Johnny Shaw is quickly becoming a personal favorite of the Nerd’s. His debut Dove Season would’ve made my top ten of 2011 if, you know, I’d fucking read the thing in 2011. If Big Maria doesn’t get a spot on this year’s list then I’ve apparently got a dozen soon-to-be classics in my ever-growing TBR pile right now.
Big Maria is a profane, gross, hilarious, violent, and big-hearted adventure novel about three losers of different generations in pursuit of that most reliable of MacGuffins: gold. Harry is a middle-aged corrections officer whose been drinking up his disability pay and dreading his return to work once his leg fully heals. Young Ricky has determined to drink himself to death following his crashing a bus full of oldsters, the guilt over the many deaths and the mounting lawsuits against him forcing away his wife and young daughter. The elderly Frank is fighting cancer and his scarily over-protective daughter, with Frank questioning just what the hell he’s done with his life as he stares down at the fast-approaching Big Nothing.
When these three men by chance meet up in a hospital and share some cheap booze, Frank tells one of his grandfather’s tall tales of a gold mine in the Chocolate Mountains and a treasure map buried under a house in a town long ago turned into a lake. Harry hits up the library and finds that maybe the story ain’t as ridiculous it sounds. Soon enough the three of them are renting a boat and scuba gear in hopes of finding the map and are on their way to hopefully making the score of their lives.
Shaw tells this story in a loose voice that can’t help but find the funny, with plenty of hysterical indignities and great lines of dialogue popping up on every other page. He also knows how and when to let it rip in the suspense and violence departments. But its the cast that makes this book truly special, Shaw having created in his central characters three guys who we want to root for no matter how many warts are revealed. And for all its fun and excitement, Big Maria is really a very nuanced book about a man’s legacy and his regrets, about guilt and survival, about obligations both to your family and to yourself. But though these things are beautifully and movingly addressed, Big Maria still reads and feels like a straight-up fucking hoot all the same. Endorsement, consider yourself rung.