Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Rattlesnake Rodeo by Nick Kolakowski

Whenever I read a Nick Kolakowski book, I know a few things going in.  The action will be fast and furious, the humor (and there will be a good deal of it) will be absurdist and dark, and there will be some sly social commentary leavened in.  His newest, Rattlesnake Roundup, has all these attributes, delivering a frantic short novel that mixes crime fiction with aspects of the western.

The direct sequel to Boise Longpig Hunting Club, which is a turbo-charged contemporary spin on "The Most Dangerous Game", Rattlesnake Rodeo kicks off just about where the previous novel left off, and it has an opening sentence that is vintage Kolakowski:

 "After we blew up a few of the richest and most powerful men in Idaho, my sister Frankie wanted to stop for fries."

In this one line, we have the basic ingredients of the novel: it will contain violence, strife between economic classes, and a healthy dose of the incongruous. Six novels into his crime writing career, Nick Kolakowski has developed a tone that is unmistakably his, and what has impressed me as I've read his books the last few years is how he has grown more and more assured in developing this tone. He can tell a lightning-fast story in which the shoot-outs and beat-downs, the political satire, the jests and insults between characters, and the over the top bloody slapstick mix seamlessly.  Overall, you might call the tone wise-assish, but the author has learned with time just how far to go with the snark without laying it on too thick. And sometimes, like in this exchange, a serious assessment of humanity's frivolity breaks through, an incredulity over how warped in perspective certain parts of our lives have become:

"I've been seeing a lot of that phrase pop up online, 'self-care'?  Like, people deciding that their lives are so hard that they need to indulge on a regular basis, spas or 'sick days' or whatever.  It's such a joke." 

"People need to relax sometimes.  You die otherwise."

"Sure, yeah, relax.  I think I did that once.  But 'self-care,' it's such an indulgent word, used by people who don't know what real pain is.  Survive four years in Auschwitz, you're actually entitled to a little 'self-care.'  Eat a whole chicken, down a bottle of scotch, shoot one of your former captors in the head, whatever you need to take the edge off."

In Rattlesnake Rodeo, we are back in the company of the narrator Jake, his wife Janine, and Jake's commando-like sister Frankie.  Having survived the sick game a number of Idaho's richest people played trying to hunt them down and kill them, the three remain on the run aided and supported by Frankie's crew of soldier-like miscreants.  They have to deal with police after them and a cunning lawyer, a former federal prosecutor, who is the sister of the now slain billionaire who headed up the hunting club that made their lives a bullet-flecked hell.  Her name, aptly, is Karen. Karen says she can make the threats facing them go away if they do a job for her.  She warns them that the job is unpleasant, but they accept the offer.  They are, after all, in a vicious bind.  But when they discover what the job entails and just how unpleasant it is (hint: there is a racial component to the job that makes it that much more repellant), they decide not to do it, and their world becomes only more perilous, setting the stage for a final showdown in an isolated spot in Oregon. It's a version of the classic western-style showdown, gang against gang, and Kolakowski makes things especially intense by using language in an interesting way.

At a climactic moment, there is a chapter break, and then the next chapter proceeds with a continuation of the sentence that ended the previous chapter.  This sentence continues on, loaded with commas and with a few dashes, for a good two pages  –  a long, action-filled, run-on sentence.  It's kind of a tour de force and comes as a surprise, and the author has said he "wanted to write an action scene like Laszlo Krasznahorkai would have written one, just one huge language-snake". Laszlo Krasznahorkai is a Hungarian writer of demanding, modernist, melancholy novels ("literary" novels, if we must use that atrocious term), and he's not at all a writer whose books you'd connect in any way to Rattlesnake Rodeo.  For my part, when I read the run-on sentence chapter and a second such chapter that soon follows it, I thought of the Colin Firth shoots up the church scene in the film Kingsman: The Secret Service, a hyperkinetic violent scene scored to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Freebird.  I could almost hear the electric guitars blasting out from the page as the mayhem ensued and Jake and Frankie fought for their lives.  And putting so much physical movement involving several people into one sinuous, lengthy sentence sped up the action for me, taking an already high-speed novel up a couple of gears.  Impressive.

Last observation: when the author of a book says he was thinking of Laszlo Krasznahorkai as an inspiration for two scenes and the reader comes away thinking of Kingsman: The Secret Service  –  and yet both comparisons are valid  – you almost have reason alone right there to like the book.

Nick Kolakowski has delivered the goods in amusing fashion once again with Rattlesnake Rodeo.


You can get Rattlesnake Rodeo right here.

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