The Story Plant, 202 pages, paperback, $12.74
When I encounter a dead main character in a narrative, it’s usually because the author desperately needs a gimmick to cover up a weak plot or a lack of storytelling skills. In the case of earl Javorsky’s Down Solo, the dead main character is actually an integral part of a larger, carefully constructed plot and a strange element that adds a few gory and humorous moments to a novel that is gritty, entertaining, and smartly written.
Charlie Miner is going through a rough patch. His ex-wife is borderline insane, his gig as private investigator forces him to deal with the worst the streets have to offer, and he is not getting to spend enough time with his teenage daughter, Mindy. Then things get worse: he wakes up with a bullet hole in his head and lying on a cold slab in the morgue. He doesn’t remember getting shot, but he sort of remembers the case he was working on when it happened. It had something to do with fraudulent paperwork, a woman, some religious folks, and gold. Charlie starts moving and the pieces start slowly falling into place, but then his daughter is kidnapped by someone involved in the case who takes her to Mexico with bad intentions. What follows is a violent, funny, surprisingly touching adventure/PI narrative that displays Javorsky’s writing chops and the ways in which a complicated story with a high number of characters and a complicated back story/mystery can work perfectly well when done by someone in control of all those elements.
In order to be effective, a novel must be entertaining and provide readers with characters they can relate or root for, and Down Solo accomplishes both things pretty early. While Charlie is not the most likable character in contemporary fiction, that ambivalence is precisely what makes him likable: he is like the rest of us. Between his problems, his ex, and his love for his daughter, it’s easy to stay with him and wish him the best as he discovers one piece of the puzzle at a time and is forced to deal with a lot of bad people with gold-driven hidden agendas. Javorsky is to thank for this, and no matter how convoluted the narrative gets, he makes sure that readers remember that the guy in its epicenter is just another concerned father who finds himself at the bottom of the barrel, very confused, and dead:
“I’ve got no cash, no home, I’m fresh out of jail, my pal’s in the hospital, and my daughter has been kidnapped by a probably serial killer for reasons having to do with an investment scam and a bogus geology report, all stemming from a visit just a few days ago from a beautiful Eurasian stranger with a story. Oh, yeah, and I’m clinically dead, with a bullet hole in my head to prove it.”
Perhaps the best thing about Down Solo is that it walks a fine line between a classic mystery, a PI novel, and the gory, weird side of gritty crime fiction. Instead of trying to move around the clichés of each of those, Javorsky embraces them and finds new ways to use them together effectively. For example, the plot makes it easy to see that a lot of planning when into the way the narrative develops and the way Charlie finds out the truth behind his situation, but there’s also plenty of nasty violence, guns blasting, and a psycho youngster that brings to mind a talkative version of Sin City’s Kevin.
Ultimately, the main reason why Down Solo should be read is that it is a very engaging novel that holds a few secrets in its pockets until the very end and features elements as wild as the spirit leaving the body and roaming around and a lot of movement not only around California but also south of the border. Javorsky has put together a diverse cast of characters and a plot so thick and full of twists that it ends up being another character in the book. If you’re looking for an irreverent, sometimes hilarious, unexpectedly emotional novel, then give this one a spin.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Zero Saints, Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.