Tim Dorsey's new book, Electric Barracuda, is a warm-hearted saga about family ties.
Okay, kidding. Mostly.
Barracuda is Dorsey's 13th novel about Florida history enthusiast and serial killer Serge Storms, and it is, like the first 12, a rollicking, satirical, occasionally bloody road trip through the Sunshine State.
The object of this journey is one of Serge's best ideas yet: the Fugitive Tour. Most of Florida's visitors are upstanding folks who come for the theme parks, the beaches, the margaritas. But we also draw plenty of fleeing felons and other miscreants, as Serge explains: "We've got everything a murderous desperado could want: great weather, cool drinks, a million trailer parks, plus pharmacies and bank branches on every corner. Those qualities also attract retirees, often to the same place, in a naturally occurring sitcom."
As a homegrown desperado, Serge knows all about "the finest parts of our state, which is the underbelly," and he's writing a blog to guide adventurous tourists through it. He's already brimming with helpful tips about enhancing your vacation experience by pretending you're eluding the law, like visiting cemeteries for their historic ambience and identity-theft opportunities, and the road trip is pure research.
Of course, Serge and his faithful stoner pal, Coleman, aren't alone on the road. They're being chased, not because they're challenging the ruling corporate tourism paradigm (although I wouldn't be surprised) but because of Serge's murderous past. In hot Keystone Kops-style pursuit are three Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers: by-the-book Agent White, SWAT team wanna-be Agent Lowe and Serge's longtime nemesis, the profiler Agent Mahoney, wearing a rumpled fedora and a tweed coat (in Florida in the summer!) and talking like he wandered over from a James Ellroy novel: "Snitch coughed a handle to peg the crib."
They're not alone, either. Trailing the agents is a regular convoy also in search of Serge: a sultry redhead in a turquoise T-Bird, a little guy in a yellow Cadillac Eldorado, a well-dressed fellow in a black Beemer and, in a fancy tour truck with his Harley on board, the Doberman, an alarmingly accident-prone TV bounty hunter, who is in turn trailed by his video crew.
All of them crisscross the southwest corner of the state at high speeds, edging ever closer to the Everglades, its fearsome Loop Road and the ghost of Al Capone. Along the way, Dorsey tips his hat to other Florida writers. Randy Wayne White makes an appearance in the bar on Cabbage Key — "In his resting state, he's macho" — and Serge travels to Smallwood's Store in Chokoloskee to enthusiastically reenact the killing of Edgar Watson, in a nod to Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country. The villain of the piece (well, one of them) shares his name with Brad Meltzer, bestselling author of conspiracy-theory thrillers like The Inner Circle and host of History's Brad Meltzer's Decoded.
When he's not passionately riffing on Floridiana, Serge is the kind of guy who watches No Country for Old Men and thinks, "I need a device like that." But his body count is fairly low this time out, and he is as careful as ever about only offing guys who really ask for it: a belligerent child molester, a quartet of financial executives shamelessly celebrating their bailout money with a luxury junket to Sanibel, a "white-collar, weekend-warrior" poacher who kills an alligator at Deep Hole in Myakka River State Park purely to take its head as a trophy.
Electric Barracuda really is a family saga of sorts, albeit a rather sinister family. Over in Fort Lauderdale is a group of old men, the remnants of the No Name Gang, which once included Greek Tommy, Chi-Chi, Moondog, Coltrane, Mort the Undertaker, Roy the Pawn King and a certain Sergio Storms.
Serge's grandfather, who raised him, is long gone, but the remaining gang members have a problem. Quietly living out their last years, they discover that, once criminals, they've become the victims of a crime. Maybe Serge can help.
And that's not the only tie. For one, Serge discovers he may be a father, although we'd better hope not. When he and Coleman are put in charge of a hyper 5-year-old, Coleman asks what they're supposed to feed the kid. Serge answers, "I think lots of sugar. They put it in almost everything kids eat, so they must know what they're doing." Later, he tops that off by buying the kid a can of Red Bull. No wonder he needs a chain-link leash to keep track of the tyke.
Dorsey is fully on his game in Electric Barracuda, always keeping the right rhythm between the slapstick, movie-ready chase scenes and Serge's meticulously detailed forays into Florida history, including a wonderful flashback to the legendary Gator Hook Lodge.
And there really is a warm family moment at the end. Well, not quite the end. There's one more shot to fire.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.