Sunday, March 23, 2014

Tiger Shrimp Tango


  Okay, so the rundown is as follows: This is a good book. Good, but not great. It's hilarious, twisted, and a lot of fun to read. It moves quick, the dialogue is fast, and the descriptions are lavish. If you have a weekend free and want to try some Dorsey, this is a pretty good one to start with.

         But those returning to the world of Serge Storms will find little here they didn't find elsewhere. Serge is still Serge, Mahoney is portrayed as little more than a joke at this point, and if you've read Dorsey's books, you already know the formula by this point. 

          In conclusion, it's a fun read, but I wouldn't rush out to buy. Wait for summer, and get this from the library. It's an enjoyable book, and if you haven't read Dorsey, starting here isn't a bad idea. But it's not an essential edition, just a good one.

         "Where you driving to?"
"Alfonso's Scrap Metal, Recycling, and Lounge."
"It's on the edge of a weird municipal zoning thing, and Alfonso took advantage of it."
- Serge and Coleman 

       I love Tim Dorsey, but it's always been weird trying to review him. At this point his book series, now a sixteen-book odyssey through Florida history and landmarks starring two antiheroic protagonists who kill a variety of wrongdoers in creative and messy ways, has reached the point where there are a lot of in-jokes and callbacks to previous books. And while the books do stand well enough on their own, I just couldn't get a purchase on or justify reviewing the books without getting too deep into them.

 So why am I reviewing them now? 

                Because it's a series I feel like people overlook in the Florida crime canon. Because I feel like it's something worth delving into. And, most importantly, because while this is the sixteenth Serge A. Storms book, this is one of the more accessible volumes in the series, and if you're going to start reading the ridiculous and cartoonish adventures of Serge A. Storms, this is one of the best books to get in on to see if you like it. Most of the other books such as Florida Roadkill, the first in the series, don't have the same tone and aren't nearly as light as Tiger Shrimp Tango. But, while it's accessible, is it worth reading? Well...

                Tiger Shrimp Tango is the story of Serge A. Storms. Serge is an antihero and vigilante who bounces from job to job and obsession to obsession with no real method of slowing down. There's a backstory to him, but it's fifteen books long and all you really need to know is that he's nuts and has a habit of offing the scum of the earth. He is assisted in his quest to act out every single fantasy in his kind of twisted brain by his erstwhile companion, Coleman. Coleman, so named after the cooler where his psychotic father kept him for his childhood, exists in a constant haze of drugs and alcohol. Despite this, he is a genius in physics and engineering, and his exploits include competently helping Serge with his various projects and once building a bong out of a particle accelerator. Together, the two of them are working as "private detectives" to take down scam artists in their home state of Florida, usually by putting the offending scammers into Rube Goldberg devices made from materials in the local Home Depot and fleeing the scene with all speed. They are aided in their current enterprise by the mentally-ill private eye Mahoney, who thinks he's in a film noir and talks in third-person monologue and jazz slang so dense it might as well be fabricated (it totally is). The three of them happen upon a ring of scammers pulling a combination of scams and smash-and-grab burglaries throughout Florida, and take it upon themselves to exact retribution for their victims.

Got all that? Good, because here's where it starts getting weird and crazy.

                In the midst of all of this, a scam goes wrong and a young woman named Brook Campanella's father winds up dead of a heart attack. A group of former marks for a con artist band together and decide to take a trip down to scare him straight. Our "heroes" start picking off the scammers in messy and increasingly bizarre ways, ways involving things like magnets, lobsters, and the most grisly demonstration of Diet Coke and Mentos ever enacted on the page. And someone from Serge's past, someone who killed a woman very dear to him, gets orders to take a trip back to Miami to tie up a loose end named Serge A. Storms. Things start going bad very quickly, and before everyone knows it, they're up to their necks in death and deals gone wrong. And at the eye of the storm sit our oblivious "heroes" and the woman they're trying to protect, Brook Campanella. People will explode. Nets will tighten. And people may not get out alive. But hey, that's Florida for you.

               Okay, first and foremost, I'd like to highlight the book's sense of timing. The book goes very quickly, but scenes tend to progress with a nice build. This isn't a breakneck pace where everything slams into each other before reaching a climax, each scene is given the attention it deserves, and never completely telegraphs its intentions. Dorsey understands that the best thing he could have going for him is surprise, and so he hides the punchline well until the end of the joke, when it'll have the maximum impact. He knows you want to know what the hell is going on, and by understanding this, he knows where to hide it for the maximum ridiculous potential. Dorsey also makes use of an anachronic order with Tiger Shrimp Tango, setting up absurd scenes with no context, and then showing the context later, essentially building new gags by having old ones reoccur. A lot of comic writers believe it's simply a matter of writing the funny setpieces and dialogue into their books, but the best comic authors, the ones people keep coming back to again and again, always work best with timing. And Dorsey has his down, through a combination of his craft and having done this sixteen times.

                Second, Dorsey has to be praised for his work on the setting. The book functions as a kind of insane travelogue through Florida, touching on many real issues going on in the state and in the world at large. It's easy to tell right off the bat that Dorsey loves his home state, and that love is only reinforced by the lavish descriptions of places like Legoland Florida, the Tupperware Museum, and the cottage where The Yearling was written. One of the things I like about Tim Dorsey and his books is that he also pays attention to how each scene is lit, something that few writers do and even fewer actually get right the few times they do it (I count Ray Bradbury and other). Dorsey imbues his locations with such life and purpose that the dichotomy in his books almost reminds me of the show The Bridge-- you come for the grisly criminal acts, but you stay for the scenery porn and the interesting characters caught up in situations beyond their control. In Dorsey's Florida, you have a gorgeous landscape filled with neon lights, beautiful vistas, and more despicable criminals than anyone could possibly police, and it almost makes one want to live there for the two seconds it would take before one was inevitably killed in some gruesome and cartoonish fashion by the antiheroes of the setting. 

                And finally, Dorsey does well with the characters. Each person is distinct, and even the ones who aren't as filled-out at least get a backstory before they're either killed off or scammed. He gives his villains a lot of color, and even some traits that could make them more sympathetic. They're usually just losers who either don't understand how deep in they've just got, or they're way over their heads and trying desperately to get out before all the exits seal off and they get cornered by a coffee-guzzling madman and his stoner accomplice, as well as all the other desperate losers in the setting. Even when it's a foregone conclusion that yes, these people will die, there's still the hope that at least some of them will make it out alive. And that's what makes the book interesting to read.

               But there's a downside, too. Anyone who's read one of Dorsey's books before will know what is coming, and this being the most recent in a series that has grown just a little formulaic, there are not many surprises to be had. Also, some of the injokes could have been cut, having been resolved in previous adventures. Also, Serge's escapades feel less organic with each passing book, and more tinged with bitterness and wish-fulfillment. 

                But those looking for a quick, fun, lean read will find exactly that, and for first-time or returning readers, there's a lot to like. Take this one out of the library, get it used, pass it around with your friends, definitely read this, but don't buy it. 

- The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
- Koko by Peter Straub
- Necrophenia by Robert Rankin
- Ghost Story by Peter Straub

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