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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, October 21, 2015

A Petty Crime Road Trip Fueled by a Desire for Social Media Notoriety

By Eryk Pruitt
(280 Steps; May 26, 2015)
$3.99 for Kindle; $14.99 paperback
ISBN-10: 8293326506
ISBN-13: 978-8293326502

Pruitt, the author of Dirtbags, the funniest book I have ever read about a serial killer, has pulled off a stunning feat in his latest novel, Has#tag: he has managed to tell a wide-ranging story with three very different protagonists, each of which is brilliantly realized in his or her own right.

What makes his accomplishment amazing is that he tells each character’s story largely from their own personal point of view, which can be a recipe for disaster for an author and his hapless readers. All too often, a writer loses control of the people in his book when he spins a yarn focused on more of them. Characters become jumbled together in the reader’s mind; they begin to speak with each other’s voices. The reader can find it hard to focus.

Eryk Pruitt
But Pruitt – damn his eyes! – is not just satisfied to focus his narrative on three separate individuals: he also  manages to populate his tale with a myriad of lesser characters who are equally sharply drawn. In the process he bangs out a ripping story about revenge, coming of age, unrealized ambitions, misguided love and small town hypocrisy and corruption.

This is one fine book, even better than Dirtbags, Pruitt’s masterful debut novel about a hapless yokel named Calvin Cantrell who wants to be Son of Sam and earn big bucks in the process. Unfortunately for him, Cantrell is a congenital idiot who is more like Sam’s crazy-aunt-in-the-attic.

The same dark sense of humor is at work in Has#tag: Odie Shanks, the manager of a pizza joint in the Virginia sticks, is tired of being forced to boff the shop’s owner in the stockroom on “inventory nights.”

He’s sick of his one-horse existence in a town too dirt poor to even afford a horse. At the funeral for a pair of schoolmates killed by running into a cement wall during a joyride, he finds himself looking into one’s grave and wondering if he will end up the same way.

“He’d stood there a good long while after the Mexicans started shoveling dirt atop old Dean’s hole, wondering if this is what it would come to— him buried under six feet of Lake Castor soil— ruddy, ruined earth that had been there for all of creation and had no plan of ever being anywhere else.”

Odie would probably still be schtupping his boss and twirling pizza dough if he hadn't met Jake Armstrong, a low-life thief who is only interested in finding and eating the best barbecue and getting revenge on the former crime associates who tried to kill him and turned him over to the cops.

The two meet in a diner and the next time Odie sees Jake, the career criminal has a gun stuck in his boss's face and is sticking up the pizzeria where Odie works, Shanks throws in with him. You see, Odie has ambitions, and he can’t achieve them if he stays in Lake Castor.

 “’Everybody’s got a dream, even in a shit town like this,’ 
Jake says.

‘You’ll laugh,’ said Odie.

‘No I won’t.’

Odie pushed his pie plate away. ‘Sure you will. It’s stupid.’

‘Let me be the judge of that.’

Odie looked around the room, as if the old-timers and truck drivers gave half a shit about what the two of them said or did. He leaned forward, real close to Jake, and said in a low voice, ‘I always wanted to be a Hollywood actor. I always wanted to be in the movies.’”

Jake agrees to help Odie accomplish his dream and the two set off on a hilarious road trip to Hollywood. Unfortunately, Armstrong plans to take revenge on all the people responsible for putting him in prison en route. Bodies begin to pile up along the Interstate and Odie finds himself learning the ropes as an old-fashioned outlaw, helping his new partner finance their journey by robbing a series of gas stations and convenience stores on the way.

As they travel, County Sheriff’s Deputy Roy Rains, as inept a lawman as ever packed a badge, is under severe pressure to capture the miscreants. But Rains is more interested in finding a way to cover up the crime. 

The scheme he hatches results in the death of two innocent men, but seems likely to take Rains off his boss’s shit list – at least for a while.

Meanwhile a young woman named Melinda Kendall has fled her meth-dealing boyfriend, inadvertently launching her own one-woman crime wave in the process. Odie becomes obsessed with Kendall, jealous that she seems to be getting all the tabloid attention while Odie gets none. Melinda has even managed to achieve her own “hashtag,” a symbol that in twitter and Facebook results in an encyclopedia of Internet references.

Even worse, her exploits are going nationwide due to the attention her follower’s posts on twitter and Facebook have drawn. Her social media notoriety has even forced the mainstream media to jump on her story, and she is wrongly being portrayed as a master criminal who is thumbing her nose at the law enforcement agencies searching for her.

As Jake nears his goal of eliminating all the snitches who ratted him out for killing a Louisiana-based dope dealer, Odie begins to play a bigger part in the pair’s crimes. The former pizza shop manager has even managed to graduate from carrying a cap pistol in his crimes to having an actual firearm jammed in his belt.

Finally, Deputy Roy becomes embroiled in the kind of Darwin Prize-winning screw-up that only a truly bone stupid man can manage, while Odie and Melinda edge closer to their own inevitable encounter.

I can tell you here and now, the denouement will have you howling with laughter – and you will never see the book’s conclusion coming.

Has#tag – another long ball slammed over the fence by Eryk Pruitt. Don’t miss this one, folks – it’s a real jewel.

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