Thursday, July 12, 2012
NEW BOOKS: Lucky Bastard - S. G. Browne
It all starts with the usual sultry woman entering the private eye's San Francisco squalid office. She wants to hire him for a hush-hush job. But instead of locating a missing sibling or husband she wants Nick to recover her father's luck. Her father turns out to be Gordon Knight, mayor of San Francisco, whose recent change of luck has transformed him from a golden boy of the news headlines to favorite topic of the scandal sheets. Nick can't believe that this alluring woman -- ridiculously named Tuesday Knight -- could possibly have known about his reputation as a "luck poacher" when he has done such a good job of keeping it secret from the masses. But it's hard to resist the job when she offers him $10,000.
Then Nick is approached in quick succession by a Chinese ganglord and an unnamed agent from an unnamed secret branch of the federal government. Both want to hire him for his luck poaching skills - Tommy Wong wants to amass as much good luck as he can in order to dominate San Francisco like any proper master criminal and the federal agent (who is a dead ringer for Barry Manilow) wants Nick's help in bringing down Wong's reign of terror. Nick has no choice but to give in to both when each of his potential employers resorts to blackmail and threatens his family.
These three plot lines are interwoven in a tapestry of coincidence and complexity to rival any webwork epic by Harry Stephen Keeler. Like Keeler there is an eccentric humor as well (though I found much of it in the early part of the book to be tiresome and sophomoric) and the action never lets up. To reveal any more would ruin the pleasure of discovering the many absurd plights Browne has planned for Nick.
It's the relationship between Doug and Nick that kept me reading to the end. Not only do they make for a truly eccentric Holmes-Watson partnership (Doug even calls his boss Holmes) they are something of a surrogate father and son duo. The scenes between these two raise the book from a weary, smart alecky parody to an offbeat buddy story with genuine charm and humor.
Slowly and slyly Browne veers away from his action-oriented parody and instead uses the fantastical elements of stealing luck, acquiring luck and becoming addicted to luck as a way to explore the universal tenet so succinctly put in Howard's End by E.M. Forster: "Only connect!" Nick eventually learns that luck can be changed, that life is richer and better when rather than distancing himself from relationships he genuinely connects to other people. He will soon be bidding good-bye to his smartass solitary life made up of nothing but empty one night stands with "corporate coffeehouse baristas" and lonely hours spent surfing the internet for lucky marks to poach from.
One of the most unique parts of the book is Nick's encounter with a mysterious Eastern European accented luck poacher who has the unfortunate fate of having become a Specter. That is, he poaches only bad luck. It's both creepy and poignant as we read of Nick's reaction to a poacher who has surrendered to the dark side and yet ironically reveals a deeper dimension to his hidden compassion for misfits and outsiders, something we've previously seen in Nick's kindness towards the homeless drunks who hang out in the alleys that line the streets of his favorite coffe joints. This is point when the book becomes richer, more dramatic, and -- most importanly -- more human.
All those unnamed characters further illustrate Nick's isolation and his chosen path of indifference. He never bothers to learn anyone's real name. He gives them nicknames like Scooter Girl, Thug One and Thug Two or dubs them with celebrity names based on their appearance like the fed who is Barry Manilow's twin or the Tommy Wong's cronies who resemble Jake and Elwood of Blues Brothers' fame. Few of the major characters receive full idenities. It seemed odd to me at first this cast of the anonymous or nicknamed. I thought Browne was a lazy writer, but by the end it all made sense. It proved to be one of the more clever aspects of the book by the time I finished it.
Here's a real original in the crime fiction world. A book that mixes comedy and thrills and fantasy into a work of fiction that's both wildly entertaining and uncommonly moving. Lucky Bastard is one of the better contemporary novels I've read in a long time. You'd be a lucky devil yourself if you decided to add it to your list of summer reads.