Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book: Dove Season, by Johnny Shaw (2011)

It would be wrong to call Jimmy Veeder, protagonist of Johnny Shaw’s debut novel, a ne’er-do-well. He’s more of a ne’er-do-much, living up to the Veeder promise of “slapdash but not half-ass,” drifting from place to place with few responsibilities and into his thirties with not much to show for it. When his father Jack finally lets him know he’s dying of cancer, Jimmy prodigals back to California’s Imperial Valley. Turns out there is something Jimmy can do for his old man. He can get him a prostitute. A very specific prostitute.

Shaw’s sharp sense of humor and way with a phrase hooks you in the opening sentence – “There is something about the desert that pisses everything off” – and never lets up. There’s a laugh on damn near every page, which gives the almost-as-frequent dramatic moments that much more impact. Dove Season dishes up the good stuff in abundance and even excess; it runs a little ragged at 378 pages. It’s essentially two books, the first a better-late-than-never Bildungsroman and the second a Joe R. Lansdale-style Baja barnburner with Jimmy and partner in crime Bobby Maves meting out Mexicali justice. The byplay between these two misfits is one of the book’s strengths, especially Bobby’s colorful approach to the English language.

Mainly, Dove Season is a hugely affectionate, warts-and-all portrait of an overlooked place and the people who tough it out there. As Shaw puts it, “A hometown is a lot like a younger brother. You can ... give him a hard time, but you’ll always love him and stick up for him.” Shaw does his old stomping ground proud in this one.