California Literary Review

Gas City by Loren Estleman

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June 2nd, 2008 at 1:48 pm

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Gas City by Loren Estleman
Gas City
by Loren Estleman
Forge Books, 304 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★½☆☆

Good Writing, A Largely Forgettable Story

Between finishing Gas City: A Novel and starting to write this review, a period of several weeks, something odd happened. I completely forgot what this book was about. The story arc, the characters and the setting were, at most, hazy, blurred images that shimmered in and out of recognition. That’s never happened before (well, perhaps with To the Lighthouse). Maybe details have faded some over time with other titles, but I’ve never suffered a complete loss of contact. I had to skim through Loren Estleman’s work to remind myself of what happened.

And that’s the problem with Gas City, some great passages, excellent runs of dialogue combined with strangely little concerning the plot to hang a memory on. This one’s truly a forgettable experience and that’s too bad because the guy can write. Other books of his that I’ve read have held my attention and then some like Retro: An Amos Walker Novel and the Edsel. It’s also perplexing as to why this story is so ephemeral in nature. Perhaps some reasons follow.

The good stuff in the book centers around the interplay between main and also lesser characters that brings them into our mental world as in this riff with one of Chief Russell’s cops and the cop’s sweetie:

“I think you should have a drink and a smoke and forget all about the cop and Guerra. A three-day bat’s as good as an ocean cruise.”
“No, I’m done with that.”
“I said the same thing once. About hooking.”
He took the cigarette out of his mouth. “I always thought hooking was your choice.”
“It is now. Somebody gave me a chance to try something else, and I did. Worst choice I ever made.”
“Who was the guy?”
“Uh-uh. I’ve got my ethics.”
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with raising your sights.”
“There’s everything wrong with it. It puts you square in somebody else’s. Down’s the only safe direction. No one wants to bump you off when you’re at the bottom.”

The novel revolves around Gas City’s Chief of Police who’s been bought off to look the other way, something that has gone on for twenty years as mobster Anthony Zeno ran the town’s vice industry. The death of Russell’s wife rekindles his sense of duty and his abrupt change in behavior and operation of the police force leads to a power struggle with Zeno. Hack politicians attempt to make hay out of soaring crime statistics and the suggestion of scandal within Russell’s department. The media, always on the hunt for a juicy story, gets wind of all of this and the race is on. Sounds like the makings for a solid story, but something misses here. Some passages remind me of Eastertown (see The Works of Max Crawford) but without the degree of authority that Crawford demonstrates like this from Eastertown:

…Talk about nothing doing at the courthouse. During the trial at least you got to doze away to lawyers going on and on, witnesses lying through their teeth or not remembering their own names, the day’s excitement being the judge hammering his desk and crying out “Overruled!” “Sustained” or “Would somebody get the bailiff’s attention!” – and now even that sleepy sideshow was done but not quite yet done.

Compared to this by Estleman:

He’d put on the coat to keep her from going out without him…He’d fed a stray cat once, taken it in, and let it out in the morning, and hadn’t thought much about it while it was gone. When it had kept coming back, he’d decided to adopt it, and paid a veterinarian seventy dollars to give it all its shots, and having made the investment had fretted all the next day when he’d let the cat out again. He’d guessed this new anxiety was something like that, though he hadn’t mentioned it to Clare.

The differences between the two selections are not great but they are significant, perhaps in a subjective way. Crawford writes, even in this minor sequence with power, with authority while Estleman’s words lack just a small level of this punch. Over the course of a novel this adds up. Even when Max is at his tedious best the reader clearly senses that the guy knows where’s he’s going, that every word has purpose. I didn’t feel this way about Gas City. There where times when Estleman seemed to be forcing his way through to the conclusion and his enthusiasm was at low ebb.

Estleman has written more than sixty novels, all of which the jacket copy says were done on a manual typewriter – dinosaurs are to be revered in this techno crazy age. Surly reptiles surfacing on a mysterious horizon. Recent novels include American Detective, Nicotine Kiss, and The Adventures of Johnny Vermillion. He’s won four Shamus Awards, five Golden Spurs and three Western Heritage Awards, so this, at least partial, failure in Gas City is unexpected.

The characters and the settings in Gas City are rife with intriguing promise that never seems delivered. The story seems one- two-dimensional, never fully realized. That’s why I was unable to remember much of the book. There are a number of good scenes, but with so many quality novels out and about, including several by Estleman himself, these brief flashes of excellence are not sufficient to recommend the book.

Near the end of the book Estleman writes:

The telephone rang, and seemed to go on ringing a long time before he thought to answer. It sawed a little at the inside of his skull. He’d been drinking steadily most of the day – not enough to get sopping. Just enough to remain afloat – and wondered if it was possible to be inebriated and hungover at the same time.

As much as there is to recommend this one, Gas City ultimately is locked in a similar conundrum.

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