin,” she says of this compulsive wanker. “Bowing his head, he could kiss his own neck. He should. Someone here said we need to be gentle with ourselves.”


"It's a somewhat talky book, but the talk is so damn good you won't want to miss a word."

Another of her step-mates is Samuela, “a beady-eyed brunette with a morbid aura hanging over her like polder fog.”  Ruby’s description of Samuela’s witness during a sexual addiction meeting had me laughing so hard I awakened my wife sleeping next to me:

“She must be wearing a wig since— Lord, have mercy— the pelt jolts like a hank of fake fur each time she scratches her eyebrow,” Boop cattily observes. “The poor girl’s sweating prayer beads, trusting you’ll hear her pleas— Higher Power, Allah, Jehovah, Big Kahuna, Jesus, whoever’s up there. Obviously, she thinks about you all the time, the way love junkies obsess about stankie,”

Boop drily adds, “She’s awaiting your coming.”

Shaking the Serta with hysterical guffaws at three in the morning is definitely NOT likely to endear you to your bed mate!

Boop appears incapable of concentrating on anything but glands and bands – particularly her own. It is clear early on that the group she manages, “Up the Wazoo,” is going nowhere but Boop keeps trying to resuscitate the act.

“They’re looking for excuses to 86 me, aren’t they?” she says of the group in a moment of uncharacteristically self-aware reflection. “The one person who wants them to be real with the music! Isn’t that why they threw me out?”

Later Boop reflects on her rejection – by the band, her friends and her latest loutish paramour. “I felt completely unwanted,” she says. “Up the Wazoo, Stoney, Randolph, Tiny had pushed me away in succession.”

The Nation Magazine once described Dot Parker’s poetry as “a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity." As these examples should show, Ruby’s prose has a similar luster.

If Boop, alone, was the only character Ruby brought to life this way, Mosh it Up! would still be well worth reading;  but she isn’t. Ruby gives Boop an elderly female neighbor to care for: Sada Pollard, a kindly but acerbic soul who happens to be dying from a degenerative disease that slowly squeezes the air from her lungs. Sada is as sharply drawn as Boop, with her own speech patterns, mannerisms -- even a strange clucking sound she makes when she struggles to breathe.

Stoney, the promoter who books “Up the Wazoo,” for a big show, is given similar treatment, as are Emmie and Roxanne, two women Boop meets at a twelve-step gathering. Even Bridgit, Tess and Angie, the three snarky punk rockers Boop “manages,” are fully developed characters.

Ruby spices her novel with enough description to keep the reader racing through the narrative, but not so much that it bogs the story down. The tale is actually fairly straightforward and simple, the kind of thing that could be summarized in a sentence or two. But Ruby’s fine writing stretches out the reader’s enjoyment for more than 200 pages.

It's a somewhat talky book, but the talk is so damn good you won't want to miss a word.

To maintain the breakneck pace and goad the reader to continue, she has pieced the overall story together like a scrapbook, with shopping lists, scenes from an imaginary cable TV movie about Boop’s life, collections of fun facts – even a newspaper clipping. It’s the sort of stuff you might find on Boop’s mostly empty refrigerator, held in place by a Siouxsie and the Banshees magnet.

I enjoy a lot of the stuff I read and review for this blog, but books that I actually find exciting are rare enough to surprise me. Mosh it Up! is definitely one of them.  Buy it. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

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