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Better pay attention to keep up with this cast

FLORIDA ROADKILL

By Tim Dorsey

Morrow, $24

Reviewed by Kit Reed

Caught in a massive traffic jam straight out of Robert Altman's movie Nashville, or John Schlesinger's Honky Tonk Freeway, former Tampa Tribune staffer Tim Dorsey's cast of characters in Florida Roadkill assembles:

"A procession of sports cars and RVs was making the grunion run down from Florida City to the drawbridge onto Key Largo. Because of speeding, reckless driving and head-on crashes, the Florida Department of Transportation had erected a bunch of warning signs and built special passing lanes."

Fast-paced and colorful, Dorsey's first novel turns out to be just as scattered as Honky Tonk Freeway, with some of the same antic charm. The dialogue's snappy, the setups are good and a lot of it is very funny. Events come thick and fast. Maybe a little too fast. With so many oranges up in the air, even the best juggler can't expect his audience to get invested in every one of them.

Instead of a pair or even a trio of central characters, Dorsey has a basket full.

In rapid succession he introduces three drug runners intent on a payoff; the spaced out Serge and his best bud Coleman, two crooks who like to run over turtles; and respectable Sean and David, best friends since high school who are heading south on a fishing trip, along with so many other colorful bit players that it's hard decide which most merit our concentration. Did I forget George Veale, the dead Tampa orthodontist who was definitely asking for it?

From the action-packed prologue, which unfolds on the day after the 1997 World Series, the book flashes back to February of that year. In the first chapter we pick up the murderous Sharon Rhodes on one of the beaches off St. Petersburg. She is "the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition in person. . . . Her lips were full, pouty and cruel in the way that makes men drive into buildings." Don't get too invested in Wilbur Putzenfus, Sharon's bewildered husband. This woman is a professional widow.

Dorsey knows his state so well that local lore and local settings loom large, like an extra character. From St. Petersburg he takes us to Tampa's Bayshore Drive at Gasparilla time, administering a stiff dose of local color. Meanwhile here's our orthodontist friend, far from dead and too drunk for anybody's good. Not his fault, he kills a pet macaw when he fires a cannon from inside his house. We meet Sean and David and Dorsey's lovable crooks, Serge and Coleman. All four come complete with histories. It's as if Dorsey doesn't trust his characters enough to turn them loose and let them run around on their own.

We are in the hands of a writer who has fallen in love with detail. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Comic writing stands or falls on timing, and deftness with detail is essential.

When it's working for him, Dorsey's details build: "One of the men half stood, half sat on the edge of a secretary's desk, trying to make time. Two looked west out the floor-to-ceiling window, mesmerized by the lights on Bayshore Boulevard and at MacDill Air Force Base. The tallest sat behind the office's largest desk in a high-back leather chair, still trying to work the phone, still swearing. The epoxy used to patch the six bullet holes in the back of the chair didn't quite match the burgundy."

When it doesn't work, it's just, well, detail. "Coleman dumped the grocery bags out on the bed. Onion dip, Kaiser rolls, roast beef, Dijon mustard, sesame sticks, beer nuts, rolling papers, pickled cauliflower, grapefruit juice that wasn't from concentrate, microwave Tupperware, spicy fried chicken, three newspapers, deli packs of German potato salad, coleslaw and Swedish meatballs, six postcards for a dollar, a four-pack of C batteries and a half-size souvenir World Series baseball bat."

But Dorsey's comic touch is never better than when he's at his most grisly. Deaths are his specialty, and the same attention to detail that undercuts Florida Roadkill at some points delivers up some doozies.

In the process, he wraps things up neatly. After rattling around like ball bearings in an oversized pinball game, his characters end up just exactly where he wants them.

Novelist Kit Reed started her career as a reporter. Her new collection is Seven for the Apocalypse.

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