Andrez Bergen, Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat (Another Sky Press, 2011)
Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge from the publisher (long enough ago that I'm embarrassed to admit it).
Review tagline: Deus ex Maquina: The Goats of War
The biggest drawback to Andrez Bergen's sci-fi-noir mystery Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat is that it relies on one of the mystery genre's most annoying artificial constructs: the repressed memory. Whenever I see repressed memory pop up as a plotline without some sort of external agent to facilitate memory loss (a fancy way of saying “you drugged your character, beat him about the head, or both”), it is always, and nakedly, a device that is used for the sole purpose of keeping the reader in the dark about a crucial piece of the plot. That might not be an awful thing were “repressed memory syndrome” an actual disease rather than something that got made up by opportunists during the Satanic Panic scare of the seventies and eighties (“repressed memory syndrome” was the main mechanism behind the bogus accusations against the McMartin workers and their families). It is not a real condition, but it has caused real harm. Please, authors, stop using it.
Which is bad, because after a rocky first twenty pages or so, Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat found its voice and kind of soared. It's noir, so there's nothing in here that's terribly unpredictable if you've read enough pulp noir or seen enough forties and fifties thrillers to have a basic grasp of noir plot structure, but it's not really about the destination, is it?
Scott Campbell's wonderful cover art does not prepare you for the trip that you are about to take. Looking at the book's cover, you might get the idea that Floyd Maquina is an urbane, cultured, cloven-hoofed sort of chap who sips martinis and, James Bond-like, solves mysteries in his spare time. Instead, Floyd is a member of Seeker Branch, the government-controlled covert operations branch where, it would seem, the old world's washed-up PIs ended up. Not that Floyd started out as a washed-up PI. He had a good, reasonable life, and he used to do something productive. (We are never told what, but I got the idea he was some sort of nameless, faceless office drone.) But then his wife Veronica got sick. In the hyper-Darwinian world of post-apocalyptic Melbourne, the last city on a blasted Earth that has suffered some sort of horrible ecological disaster that has turned the rain into acid and the dirt into a wasteland, getting sick classes you as a Deviant, and you get Relocated to a Hospital (all terms with initial caps in the book), where another branch of the government “treats” you. Veronica got sick three years ago. Floyd visited her in the Hospital a few times and got to see government “treatment” firsthand. How effective is it? He stopped going to see his wife.
Enter Seeker Branch. Hospital bills are expensive, so the government offered Floyd a job as a Seeker, with a fat salary that would cover those bills and leave him a little at the end of the month. What else could he do? The irony of the situation is that Seekers exist in order to track, ferret out, and turn in (or kill, if the need arises) Deviants. Thus, Floyd has turned into an alcoholic wreck who can't stand his job and refuses to watch his wife die slowly. His only friends are fellow outcasts—Nina “Laurel” Canyon, a fellow Seeker who never takes off her elbow-length gloves; Colman, a former University professor who has turned to dealing drugs for a living; Anthony, the opposition leader of one of Australia's last two cricket clubs, whose matches are as real as professional wrestling. As we open, Floyd is on an Activities (the term Seeker Branch uses for Deviant tracking and apprehension). Or is he? No, turns out it's a nightmare, the same one he's been having for weeks, about an Activities that he knows went horribly wrong, but about which he remembers nothing. Seeker Branch's version of employee counseling is the Test, a virtual-reality world they drug you and throw you into for such wide-ranging activities as counseling, on-the-job training, interviews, you name it. Floyd's taskmasters, we soon find out, are cruel indeed—more so than the usual government cutouts that populate novels like this. So what's the big question I put at the end of every synopsis? I'm not sure you can ask just one. (The jacket copy gives you a veritable smorgasbord.) What happened on that Activities? Can Floyd, who is still in the process of losing the love of his life to a terminal illness and an even more terminal medical system, find love with Laurel? What the hell is up with that title? (Floyd has a thing for old movies, and we find out eventually that it's a quote from an old comedy he is especially fond of.) Do the Cricketing Police really exist? Can plastic really replace real teeth? Will Floyd drink himself to death before he gets fired? Is Ben Wheatley going to direct the film adaptation of this? (Because that would be rad.)
If you can get past the repressed-memory thing, there's a great deal to enjoy here. This probably goes double if you're a movie buff, because Floyd frames everything in terms of old movies. (And wait till you get to the last page. I actually laughed out loud.) I wouldn't exactly call Floyd stereotypical, he's too much of a real person for that, but there is definitely an archetype thing going on there. Everyone around him, though, is Bergen playing with those archetypes and doing as much as he can to pervert them. This has the (possibly intended) side effect of heightening Floyd's everyman status. That may grate on some readers. It didn't on me; as much as Floyd is kind of unlikable, it endeared me to him a great deal. Be aware that, as always, YMMV. The pace is pretty straight noir; Bergen pauses now and again for some worldbuilding, and as I have mentioned the opener is a bit rocky (I think I had to get used to the way the book handles dreams), but otherwise things move along at a good clip, with new bits of plot unveiled fairly regularly. I wanted to go into some of those above, but it seemed like we'd be getting into spoiler territory there. Also on the upside: it's obvious that Bergen has a lot to say about government-run healthcare, environmental issues, the role of the multinational corporation, etc. (it would be a bit cheeky of me to speculate there's at least one jab at Land of the Dead in this book as well, but if the shoe fits...), but Bergen is the best writer I have come across in recent memory at not letting any of that stuff get in the way of a good story. He trusts his readers enough to get it, which so many author's don't. And that almost makes up for the repressed memory stuff.
I'll let you in on a secret: it is very, very rare that I start a review without knowing what the book's rating is going to be. I don't believe it's ever happened that I have gotten to the final paragraph without knowing, but I was pretty darn close on this one. This is a fantastic little book that has an eight-hundred-pound Deviant sitting in its foyer. If you can squeeze past that, then I can't recommend this book highly enough. But it's a pretty tight fit, so I am far more reserved than usual, and because of that, I'm kind of splitting the difference and then leaning upwards a bit. ***