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Bad Eye Blues

By Neal Barrett Jr, Fri., Nov. 28, 1997

by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Bad Eye Blues,
(Kensington, $22 hard) Neal Barrett, Jr.'s latest mystery-crime romp, finds Wiley Moss reprising his memorable star turn from Skinny Annie Blues. Waking up on an interstate bus among rank strangers would be a grim experience at best. For the endearingly hapless Moss, it is a downright gruesome awakening since he has no memory of boarding the bus and he is in the company of two characters from the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder. Going home is not an option they are offering him.

Barrett once again narrates from the oddly angular perspective that has become his calling card. This mob hide-and-seek extravaganza plays out like a low-budget road production of The Idaho Godfather staged in a carnival house of mirrors. The characters ofttimes collide rather than interact, and are occasionally so far over the top that they stray into caricature. But the storytelling is never less than top-shelf and Barrett serves up his double shot of wry straight, no chaser.

Moss was en route to a post-dinner slumber party with the fetching and carnally inclined Claire de Mer when he was abducted by Bobby Bad Eye, a Nez Perce Indian with a violent streak and Rocco, a pumpkin-headed albino mountain man who hasn't caught a wink since Vietnam, February 1966. These inept mob torpedoes have doped Wiley into defenselessness and are crossing state lines with great haste to deliver him to one Vinnie "Spuds" DeMarco, an obstinate and clueless mob guy exiled to the wilds of Idaho. He is major-domo of an erstwhile resort-cum-whorehouse boasting a baker's dozen of the Gem State's finest hookers, christened after flowers no less, e.g. Zinnia, Columbine, and Phlox. (But no Syringa -- look it up.) Moss draws bugs for the Smithsonian and Spuds, and in a bizarre leap of idiot logic, believes only he can portray these backwoods ranch hookers on paper in all their glory.

Barrett portrays Moss lovingly -- he's no detective -- just a beleaguered artist who can only shake his head in bewilderment at his circumstances. Like a 20th-century Job abandoned in the heartland, Moss' troubles mount on troubles as he tries to make his way back to a safe and sane place. Wiley is not born to adventure; he has adventure thrust upon him. It's as though he were thrown into the depths of a lake and there's only one way to go -- up. But each time he nearly surfaces, he's dragged down to start over again.

Not that it's all work and no play for the intrepid Moss. When he's not ducking gunfire and wildfire, he's having near-sex experiences with many willing flowerlings and ducking into the boudoir (if a mobile home qualifies as such) with the alluring Laurel. In Bad Eye Blues, the characters are less likely to be propelled by plot than dragged forward by circumstance; the corkscrew ending gave me a headache. But grousing about a Neal Barrett book being rowdy is like whining about fireworks being loud. You came for the pretty lights, but you left talking about the big bangs.

Neal Barrett set the bar high for himself with quirky gems like Pink Vodka Blues and the brilliantly twisted Dead Dog Blues. And he has written better books than Bad Eye Blues. But now that I think about it, that puts him in one very exclusive club. -- Mike Shea

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