Fresh Meat: Plaster City by Johnny Shaw

Plaster City by Johnny Shaw is the second adventure in the Jimmy Veeder Fiasco series where the semi-reformed brawler agrees on taking a trip across the vast SoCal desert with Bobby to help him look for his missing daughter (available May 1, 2014).

So you know, I loved Johnny Shaw's first Jimmy Veeder “fiasco.” Yes, fiasco. Not mystery. Not thriller. Not adventure. Fiasco. If you haven’t read Dove Season, you won’t really feel lost if you dive right into Plaster City, but trust me when I say it’s a great read.

Jimmy’s the kind of guy who tries to do the right thing most of the time and for a variety of reasons, things just often seem to go haywire. Part of that is probably his choice in best friends—though do we really choose our best friends consciously or is that a little more of the universe’s doing?

For the previous twelve years, I couldn’t have been further from the pace and responsibility of farm living. Twelve irresponsible, insane, fun years. Twelve story-filled, don’t-tell-your-kids-ever, I-remember-eleven-out-of-the-twelve years.

Now I was farming one hundred sixty acres of alfalfa and driving my son to T-ball, right before I ran to the store to get tampons for my girlfriend. I had slammed on the brakes and jackknifed into a straight life.

Bobby was the chaotic ballast that held it all together.

Every time things felt crushingly dull, when life wasn’t as Norman Rockwelly as it appeared, when the bills piled up or the crops died, I’d get a call from the one and only Bobby Maves, my best friend.

Hell, they start the book in a bar and end up with a police car full of dead frogs not too much later. And, if you want to know how that happens, you’ll just have to read it.

This particular fiasco isn't entirely Jimmy Veeder's. Oh, he's still in the thick of it. But this is more Mavescapade—as his fisticuff-enthusiast friend calls adventures—than Veeder Fiasco, though the line between the two gets a little blurry from time to time. As Jimmy tells Bobby’s ex-girlfriend, “When I’m around Bobby, I’m the sanity, the voice of reason. God help us, I’m the brains of the operation. But then I get around real people like you, I can actually see how berserk we both are.”

That kind of cuts to the heart of it. They go berserk, sure, but this isn’t just a regular Mavescapade. In fact, Jimmy’s gotten his fill of those in the prior months as Bobby’s struggled with the kinds of feelings tough guys in the desert don’t talk about. This isn’t just stealing a police car or or getting too drunk to remember how they ended up in a sugar beet field. Bobby's daughter, Julie, has gone missing. And while Bobby hasn't exactly been a model parent,—he didn't even know he was a father for years—he's willing to chase her down across the Imperial Valley and crack a few heads along the way. Mavescapade style, of course.

You get the feeling that Bobby’s not chasing Julie just because she’s his daughter, that his fervent searching isn’t just a too-little, too-late sense of responsibility, but something bigger, something that’s been gnawing at him for a while. Something that, whether they ever find Julie or not, will be a turning point for him, and for Jimmy.

As for Jimmy, straight life or no, he’s there when his friend needs him. And the two of them have some of the most fun dialogue. They’re two guys who’d be fun to hang out with, but maybe only if you had good health insurance, a high tolerance for pain, or could do it from the safety of a floating bubble. They’d make a helluva fun buddy movie, though you’d miss out on Jimmy’s narration and that’s half the fun:

Before we switched to the east/west streets, we made a run through the looping lanes of the Palisades Golf Resort. There were at least a dozen golf courses in La Quinta. It was that kind of town. The country club houses were larger and tackier, the kind of new money monstrosities that the owner of a camo Hummer would consider class. At least the nouveau riche, Disney-fake-European castles gave us visual variety.

“Look at these fucking houses,” Bobby said. “That one’s got those castle things.”


“I don’t know if that’s awesome or idiotic. I’m going to go with idiotic. Because if it’s something I would build, it’s probably stupid. I don’t even think those rocks in front are rea. Are rocks expensive? Why would you use fake rocks? Are they easier to clean? All these houses look like an eight-year-old drew them on the back of his Pee Chee folder. Like Wayne Manor or Barbie’s fucking Dream House. With all the accessories. That one probably has a half-car, half-boat, half-airplane parked in back.”

“Something can’t have three halves.”

“Exactly. The kind of person who builds that house wouldn’t know that.”

I forgot about the desert wealthy. Not exactly upper class. Different than rich farmers, who still worked. A whole different subspecies in these resort towns that’s all flashy and gross and big. Money can buy fake rocks, but it can’t buy class.

Shaw writes like he has real affection for the people of Imperial Valley, and understands them even as he pokes fun. And he can set a scene with just enough words to leave you smiling even as you feel the bugs crawling on your skin:

The nightshift at JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio, California, defined chaos. In all its noise and turmoil, the waiting room bordered on self-parody, almost too over-the-top to be believed. It was like an angrier version of the DMV, but with dying and bleeding people yelling in Spanish and kicking vending machines. Okay, it was exactly like the DMV.

In fact, the language Shaw uses always reminds me a little of a drunken, modern-day Steinbeck. Coarse, but with an affectionate-yet-honest depiction of the hardworking farmers and loveable rapscallions who drink too much, fight too often, and endure because there isn't another option.

It’s a strange feeling to get lost in the desert. The forest makes sense, all those trees blocking the view. But in the desert, it was the redundancy of the landscape that got me all turned around. Technically, I guess I wasn’t lost. There had really only been the one dirt road. I could make my way back, but that didn’t mean I knew where I was.

Relief hit me when the buildings came into view. There were a bunch of them, all part of one collective grouping. A compound that consisted of a double-wide trailer, a large hay barn, corrals and pens that held a number of different animals, and about a dozen small sheds that made me think that shed-building might be Rudy’s hobby.

I pulled onto the long gravel driveway that led up to the double-wide and parked my truck under a big jujube tree. A wooden deck had been built in front of the trailer with a tattered blue tarp duct-taped to the posts for shade. The uneven deck dipped dramatically at one corner. The man sitting on one of the deck chairs didn’t seem to mind.

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Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).

Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.

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