Here’s the wacky, tacky premise: A Jesus-impersonating serial killer rampages through Florida strip clubs and gator swamps.
Kelby, who previously wrote sober novels revolving around World War II (Theater of the Stars, 2003, etc.), delivers black humor that sizzles. A cartoon Crime and Punishment in “Margaritaville,” the book stars a sandal-shod, sheet-clad drifter calling himself “Jesus” who loses the American Dream in a poker game with Leon, a used-car dealer. The Dream, all gleaming chrome and glossy leatherette, is the world’s most magnificent trailer, and its new owner, while festooning Christmas lights in its lush interior, catches fire as the big rig explodes. Or so the citizenry of Whale Harbor, one truly funky tourist trap, believes. Actually Leon has slunk out and disappeared. Burned but not cooked, he crawls to a hospital. There, convalescing, he’s attacked by killer bees who buzz in through a window. His mind full of morphine, he hallucinates. The staff, overhearing his weird dreams and marveling at the hive that soon bedecks his bandaged head, dubs Leon “Bee-Jesus,” and a desperate crowd lines up, expecting miracles. All the while, the first “Jesus” is on the lam and planning his 13th homicide. He’s really Ricardo Gomez, a deranged Polish/Cuban former M.D. who sees murder as an act of mercy. Anyone he feels deserving either of blessing or of curse earns from him one savage ticket to the hereafter, in the form of poison or long knives. Along with “Jesus” and “Bee-Jesus,” there are terrific mock-archetypal characters: the Legendary Bluesman, the Titty Bar Madonna, the Buff-But-Tender sheriff. And there’s enough mad plot to hook most anyone.