In his latest novel "The Gas Hat: Seduction and Dismay in Marin County", former Spokesman-Review editor Richard Harlan Miller weaves a tale of crime, seduction and murder attempts that is dark, intriguing and surprisingly funny as he explores the lives of a group of quirky misfits trying to get by without working too hard in northern California.
Some readers may remember Miller as the author of "All You Can Eat," a novel about a vampire trying to live quietly in downtown Spokane that was published in 2011 by the Spokane-based Gray Dog Press. Miller was also recently selected as one of the winners in The Pacific Northwest Inlander's annual fiction contest. His short story "A Cage Match" should give readers some idea of what to expect from "The Gas Hat" because it is a nice sampling of his wicked sense of humor and fantastic prose.
According to Zafiro, "This novel will fulfill the needs of many different readers. You want a literary novel? Check. Miller's flowing narrative and beautiful descriptions are captivating, and seamless in the story. They sneak up on you instead of bashing you over the brow with a pretentious 'See what I'm doing with my MFA, Mom!'
"You don't dig literary? Fine. How about crime fiction, then? Miller weaves a tale of murder for hire that will keep you worrying and guessing until the very end...an ending is a realistic and satisfying one."
It is hard to argue with Zafiro, since his novels such as "At Their Own Game" or "Chisolm's Debt" prove that he knows a thing or two about crime stories. In addition to everything Zafiro mentioned, the book is also a terrific ensemble comedy that has been compared favorably to "The Big Lebowski."
The protagonist of "The Gas Hat" is a young man named Casey who doesn't want much more in life than to drink and smoke marijuana with his friends at his favorite bar. His life becomes much more complicated after he gets involved with a woman named Marie. Marie manipulates several male characters in the story into doing her bidding because she needs money to pay a biker and failed Navy SEAL named Nicky to murder her father. Before long, Casey is helping Marie with some of her crazy schemes. Little does he know that playing along could lead to his own death.
The novel follows Casey, Marie, Nicky, Maries's ex-boyfriend Doug and several other characters through a series of episodes that may seem unrelated at first, but ultimately everything adds interesting wrinkles to the central plot. Marie has a plan to rob a bank that will probably not end well for Casey, especially considering that it involves the eponymous gas hat--a drinking helmet converted into a homemade explosive device.
After Casey and Nicky discover that Marie murdered Doug, they have to put their differences aside and figure out some way to stop Marie without getting arrested or killed. This leads the characters through a series of inventive plot twists that will keep readers guessing and keep them laughing even as the suspense builds.
The tone of the novel is somewhere between the Coen Brothers and Jonathan Lethem novels such as "Gun, with Occasional Music." Miller's characters speak in punchy, clever dialogue that is often laugh out loud funny, but his prose conveys an emotional distance that makes sense for people who get stoned as often as possible.
Casey has serious character flaws and he doesn't fully engage with the world around him, but it is hard not to love the guy anyway. Everything about him, from his hostility toward his mother's cats to his intense love of the music of The Moody Blues somehow feels right for the character and makes him seem more sympathetic even though he barely qualifies as the hero of his own story. Readers will want to see him succeed as he does his best to stay one step ahead of Marie and the authorities.
Miller adopts a slightly different, livelier tone in the sequences focusing on Nicky because he is a guy with serious anger issues and some strange ideas about right and wrong. This both make his wacky hijinks throughout the novel seem funnier and helps sell him as a serious threat to Casey and Marie. If Casey is kind of similar to Nicholas Cage's character from "Raising Arizona," then Nicky is the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, the bounty hunter who confronts him toward the end of the movie.
Anyone looking for something a little out of the ordinary to read will probably enjoy "The Gas Hat." The book features wise bar flies, stupid criminals and delightfully odd Californians living in a version of reality that is both stranger and more appealing in some ways than the real world. Beginning with the foreword that gives a history of Marin County, Miller makes his setting seem weird enough that anything his quirky characters say or do is plausible. There is a playfulness in "The Gas Hat" that keeps the novel fun even after Marie starts killing people.
If readers in the greater Spokane area wish to be transported into Miller's slightly skewed universe, "The Gas Hat" is available now from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle ebook editions.