Thursday, July 14, 2011

39. The Fourth Durango by Ross Thomas

This is my third Ross Thomas book now, after the masterpiece that is The Porkchoppers and the enjoyable but (for me, at least) slightly flawed The Fools in Town are on Our Side.  I'm very happy to report that while it is still not quite at the level of the Porkchoppers, The Fourth Durango is still a great read and renews my faith that future Ross Thomas books will deliver.

It's funny because for once, both the cover blurbs do a really good job of describing what you are going to get with this novel (and from what I've read Thomas's work in general).  The front cover says "a master of the arabesques of storytelling" (Washington Post) and, if I understand the word arabesque correctly, that is exactly what you get in this book.  The difficulty in describing the plot of a Ross Thomas novel is that it usually isn't delivered to the reader in its entirety until you are about halfway through the book.  He tends to go backward and forward in time, revealing more and more layers of the onion (and given the corruption and criminal histories of almost all of its characters, it definitely is a smelly, tear-inducing onion).  In the Fourth Durango, a once succesfuly state supreme court judge is released from prison after a bribing scandal that ruined him.  His lawyer and son-in-law meets him and they head to the small, forgotten coastal town of Durango, California.  There, through a complex set of shadowy connections (I believe this is an arabesque), they meet the mayor and the chief of police.  The town's economy is basically dead and the two town officials have a thing going where they hide people out for large chunks of cash, which is then pumped into town services.  The mayor has won three elections in a row.  Oh yeah, the ex-judge and his lawyer are clearly threatened due to loose ends left over from the bribery scandal that put the judge in jail in the first place.

The other blurb on the back says "Thomas' heroes are heroic without being good" (USA Today).  This holds very true in the Fourth Durango.  Nobody in Thomas' world is unaware of the corruption and realpolitik that is the reality of politics.  They all have rich backstories, which are quite often a combination of weird life twists and turns mixed with a certain toughness of character that allows them to take advantage of those twists and turns.  For instance, the mayor and the chief of police were actually part of a busload of young hippies who ran out of gas in Durango and decided to stay.  I'll let Ross Thomas fill you in on the rich and sordid details of how they got from that origin to their current positions of power.

An element that I really enjoyed in The Fourth Durango is how 80s it was.  Somehow, I considered Thomas to be more of a 60s and 70s guy and expected some of his perspective to be dated.  I probably should adjust that expectation, because this book, written in 1989, was quietly and convincingly of its time without being stuck in it.  A solid, enjoyable read for grown-ups who like their steak rare.

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