Goodness. While the identity of the author of The Book With No Name is apparently unknown, I’ll throw my hat into the ring and assert that it’s clearly a collaboration between acclaimed guts-and-gore director Quentin Tarantino and rather less acclaimed hokey-backdrop-and-visible-strings director Ed Wood. Akitchen sink type novel, it contains just about every plot element to have ever graced the pages of a book–other than the kitchen sink. In short, it’s an uproarious four-hundred pages of unadulterated, unprompted violence, Monty Pythonesque deadpan humour, and homages to Elvis.
Set in the ambiguously located town of Santa Montega (ostensibly somewhere in the southern US of A, or perhaps Mexico, or better yet, the shadowy setting of something out of a Frank Miller graphic novel), The Book With No Name is a tongue-in-cheek narrative that is what you might get if Mario Puzo had written The Name of the Rose. We have a vast ensemble cast (think a cast of extras similarly as extensive as that employed by Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings films) of characters so shady their shadows have shadows, and everyone’s either quick to anger or quick to slight someone else in the name of making a buck or two. Our main players? Sanchez, the greasy bartender of the seedy-as-a-watermelon Tapioca, who lives in fear of a recurrence of the massacre he survived some five years ago; the Bourbon Kid, a kid who, oddly enough likes to drink bourbon, and is the perpetrator of said massacre; a bunch of felons-turned-hitmen, hitmen-turned-wrestlers, and whatever other permutation of those three nouns is possible; a couple of running-foul-of-the-law kids; and some crooked cops. Oh, and some ninja monks. And an invincible girl who has just emerged from a coma. Also an Elvis hitman. And a psychic.
Two more things: a nameless book that, Ring-like, causes the death of all who read it; and pretty blue stone that grants immortality.
Ah, that stone. Together with the nameless book that crops up in the last hundred or so pages, this sapphire-like fountain of youth is the MacGuffin that drives every action in this book, and for the most part with witty cynicism. In the name of this thing whole rooms of people are bloodily tortured and murdere, pledges are made, voyages are embarked upon, and all manner of double crossing takes place. Once you’ve accepted that this book is a qualm-less, no-holds-barred pastiche, it’s a readable enough thing, although like Pulp Fiction or Glen or Glenda? will be something either loved or loathed.
But I’m afraid that my ability to suspend disbelief doesn’t work on an industrial scale, and after two hundred or so pages I found my attention beginning to flag. There’s a sameness to this book that makes one feel as though they’re reading a moebius strip, and the interchangeable characters (not to mention the painful racial stereotyping and the almost complete lack of women) with their interchangeable motivations do become a drag after a while. There’s certainly a lull towards the middle, as though the author is waiting for feedback from his online readers before launching, Dickens-esque, back into the next installment. But as far as I’m aware, Dickens didn’t throw vampires and highly dubious lunar eclipses into the latter parts of his serial novels (nor does he feel the need to explain in great detail each allusion, quip, or parallel). The Book With No Name does, and suddenly we have a Hellmouth, some quips about Buffy, people wearing Karate Kid and Terminator costumes, and a rapid devolvement into narrative nonsense. It’s a shame that this latter half of the book is so weak when compared with the first half, but even the best joke suffers when drawn out rather than being allowed the snappy delivery it needs. While the narrator has consciously intruded into the novel from the get-go, which is fair enough given that this book was originally self-published online, and was writtento an audience rather than for an audience, and things roll along with slapstick, rapid-fire (emphasis on rapid-fire, given the incessant violence) speed, this tendency towards as-you-know-Bob syndrome becomes more marked in the later pages, as though the author is becoming increasingly impatient about finally being able to type “the end” (and subsequently append “or is it…?” with adolescent glee). I suppose this is only to be expected given that by this point the majority of the plot is coming from not so much left field as beyond the bleachers all together, but a bit of editorial clean-up would have helped balance the book.
In sum, The Book With No Name is intended as a jaunty romp through the rank waters of gangsta-lit, and for a while (taking into account the caveats above) floats surprisingly well. However, things take a grim and gaudy turn towards the middle, and suddenly the narrative begins to flail so madly one that it seems as though it’s trying to cut a path between Charybdis and Scylla. The novel is fun (albeit somewhat disturbing) in concept, but doesn’t come through in the execution.
Rating: (not great)
With thank to New Holland Press for the review copy