IN HIS NEW NOVEL Plaster City, Portland author Johnny Shaw introduces classic screwball noir to the horrors of the Mexican drug trade, and then sprinkles a serious dose of teen angst on the proceedings.
Plaster City is the second of Shaw's novels to feature Jimmy Veeder, a young farmer in the California desert who wants nothing more than to settle down into a quiet life with his girlfriend and kid. It reads easily as a standalone, but it's peppered with just enough strategic references to the events of the first Jimmy Veeder novel, Dove Season, to pique a new reader's curiosity.
As Plaster City opens, Veeder's charismatic and unpredictable best friend, Bobby, is luring him away from a life on the straight-and-narrow. Bobby's semi-estranged daughter has gone missing, and her trail leads to Mexican biker gangs, teen-girl fighting rings, drug kingpins, and pissed-off exes. Plus, relentless wisecracks and a lot—a lot—of punching. The book even opens with a punch to Jimmy's jaw, followed by a jab to the nose that "drained a sinus-load of brain juice down the back of [Jimmy's] throat. The sour taste of all the weird ick that lived in [his] head brought back the worst kind of memories.... It tasted like humiliation and defeat. More literally, it tasted like pickling brine." Shaw's prose is clever, but rarely distractingly so; here's Jimmy, contemplating the vast world of available online pornography: "Straight sex was the poem that rhymed within a chapbook of avant-garde blank verse, pornographically speaking."
Amid all the joking and punching, Shaw injects surprising depth: Jimmy and Bobby test the limits of their friendship, Bobby's teenaged daughter proves far more than another damsel in distress, and Jimmy is forced to consider what it really means to be a father. This makes for a rich, involving reading experience (with dick jokes). My only complaint: The book's ending feels perfunctory, even as it clearly sets up another Jimmy Veeder "fiasco." I'm ready for the next book, but I wanted more of this one, too.