By Eric Garcia
Ever since Quentin Tarantino inserted snappy and quirky dialogue into the mouths of two thugs in Pulp Fiction, it has been a mandate that tough guys talk funny. It is this attempt at that give and take which fills the pages of Eric Garcia's third novel, Matchstick Men.
The story follows two con men, Roy and his sidekick Frankie, as they pull various tricks--card games against hapless college kids, lottery ticket scams against trusting housewives, and art forgeries. Roy and Frankie are the classic anti-heroes of the underworld: We should despise them for baseless morals (how could they swindle $1000 from a grieving widow?), but they are so clever and witty it's hard not to love 'em.
The biggest con involving Roy and Frankie is the notion that a book about them would be fun to read. Actually, there's no reason why it shouldn't; Tarentino rip-offs are generally entertaining, if derivative. But Matchstick Men reads like a screenplay; all dialogue, no setting. The characters are almost transparent, as if they are simply disembodied voices. Moreover, the big con--a so-called "bunco scheme" that shapes the story--is so predictable that I correctly guessed the outcome halfway through the book.
Matchstick Men is a disappointment. Garcia's two previous novels were clever and funny, in a sly postmodern way. Anonymous Rex and Casual Rex are pulp detective fictions about an LA private eye, Vincent Rubio, who is secretly a Velociraptor. These two books (and a third on the way, Hot and Sexy Rex) introduce the idea that dinosaurs secretly populate the world. The dinosaurs live like an invisible minority; some work as linebackers for the NFL, others have snuck into the Museum of National History, faking evidence about their extinction 65 million years ago. Garcia even hints at a dinosaur nudist camp in Montana and gives his main character a fetish for the short-lived TV show, Manimal.
The most plausible explanation for the shortcomings in Matchstick Men's cleverness and originality is that this book sells out. And sure enough, the cover proudly announces, "Read next summer's big movie this winter!" This isn't a novel; it's a preview. PHIL BUSSE