Billboard Man by Jim Fusilli is the second in the Sam series of noir thrillers about a drifter antihero (available September 3, 2013).
Billboard Man is Jim Fusilli’s sequel to his 2012 novel Road to Nowhere.
It’s easy to understand why Fusilli wanted to write a continuation of Road to Nowhere. RTN is an excellent, nearly flawless novel, and it contains a highly intriguing lead character. Anyone who enjoyed that book would want to read more yarns that center around its protagonist. So, yeah, a sequel, natch.
Sequels are tough though, particularly when they follow up on something of the quality level of Road to Nowhere. Readers are likely to have strong feelings about the first book, will go over the second installment with an acutely critical eye. Did it match the first book or is it a fail? Did it take things somewhere the other one didn’t? Do the recurring characters hold true to how they came off in the other novel? Did the writer make his or her readers want even more of this character, or did he/she blow it?
Before we get into an assessment of where Billboard Man lands in that range of possible outcomes, just a little bit of plot background, for some orientation: The recurring lead character in the two novels is a drifter who’s around 40. He’s known as different names, by different people, but his actual moniker is Donnie Bliss. In Road to Nowhere, it is revealed that Bliss and his daughter once witnessed a violent crime, just by being in a certain place at a certain time. It turned out to be a mob hit. Bliss wound up testifying at the ensuing trial. The upshot was, his wife got murdered. And their daughter, an adult now, blames him for her mother’s death, and wants nothing to do with him. Bliss goes into witness protection mode, only to disappear from the sight of the U.S. Marshals in charge of his safekeeping. He’s loaded, because his wife was, and her money came to him after she died, so he’s free to roam and grieve as he holds himself aloof from most people (with the exception of the occasional pick-up for slap-and-tickle—even a grieving drifter has urges).
The following segment from Billboard Man, in which a guy hired to find Bliss reports on the drifter’s recent doings, offers a telling glimpse of how Bliss spends his time in the present:
“In the forty months since Mr. Bliss was last seen in New York City, at the service for his late wife, Moira Riegel Bliss, we have reliable data to suggest he has spent at least several days in one hundred and two U.S. cities. He rented apartments in thirty-eight cities. Traveled by train seventy-nine times. Rented cars eleven times. He used the following aliases: John Bleak, Anthony Faithful, J.J. Walk, Lester Hope—”
The guy just can’t seem to help but be a witness to violent crimes. In Road to Nowhere, he happens to see a woman get assaulted in a parking garage. After the assailant flees, Bliss goes over to check on the victim. Next thing, he’s unintentionally in the thick of a multi-layered intrigue that involves a high-powered Wall Street honcho, a woman who once worked for the honcho and stole something from him that he badly wants returned, some sleazy bail bondsmen, and other colorful characters and intriguing situations. The honcho comes to know about Bliss and sees him as a key to getting his valuables back; and he, you know, would kind of like to have a chat with the man.
In Billboard Man, that honcho is still looking for Bliss, but now he sees him as a valuable, savvy fellow whom he wants working for him. Also seeking Bliss is the honcho’s field operative, who has been fired from his job for not being able to locate the drifter, but has gone solo and is going to try and find him on his own authority, in hopes of winning his job back. A jealous ex of one of Bliss’s bar pickups is after him as well, and others will want him after the honcho offers a reward to anyone who can locate him. Several of these people are also in pursuit of Bliss’s daughter—who goes by an alias and lives in hiding, but has been found by many of them—as a means by which to gain access to her dad. The story shifts from parts of Arizona to Wall Street to L.A. to Memphis, and other places, too.
In Road to Nowhere, as interesting as the lead character is, as suspenseful as some of the storyline, what really makes the book so great is the aura around the drifter and all the events. The story is dark, brooding, sinister, eerily moody. The grave ambience of that novel is what makes it; the characters and situations are just gravy. That mood is not to be found in Billboard Man. And, worse, it has been replaced by an ineffective, folksy feel. Characters use expressions like, “Sweet Jesus” and “for shit’s sake,” one guy has a gun he affectionately calls “Ol’ Buddy,” the third person narrator uses words and phrases like “fancy-schmancy” and “doo dads.” I kept expecting Flo, the waitress from the old TV show Alice, to show up and deliver her line, “Kiss my grits.” Since Fusilli’s a music writer (for The Wall Street Journal), I’ll use a music analogy to describe this difference between the two books: Road to Nowhere is a meditative, swamp rock dirge and Billboard Man is a corny country ballad. The following passage is an example of the folksy feel of Billboard Man:
But then Ginger Stillwell began to worry. Boone was out there all alone and that was not his thing. His mother left, his father died, his wife divorced him: Every time Boone got some love in his life, he’ d ended up by himself and he wasn’t too good like that. “I’m waiting at the port of lonely hearts,” he once said, quoting Johnny Cash, spinning a bottle cap on the bar with an index finger. Ginger remembered she held out her hand. “Come on, Boone,” she said as the jukebox offered something slow with a whistling pedal steel. “Let’s see if you learned how to dance.”
Taken at face value, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that paragraph. It just rings false, and hollow, in comparison to the tone of Road to Nowhere.
Another problem with Billboard Man is there are simply too many subplots, and none of them really work. It’s kinda like when somebody makes six different items for dinner, because they fear several of them aren’t going to taste good and they just hope one or two will come out okay.
Having made all those gripes, I still would be open to a next novel in Fusilli’s series about Donnie Bliss. My advice to the author, if he chooses to do that: get the stark mood back.
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Brian Greene's articles on books, music, and film have appeared in 20 different publications since 2008. His writing on crime fiction has also been published Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, and Mulholland Books. Brian's collection of short stories, Make Me Go in Circles, will be published by All Classic Books in late 2013 or early '14. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, and their cat Rita Lee. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
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