The Last of The Smoking Bartenders by C.J. Howell follows a drifter who believes he’s a secret agent meant to stop terrorists from blowing up the Hoover Dam (available October 20, 2013).
Hitchhiking across the Arizona desert, Tom is part-antihero, part-destructive force. Believing he has to live off the grid (in part because of tracking devices embedded in paper money), he hooks up with an assortment of outcasts—a hard-drinking river guide named Lorne, a band of meth-dealing Navajos—and carries out his war on terrorist cells spread across the Southwest. This is a low-rent quest, carried out on foot, funded in loose change:
Those he chased had everything. He supposed that’s why he couldn’t have anything. Traveling this way was the one way he wouldn’t be tracked. But money, Jesus, to travel without paper money was really pushing the point of diminishing returns. He’d devoted years to being under the radar, any radar, but what good was it if he never prevented an attack, if he got everywhere late?
The central question of the book is whether or not Tom is actually somehow involved in government conspiracies or if he’s just batshit crazy. He’s pursued by Special Agent Hailey Garrett, the sole operative of the FBI’s office in Saint George, Utah. Pretty and smart, but hobbled by a bad plastic hip, Hailey starts to track the path of destruction that seems to follow Tom wherever he goes. Even as she tracks him, though, the reader is still guessing about just where Tom’s delusions end and reality begins.
The Last of The Smoking Bartenders is a druggy road trip across a burned out southwestern landscape that’s both bizarrely off-kilter and strangely recognizable. There are obvious influences to be found here—the book owes a debt to late career Cormac McCarthy, and no book involving meth in the southwest can avoid echoes of Breaking Bad—but it’s also marked by a distinctive sensibility. It feels like a first novel in the sense that the author is clearly having a hell of a good time and wants to keep his readers at the party. With gallows humor and a keen eye for American absurdity, Howell does just that.
At one point, Howell has Tom wax philosophical in a monologue that manages to combine a treatise on epistemology with a reflection on the burdens of oversized cleavage:
You know I took this music class in college…I could have been a music minor even though I never played an instrument and can’t sing a note. So this music class, an ethnomusicology class really, was basically about how you can’t study music, or anything else, without understanding that you are part of the equation. There were only two of us in this class, me and a young woman who had grotesquely large breasts. I don’t mean in an attractive way, it was like a deformity, a triple E or some size that’s off the chart…All we did in this class was read one book, Hermeneutics: The Art of Understanding…All we’d do is read the book out loud. It was this dense, post-modern, deconstructionist linguistic theory. Really hard to understand. We only got through a page or two a day. And the whole point of the book was that you can’t study anything without affecting the thing you study. So me, this girl, and the professor…would struggle through this linguistic theory, and here was this perfect example of hermeneutics, this girl who went through life with this obscene physical oddity, these cartoonishly huge breasts, like a sideshow attraction, and how that must color everything she understands about the world. The art of understanding was understanding that who you are affects how you understand something. I think, of late, I’ve completely forgotten that lesson.
What I love about that passage is the way it encapsulates the meaning of the book itself—the way our perception of the world constantly shapes and reshapes our reactions to it. This is true not only of Tom, but of Hailey as well.
The Last of The Smoking Bartenders is a road trip story marked by that peculiar southwestern strain of American craziness, an apocalyptic epic that takes place in the here and now of our darkest national fears and neuroses.
The book has been released by New Pulp Press, a scrappy little punk publisher run by Jon Bassoff that has amassed a pretty incredible track record in just a few years. It has published out of print titles by pulp legend Gil Brewer (The Red Scarf), brought Tony Black books like Paying For It to the US, and unleashed original, instant classics like Les Edgerton’s harrowing The Rapist and Matthew McBride’s propulsive Frank Sinatra In A Blender. With The Last of The Smoking Bartenders, C. J. Howell joins some fine company.
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Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.