Thursday, July 12, 2012

NEW BOOKS: Lucky Bastard - S. G. Browne

I was astonished at how this book undergoes a subtle and winning transformation from broad comedy to moving drama. Here we have the overworked trope of the wise acre private eye who has a talent for getting into trouble, can't keep his mind off of sex, and is always in need of money. He encounters a few wacky characters (nearly all of them unnamed - more about that later), more than his fair share of wild predicaments and all the while not changing one bit from his oversexed, overbearing, overgrown frat boy persona. Until one bizarre life threatening encounter forces him to re-evaluate his entire worldview. Nick Monday also has a special talent that sets him apart from your run-of-the-mill private eye. He can steal a person's luck -- good or bad -- with a simple handshake. His resolute worldview that you can't change luck, that you are either born with good luck or bad luck, however, is thoroughly shaken and turned inside out by the end of his surreal journey.

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.

I started out not really liking this book or the main character. Nick Monday is the kind of egotistic, womanizing, devil-may-care asshole I can't stand in real life. A fictional character with these traits who is saddled with a sense of humor that matched Kartman's of "South Park" wasn't going to get me to like the book any better. But with the introduction of one of the most endearing characters -- a wigga wannabe gangsta rapper named Doug (aka Bow Wow) -- Browne started to win me over.

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.


  1. This sounds like a book that maybe Christopher Moore might have written except he didn't. As usual, Johh, I do so enjoy reading your reviews even if I'm not familiar with the book, which, let's face it, is most of the time. :)

    Is this written in the present tense? Sounds like something that might be.

    If not, I'm adding it to my TBR list for possible reading sometime down the line. Let me ask this: if this guy can steal good luck, why is he living in the dumps? Just askin'.

    Sorry I haven't been around to comment lately. Haven't been feeling well again, so I'm taking it VERY easy, hoping that at some point, I'll get my energy back.

    Hope you're having a good summer, John. It's been a terribly hot one here in N.J. Rocky and I can barely stand being outside.

    Have lots of good books to read though, so that's a big plus. Currently reading Peter Lovesey's new one, COP TO CORPSE. It's terrific. So far. Read Michael Connelly's THE DROP, but it was just so-so. Standard. Good but not great. Do you read Connelly? Didn't review it because I simply didn't have much to say about it.

  2. You are so right about the Christopher Moore analogy. I should've caught that. I've read most of his oddball fantasy/mystery/weird fiction genre blenders. The luck poaching has all sorts of complicated rules and his not so luxurious digs are neatly explained. And I spared everyone the rather disgusting method which he must remove and process the luck from his body. Makes for *a lot* of bathroom humor. Luckily ;^) no present tense, Yvette. Good ol' fashioned private first person. Nick narrates the story.

    I'm very behind on new books. I have many, many that I've promised to review. Lovesey has another book out? I still haven't read my copy of STAGESTRUCK. And Louise Penny's new book is coming out in two months while TRICK OF LIGHT is still in Mount TBR. Wish I could take off the entire summer and do nothing but read.

    I return to this blog's roots with tomorrow's Forgotten Books meme. I'll have a post about an obscure 1940s whodunit set in Hollywood and populated with nothing but screenwriters and actors. And a few cops, of course.

  3. I'm always at least a year behind on certain current authors. I'll have to play serious catch up on Louise Penny's books - read them in one lump. I didn't like STAGESTRUCK at all, in fact didn't bother to finish it. (This is rare for me as I usually love the Peter Diamond books.) But so far, COP TO CORPSE is working for me.

    I'm also behind on Martha Grimes and that annoys me.

    Okay I'm definitely adding LUCKY BASTARD to my list.