With his debut novel Johnny Shaw has created one of my favorite fictional worlds of recent years. His Imperial Valley is insanely vivid, a punishing desert where farmers work their alfalfa fields at night, illegal immigrant traffic is a daily who-gives-a-shit reality, and smoking laws are ignored in shit shack dive bars. Tucked against Arizona and the Mexican border, it’s the poorest county in California and soaked in the crime and violence such a badge of dishonor generally carries. But though Imperial Valley ain’t always a Sunday fucking drive, it doesn’t have shit on the chaos that lies just on the other side of that invisible line the county butts up against. (And don’t think I’m talking about said line to the east, neither, though Arizona is indeed plenty scary.)
And as much as I love this exciting new world, Dove Season’s characters and voice are even more kick ass. The story is told by Jimmy Veeder, an aimless young man who has been been traveling light and loose for twelve years until he’s called back home upon hearing his old man’s got cancer. He reacquaints himself with some friends and family, hangs out and shoots the shit with his bed-ridden dad, exchanges sparks with a high school romance he’d abandoned, then gets asked a favor of his dying father: find a hooker named Yolanda down in Mexicali. So with the help of his best friend Bobby Maves, Veeder heads across the border and soon finds himself up to his neck in shit.
Veeder and Maves make a great team, Veeder acting as the brain and conscience while Maves the balls and fire, with neither of them being all that adept at their roles. They crack jokes (this a very funny book without ever being a “comic” crime novel) and pound beers, take their licks and hand out beatings where they can, the only sure thing in their adventure being that they have each other’s back to the brutal end. The Nerd simply can’t fucking wait to see these two idiots fuck shit up again toot-sweet.
Dove Season is “big” book, all about fathers and sons, friendship, coming of age, killing and the necessity of killing. But for all its grand themes, the novel never gets too big, its crime plot is never ridiculous or over-the-top, its secrets and revelations thrilling but never eye-rollingly so. While definitely a crime novel, Shaw takes his time in the telling, letting us know and love the characters and place, easing us into the world of his story through Jimmy’s wonderful voice. As it goes along we slowly realize that Dove Season is the book equivalent of a Peckinpah movie, with all the great dialogue, vulgar humor, grisly violence, harsh beauty, and fierce male camaraderie such a distinction implies. If that doesn’t sound like the type of tequila bender you wanna lose yourself in, well, then get the fuck off the Nerd’s porch already, dear reader, and don’t you think for a fucking second you’re taking that bottle with you.