Written by CJ Howell — Based partly on his own experiences travelling and working in bars, and wanting to explore the changes happening in the Southwest United States, CJ Howell has come up with his somewhat deluded main character, Tom. Tom has dropped out of society to live as a drifter, making his way through the Arizona desert in a haphazard fashion towards the Hoover Dam. He has secret knowledge of a terrorist organisation known only as The Network and their plans to commit an atrocity, which only he can stop. His task is made all the harder by his necessary avoidance of paper money since he knows The Network can track him through micro-chips embedded in the watermarks. Trying to cross the state on nickels and dimes sure isn’t easy and he needs all the help he can get for rides and food, but who do you trust when every good Samaritan could be a Network assassin?
Something in Tom’s mission – perhaps his sacrifice, perhaps its sheer insanity – sparks admiration in the drunken part-time river guard Lorne and the pair set off for adventure. Their journey across the desert is punctuated by random acts of sabotage and violence, bringing them to the attention of the sole FBI operator in St George, Utah, Special Agent Hailey Garrett. Along the way Tom and Lorne are separated, with Lorne’s desire to get high temporarily putting aside his enthusiasm for the mission. Lorne takes up with a group of meth-dealing Navajo Indians whilst Tom continues in his own fashion towards the dam.
Lorne and his new friends set off in search of Tom in a meth-inspired burst of passion with disastrous results. High on glass, drunk on booze, and with no real plan in mind, they end up crossing paths with a local gangster before ripping him off and leaving him for dead. Their odyssey ends in a bloody shootout which ropes in the FBI agent, Garrett. Tom, meanwhile, manages to get to the Hoover Dam to confront The Network. The book’s ending, whilst downbeat, does hint at some salvation for poor Tom.
The Last of the Smoking Bartenders is a book where crimes happen rather than being a mystery or thriller hinging on the solving of one. Whilst there is plenty about the awful effect of methamphetamine on the American Southwest, and the author provides us with a truly horrible gangster in the form of Bullfrog Frank, so called because of his thyroid goitre, this is not a fast-paced, tightly-plotted thriller. Rather it’s a novel that is content to meander in much the same way Tom does, with the author exploring all the dark alleys of his protagonist’s mind. It’s a difficult and frustrating read to begin with, but perseverance brings its rewards. The book finds its own rhythm, with the slower, often humorous, parts of Tom’s own disordered thoughts punctuated by explosive moments of visceral violence. When they happen, these seem almost hypnotic. Once you get used to its rhythm, The Last of the Smoking Bartenders becomes a much more effortless read.
The Last of The Smoking Bartenders may not offer a mystery per se, but its mix of Breaking Bad and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas marks it out as a unique, successful read for those not afraid to take a trip off the beaten path.
You can read our interview with CJ Howell here, also part of New Talent November.
New Pulp Press
CFL Rating: 3 Stars