In this darkly comic debut novel, an incompetent law-school graduate gets in over his head as counsel to a bank in Houston’s Chinatown.
“I have no idea what I’m doing here,” whispers Lazaro Mendoza to an elderly Chinese man at his new job. It’s something of a theme for Lazaro, who’s clueless, lazy and prone to petty theft and drunkenness. He graduated as an average student from a third-rate law school in 1996, and as he awaits the results of his bar exam, he tries to fill the position of in-house legal counsel to the Cosmopolitan Bank of the Far East. The name may sound exotic, but the bank is housed in a dismal strip mall in Houston’s Chinatown, where Lazaro has to fight grocery shoppers for parking spaces. From his office window, he can see the sparkling, magnificent Enrico Tower, where his hated rival, Edmundo Vicente, now works. In school, both were members of the Latino Law Students Association; Lazaro joined just to get other students’ course outlines. (Lazaro’s idea of a great lawyer comes from a TV show called San Francisco Law.) Enrico, an energy company with dubious business practices, bears an obvious resemblance to Enron; while showing off to Lazaro during a visit, Edmundo blithely darkens a third of California. Lazaro, meanwhile, is tasked with foreclosing on families in poverty. It eventually leads him to a difficult choice, which produces ambiguous results. The flawed and culpable Lazaro may be a difficult character for readers to spend time with, as his life is one long anxiety dream. In his unprepared desperation, he bears some resemblance to the hero of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (1954), a much funnier and sunnier novel. The comedy gets very dark indeed, but it’s not quite outrageous or bitingly satirical enough to stand with the best of the genre, such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) or Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939). However, Gunn does get off some pointed zingers and creates some outlandish characters, including a hunchbacked stripper, a madam/pet-shop owner, and a feng shui master, that round out the colorful cast and effectively add to the comic tone.
An engaging black comedy set in the greedy mid-1990s.