The Last of the Smoking Bartenders

The Last of The Smoking Bartenders, aside from having one of the best titles ever, is a tough and gritty novel about the dirty underbelly of America and modern paranoia. Someone once said that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you. Whether that applies here can only be determined by reading the book.

Tom (just Tom) is either an deeply undercover lawman on the heels of a terrorist network bent on destroying society or a homeless paranoid drifter. He stays under the radar and refuses to use dollar bills which he says are embedded with a magnetic device that will give away his location. He comes in contact with Lorne, a out-of-work raft guide in Green River. Through a couple of odd and violent incidents, Lorne is swept into Tom's tale and recruits a group of meth-dealing Navajos with delicate trigger fingers to help him.

You know this is not going to end well.

C. J. Howell's novel has an unrelenting sadness throughout. Pretty much all the characters are losers including the FBI agent. Yet there is a rough beauty in them. It the same type of beauty that Howell describes well as he writes about the barren desert landscape of Arizona and the less glamorous parts of Phoenix. Howell seems to have a real affinity for down-and-outers which makes them more sympathetic than they would have been in a lesser novel. Howell's style comes off as a post-modern blend of Jim Thompson and Cormac McCarthy. He doesn't try to hide the brutality of his story yet the character's action make a perverse type of sense. The only place this doesn't ring true is with the FBI agent. The set-up of a disabled agent who can take any case she wants doesn't fit into the harsh reality of the other protagonists. Yet she comes across as a different kind of lost drifter and maybe that is what the author intended.

So what we have here is a unusual sort of crime noir novel or maybe even a contemporary yet cynical On The Road. However you look at it, you will end up with a strange and original take on the American crime novel.