An alcoholic, epileptic gunsmith-cum–adventure novelist navigates Key West’s criminal underworld in Rovina’s rollicking debut.
Jack Slater and his stepsister, pediatrician Danielle “Pooka” Sloan, have retreated to South Florida’s Cheeca Lodge for some R & R after the slew of dangerous exploits documented in Slater’s semi-autobiographical novels. As well as fictionalizing family feats, Slater refurbishes guns for Davy Jones’s Locker. He gets a tip about antique ammunition to be salvaged from a 1930s shipwreck and sold to the Sicilian mob. The setup promises a lighthearted gangster romp, but Rovina adds layers of complexity through Slater’s seizures and vivid daydreams, including encounters with alluring sphinxlike alien Lucasia McCall. Slater’s charming first-person narration echoes that of an Ernest Hemingway hero or a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler detective. The salvage plot gets rather lost, though, in a welter of drunken visions, pleasure cruisers, operatic arias, Greek mythological allusions, manga imagery and eccentric minor characters. The reliance on potted superficial descriptions dooms the characters to be similarly shallow (women are especially stereotypical: either 1940s femmes fatales or soft-porn anime heroines). While breathlessly overfull at times, the novel, ironically, takes off slowly. Pages pass with little happening apart from characters lounging waterside, drinking cocktails, enjoying steel-pan music and liaising with criminals. Such languid pacing might suit the breezy, Jimmy Buffett atmosphere, but it does little to hold attention. Readers may also be somewhat alienated by the outmoded technology: The book’s origin in 2000 is reflected in Slater’s devotion to his Cassiopeia PDA (simply replacing it with an iPad could have made this up-to-the-minute). Rovina’s descriptive passages are strong, however, and occasional made-up words (“bumpkinishly,” “sad-sackness”) lend the prose a playful sophistication. With a gangsters-’n’-guns plot, mild raunchiness, preoccupation with technology past and present, and unexplained phenomena, the novel shows traces of nouveau steampunk-lite gems, like Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker (2012), but a silly deus ex machina ending shortchanges the novel.
A pleasingly madcap but not quite coherent Caribbean mystery.