Ranchero by Rick Gavin is peopled with real characters in an authentic South, the Mississippi Delta to be exact, who think and speak with the natural wryness of the place. That makes it twice as funny as the usual caper, and I’m not just whistling Dixie.
Forget silly cariacatures from people who don’t really know the South or who generally hold it in contempt, no one can dish its sins with greater hilarity and humanity than one steeped in the tea. Perhaps it’s because of all the laconic, flinty Scots-Irish that populated the place, but there’s a deadpan flatness when conveying horrors matter-of-factly. Gavin just nails that specific Southern langauge and cadence.
Nick Reid, former-cop and now repo man in “the slowest place on earth” is trying to collect an overdue TV from Percy Dwayne Dubois (pronounced DEW-boys). Percy Dwayne shows off for his stringy wife and fragrantly-diapered toddler by braining Nick with a fireplace shovel before absconding in this story’s MacGuffin: a vintage calypso coral-colored Ranchero owned and babied by Nick’s landlady’s dead husband.
I’d been dinged with assorted planking, a dinette chair, a brass shoe tree, had survived my share of semi-drunken glancing tire-iron blows, and was once deafened for a week in Roanoake by a shemale named Varnella who caught me square on the ear with a handbag full of what proved to be shoplifted rice.
So I was familiar with the abrupt, iron-oxide flavor of it all and the baleful overtures of gravity. I knew the barest of chances to mount a survey of the kitchen floor before selecting a spot and informing myself, “I think I’ll stretch out here.”
The language also rings true for me in the way Gavin deals with local racial and cultural issues. Lots of different folks live cheek-by-jowl, who, unless they’re extremely churchy, won’t necessarily give each other goodwill on the credit plan. In an area that lacks the buzz of industry and tourism, there’s also plenty of time to remark upon all the differences. It’s like idly complaining about the heat, but without any hopes of causing change nor much intent to do more than gripe.
Besides the obvious racial, ethnic, religious, sexual divides, and in the level of civilization they enjoy and/or require, people may be airy and fancy or using the swamp as their outhouse. Nick is white and his best friend, Desmond, is enormous and the color of eggplant. Sometimes that matters a lot to what and whom they encounter, sometimes less-so. Nick’s boss is Kalil, or K-Lo, the Lebanese descendant of an immigrant who came to farm and decided that even low-rent shopkeeping beat a cursed life in the cotton patch. The language these characters use about and toward each other is the barbed patois of people living more-or-less peacefully together, except for the meth lords, shiftless trash, and cracker cops, that is.
Dale was a raging psychopath and Patty’s husband both at once. He was a county policeman, a bigot, a misogynist, a xenophobe, and a musclehead who appeared to live on supplements and Skoal. Dale had developed so much veiny bulk in his years of hoisting dumb bells that it had reached the point where he could harldy fit in his uniform. He was all chiseled contours and looked like he’d walked straight out of a Marvel Comic.
K-Lo liked to call him in when customers defaulted because Dale was the sort of cop who lived to beat civilians up.
Patty ran into the store to phone him. Even from out in the parking lot we could hear every word she told Dale because he was a tireless plinker who thought earplus were for faggots so he’d made of himself a burly heterosexual who couldn’t hear shit.
Apparently, he was over on the truck route making trouble for a pack of Mexicans. It seems Dale had pulled them for too damn much tread wear and was turning their car inside out. It should be said that Dale thought anybody who spoke Spanish was a Mexican, and it only took two of them together to constitute a pack.
So far as anybody knew, Dale might have been hassling a dozen unpapered migrants or engineering an ugly forenoon for the king and queen of Spain.
The novel’s a caper, and a very funny one, that escalates in consequence and entertainment value as it goes, generally combusting towards something like justice. But most importantly to me, Rick Gavin offers hilarious and genuine earfuls of the South in language that sounds as true as the “glorious baritone hum” on a stolen 1969 Ford Ranchero.
Clare Toohey is Clare2e here at CriminalElement.com and also blogs sporadically at Women of Mystery. She recently had a short, surreal crime story appear in Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She has a chronic weakness for metallic flake paint jobs and pecans.