"RANCHERO." By Rick Gavin. Minotaur. $24.99.
In his debut, Rick Gavin offers a comic romp through the Mississippi Delta, "less a place than a boot on your neck," where eccentricities thrive, pathetic criminals flourish and the absurd can pass for the norm. Yet despite its outlandishness, Gavin shows a deep affection for this area of Mississippi and its residents via his hero, Nick Reid, a former cop turned repo man for a low-level rental shop.
Gavin's eye for the odd turns out dark, slapstick humor akin to Tim Dorsey's Serge A. Storm novels and Ben Rehder's series set in Blanco County, Texas.
The "Ranchero" of the title is a gleaming, 1969 calypso coral car -- "essentially a glorified Fairlane, which never rated glorification" -- that Nick borrows from Pearl, his lonely, kind-hearted landlady. Nick needs "the boxy coupe" to pick up a plasma TV on which Percy Dwayne Dubois, pronounced "Dew-boys," forgot to make payments. But Percy and his wife knock Nick unconscious and steal the Ranchero. Nick promised Pearl he would bring back the Ranchero in the pristine condition in which it has been kept.
"Ranchero" works equally as a chase mystery and a heist tale as Nick and his best friend and co-worker, Desmond, a 350-pound African American, travel through the Delta to find Dubois. Desmond's way-too-small Geo Metro hardly fits the two of them, let alone the Dubois cousins they pick up along the way while eluding crooked cop Dale and meth lord Guy.
Gavin keeps the story light on the surface but adds a serious tone of racism and poverty to his plot. Gavin's fine eye for details, his compassion for humanity and his dark sense of humor make "Ranchero" work. The friendship between Nick and Desmond is unshakeable and they find an unlikely ally in Kendell, a state cop who says that low-level criminals "make me tired."
Gavin's dialogue is Elmore Leonard-perfect, a mixture of homespun philosophies and incorrect grammar that reflect how people talk. Gavin also disputes cliches about the Mississippi Delta, where large segments of immigrants have called home for more than a century with "falafel in Clarksdale, congee in Greenville, tamales all over the place. Stuck smack in the middle of the homogenous South, the Delta is crazy exotic."
"Ranchero" is a wild ride in a car few would call cool, but Gavin makes it so.