Thursday, December 30, 2010
72. The Fools in Town Are on our Side by Ross Thomas
Well I'm afraid I faltered on the home stretch. I really had the opportunity to hit 75 by the end of the year, having two days before xmas vacation where work should have been quiet and then a day of flying, but those two days turned out to be really busy wrapping up year-end stuff and the flight was a total clusterfuck (how is a toilet not working a "safety issue" Air 'fuck you customers' Canada?!) and I just couldn't concentrate. Then when I got to the family seat for xmas there was just too much fun family stuff. A bit disappointing to not meet Book Glutton's generous and fun challenge.
I do wish a merry xmas and happy holidays to you all!
And now on to my second Ross Thomas book. The Fools in Town Are on our Side is ultimately, the story of a recently fired spy who is hired to shake up a corrupt town in order that it can be cleaned up. But that storyline is actually one of three and only really gets going in the last quarter of the book. The other two threads are a picaresque origin tale of the protagonist and the story of how he lost his job. Each of the three storylines are engaging and enjoyable, but as a whole the book lacked a consistent rhythm. By the time I got to the corrupt town storyline, I felt the energy had flagged some.
The longer storyline of his origins is a lot of fun, remined me of Isabelle Allende. Though American, he moves to Shanghai as a young boy, where he is orphaned by errant Chinese bombers in the early stages of WWII. He luckily ends up in a brothel run by a French madam and learns many languages and street-smart skills as her assistant. After several adventures in a Japanese jail and on a prison transfer ship (where he and the guy who becomes his adopted father fleece the other prisoners with their gambling skills) he ends up stateside and in the military. There he is recruited by this top-secret spy agency. Other shit happens, including a brutal, life-changing incident that was the most shocking, intense moment of the book.
As a spy in China, he gets double-crossed and arrested in Macao. In order to save face and to get him out of prison, the government makes him the scapegoat. He gets a nice retirement package, but has nothing he can legimately put on his CV. So he quickly accepts a mysterious job offer from a quirky trio of an ex-sheriff, a beautiful ex-prostitute and a brilliant, flighty mastermind. They make up, in effect, a consulting firm who clean up dirty towns. In this case, it is a small Florida city of a few hundred thousand and the plan is to make the town so corrupt and out of control that the whole thing will have to be shut down. The people paying for this work are not so pure, but have been pushed out of power and want and older, quieter form of corruption than the existing one.
Ross Thomas definitely has a cynical eye and it is fantastic to see it turned on a small southern city. There is a passage that opens a chapter where he describes the physical and socio-economic geography of the town that is a masterpiece of worldbuilding. When the "consultants" start to put their plan into action, the reading is delicious. You get to meet a dripping-with-grease cast of corrupt politicians, cops, merchants, journalists, gamblers and actual criminals. It gets even better when the chaos of the town causes the big-time out-of-town gangsters to roll in, either to defend their fiefdom or to try and snatch it for themselves.
This is all great stuff, but it comes late and never addresses the major points of conflict in the other two storylines: the horrible incident that drove the hero to become a spy and his betrayal that got him fired. A very enjoyable read, but not the near-masterpiece that The Porkchoppers is. This knowledge justifies my hesitation in going hog-wild on the many other Ross Thomas books on sale at Welch's. I need to know him better as an author before I can necessarily buy all of his books.