Okay, now you’ve read Joel’s review of J.D. Tuccille’s first (and so far only) novel, High Desert Barbecue. My take is pretty much the same as Joel’s. But I do have a few more thoughts that he didn’t manage to pluck from my brain.
First, a small, no-spoilers plot summary is in order:
The tale: Crusty hermit Rollo is burned out of his squat on federal land. He heads to town to crash with his anarchic, but more civilized, pal Scott — somewhat over the protests of Scott’s girlfriend Lani.
What Rollo reports is a shock but somehow not a surprise: the people who burned him out work for, or with, the feds.
Later, Rollo, Scott, and Lani discover another team of federal and freelance firebugs in action. They capture evidence of a plot: this handful of fanatics aim to depopulate the high desert west by setting multiple fires (and blaming people like Rollo), then letting lawmakers and regulators draw the “logical” conclusion: that it’s too dangerous to “allow” humans to live in a wide swath of the southwest.
The firebugs also spot our bold trio and their dog Champ and thus begins a chase through an Arizona canyon that makes up most of the book. Our Heroes aim to get their evidence out and the bad guys aim to stop them.
The good: This is a fun read. It’s lively. It’s funny. The protagonists are likeable, believable characters. Our Friendly Author Tooch obviously knows the area and its people well. He has been in those canyons. He knows those crazed hermits. And as Joel notes with huge relief, he tells a story and never once stops to deliver a lecture. That alone makes it worth the mere $2.99 for the Kindle edition and $11.99 for the really gorgeous trade paperback.
It seems a lot of you agree, because my Amazon links for this book have sold more copies of this than of any other item I’ve ever mentioned here. (Thank you.)
Should this book be on your shelves or in your Kindle or Nook? Yup. Would this make a dandy little stocking stuffer for your freedomista friends? Yup.
Is it the greatest book ever written? Nope.
The less good: Tuccille stuffed this book with such a huge crew of villains I only began to be able to tell them apart halfway through the story, and some remained vague blurs all the way to the end. And though the romp through the canyons is vivid and witty, it mostly lacks a feeling of peril (until near the end). You know Our Heroes aren’t going to be killed, even though gunfire hails frequently. At times it doesn’t actually feel as if anybody is chasing anybody; they’re all just kind of hanging out, poking at each other. And where is any threat from all those fires? The fires, now burning away all over the west and driving refugees into Flagstaff, become a mere footnote to the action.
In short, I felt as if I was reading a single thread of what ought to have been a more complex story with subplots and complications. And the ending is just too pat; no way would things have come together so neatly (though I did enjoy a quirky couple who entered the story near the end and played a nice little role).
Still … The very things that my writer/editor self perceived as weaknesses in a book actually appealed to a different side of me — the movie fan. The whole time I was reading, even during those moments I was critiquing away, I kept seeing the thing as if on film. And you know, it would make a great little indie farce. Its very unseriousness, its wackiness, its “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” bad guys, even its over-simplification, would make it a terrific movie.
I mentioned earlier, when I had just begun to read it, that High Desert Barbecue is very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey. Still true.
It’s also very much a first novel, with all the imperfections of that breed (something I know all about).
But J.D.? Don’t let it be your last novel. Building on what you learn from this one, your second novel will be boffo.