Monday, November 21, 2011

Review of J. D. Tuccille's High Desert Barbecue

On the rare occasions when I review books here I normally expect they're already known, if not necessarily read, by TUAK readers. They've been around long enough that most people are probably already familiar with the contents, making it unnecessary to worry about spoilers, or have already determined not to become familiar and don't give a damn about spoilers anyway. So spoilers be damned, let's discuss.

In this case I must walk much more carefully, because J. D. Tuccille's High Desert Barbecue is a new book and I don't want to ruin it for anyone. So let me say first in general terms that HDB is a very entertaining book, I enjoyed it very much and think you might as well.

HDB is not a great, ponderous tome by any stretch, at most it's a light weekend read. Nor (Oh, thank you Muses!) does it at any point stop the music to explain the characters' actions or beliefs, or to lecture the reader on why he or she should act or believe that way too. That second thing being one of the two great weaknesses of the average bit of modern freedom fic, I'd have appreciated that even if Tuccille's book had disappointed in every other way.

Which it does not. HDB has a plot, and Tuccille stuck to it and stubbornly resisted what must have been occasional temptation to pause and explain philosophical points along the way. To be honest, I don't know what effect that will have on general readers. But as a crazed freedomista myself, I found the way his protagonists dealt with their dilemma quite easy to follow, and the story delightful.

Having said that, character development is both the story's greatest strength and one of its greatest weaknesses. The protagonists are well-rounded characters – they have strengths and weaknesses that are carefully crafted and quite human, you have no trouble believing in these people. I wish I could say the same for the antagonists, who are almost uniformly one-dimensional and whose actions often descend into slapstick. If the “looters” in Atlas Shrugged had spent most of the book without their clothes on (don't ask) they'd be a lot like these characters. It's kind of jarring: the good guys are real people, but I had a very hard time suspending disbelief in the bad guys. Because HDB treats its subject matter lightly but it is really not a light subject, the book sometimes veers rather unevenly between drama and comedy. It's hard to have a light-hearted romp when people are honestly trying to kill you.

And I wish I could discuss that, but here we run into the matter of spoilers and I don't want to spoil this. So when I say that one pivotal scene was ruined for me because by the time Tuccille (skillfully) arranged a fateful meeting between two characters, I already knew what was going to happen because the resolution was quite conventional, the most I can do to defend that is to say, “Well of course (CENSORED) would (CENSOR) the (CENSORED,) and then (CENSORED) would respond by (CENSORING) the (CENSORED,) because that's what always happens.” Which doesn't really explain anything, does it?

The ending is rather pat, and smacks of deus ex machina in a way I wish Tuccille had been able to find a way around but honestly I can't think of a way to improve it that doesn't involve all the protagonists being (CENSORED) or going to federal (CENSOR,) and it doesn't spoil the story by any means.

I always beat up on a book's weaknesses, but all books have weak bits and that doesn't impeach them. It only points out that the writer is human and not God. Freedomistas will thoroughly enjoy the protagonists, not all or even most of whom are far-gone opponents of government power – they're just in over their heads and muddle along as best they can, not always in the best ways imaginable. The bad guys are enjoyably despicable. I do fear that the average reader would find much of what goes on a little hard to buy, but screw the average reader if he can't take a joke. Despite the disclaimer at the beginning - “Please don't attempt to use this novel as a hiking guide” - Tuccille clearly has particular settings in mind and he describes and uses them vividly and with confidence. The plot is crisp and clear and mostly rollicks along, and if it conforms to reality no more than the settings, well, that's why they call it fiction.

I got the book in trade paperback, which cost more but I'm glad I did it because I want this little book on my shelf. The settings are lovely and quite well described, the plot and protagonists are believable and entertaining, and I intend to enjoy it again some cold afternoon, probably soon.

You should buy it.


J.D. Tuccille said...


Thank you very much for that review -- and for posting it on Amazon. I appreciate that you clearly took the time not just to read HDB, but to fully analyze the book, too.

I concede the flaws in the book. I wish they weren't there, but after multiple revisions, I had a story and characters that I liked, though I never deluded myself that I'd achieved perfection.

I hope others find it just as enjoyable as you did!

Joel said...

It's a good book, JD. Don't let me get you down, I normally talk a lot worse than that. I enjoyed it very much. Go look at my review of Patriots.

J.D. Tuccille said...

You didn't get me down at all! I really appreciate a review that acknowledges my work's flaws, and then concludes it's still worth reading. I think that's very honest and encouraging. Thank you!

wrm said...

>I got the book in trade paperback, which cost more

We truly live in the future. Where I come from*, the hardcover's the one that costs more.

You're a pretty fair hack yourself, Unca Joel, so based on this review I will definitely buy HDB in one form or another.

* in time. And it's not even that far in time. Around here you have to run as fast as you can just to keep up.