October 25, 2011

A wild and wacky ride

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In Ranchero, a wonderfully original debut novel by Rick Gavin, former cop-turned-repo man Nick Reid speeds across the back roads of the Mississippi Delta in pursuit of a stolen 1969 Ranchero, painted a glorious Calypso Coral.

Nick had been driving the Ranchero himself, but it actually belongs to his eccentric elderly landlady Pearl, a widow of open heart and stubborn temperament. Nick was out to repossess a flat screen TV from a fellow named Percy Dwayne Dubois. But Percy Dwayne attacked Nick with a shovel, then disappeared in a cloud of calypso coral dust.

Nick had promised to love, honor and maintain Pearl’s pristine Ranchero, and he takes his promise seriously. There’s nothing for it but to chase down the car and the thief, who turns out to be just the tip of the Dubois iceberg. Nick and his 350-pound buddy, Desmond, drive off in hot pursuit through a tangle of Delta back roads and unforgettable scenery, where “everything was slower and hotter, the local manners approached baroque, and racing down a Delta road with crop dusters on the horizon was like driving into 1952.”

The story is peopled by folks stuck a few rungs lower than, say, a Damon Runyon-meets-Ma Kettle of an earlier era—although they retain that basic outlandishness. Author Gavin keeps the momentum going with escalating accidents and incidents, as violence mixes with a whole lot of stupidity to gain our hero a chance to reclaim the vehicle. Nick also contends with his boss, a crazy Lebanese man named Kalil, whose prized stuffed mountain lion appears to have been stolen. But everybody knows everybody down in the Delta, and we just know that cat will turn up again.

As one mile leads to another, then another, more members of the lowlife Dubois clan come out of the woodwork, and soon Desmond’s Geo Metro is full of misfit Delta crackers, each with an ax to grind or a suggestion to make. (Whether they’re helping or squashing Reid’s chances of reclaiming the Ranchero is up for grabs.) One drug dealer leads to another, leading to scenes of grit and squalor touched by the humor of misfits who inhabit a crazy world of their own. Nick admits to “the passing conviction that a niggling sort like me would never make anything happen quite the way I wanted it to. That view of the world is as much of the Delta as the black loam and the mosquitoes.”

Ranchero is a marvelous, scruffy and hilarious read.

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