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Rare are those stories that depict nature with a lighthearted chuckle, to be respected, sure, but also to be enjoyed by people who know what they're doing in the Great Outdoors. Rarer still is such a story written from a free market, libertarian perspective. Luckily, author J.D. Tuccille has taken it upon himself to rectify that deficit with his novel, High Desert Barbecue.
Scott and his friend Rollo are both renegades, but both in their own unique, quirky ways. While Scott commits minor acts of vandalism against police vehicles, and willfully ignores building codes when renovating his house, Rollo eschews civilization altogether, living alone for months at a time in the dusty Arizona wilderness (the eponymous High Desert).
When Rollo, never friendly with the state Forest Service, is kicked out of his squatter's cabin by rangers, he escapes to the relative safety of Scott's home in Flagstaff. When he is then blamed by government officials for a large wildfire ravaging the western state, he drags Scott and his girlfriend Lani into a dangerous chase that will pit them against Forest Service rangers, wacko environmentalists and a plot that could threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
J.D. Tuccille's first novel, High Desert Barbecue, is a great read. Filled with likable characters, tons of humor, and a nice sprinkling of libertarianism throughout, its breezy style makes it an easy story to pick up and get into.
Tuccille's writing is fast and fun, and he manages to incorporate a libertarian perspective without becoming pedantic or preachy, instead weaving it deftly into the storyline. For instance, when Scott first meets his next door neighbor and future girlfriend, Lani, he has just woken her up with some loud construction work:
" "You're renovating?"
"I don't see a permit posted."
"I don't have one."
"You may not know, but the city requires-"
The man shook his head and interrupted.
"I know, but I don't care. The city doesn't own this house. I do. The mayor doesn't have to ask my permission to make city hall even uglier than it already is, and I'm not gonna ask his permission to install some cabinets and an electric oven that won't burn my dinner."
Lani stood at the doorstep with her mouth open. Then she smiled.
"You don't like being told what to do, do you?" "
I did have a couple gripes with High Desert Barbecue. While Tuccille's main characters are well fleshed out and believable (if excessively comedic) the baddies are a little too one dimensional, their motives not as developed or well explained. Arch enemy (and chief ranger) Martin Van Kamp is made into something resembling a cartoon. While an element of the ridiculous can certainly add to the comedy in a fun novel like this, (and is used to great effect by Tuccille elsewhere in the story) here it detracts from the level of danger we feel the heroes to be in which in turn undermines some of the tension and conflict that propel the plot.
Tuccille also makes the odd decision to break up the book into incredibly small chapters (many no longer than a page). While breaks come at logical times, having to page through to the next chapter after only a short couple paragraphs interrupts the flow unnecessarily.
Happily the rest of the story flows so well that it weathers these interruptions with ease. The plot is fun and tight, the philosophy not overwhelming, the local flavor excellent for anyone who enjoys hiking and the west, and the ending satisfying.
In all, Barbecue is an easy book to recommend and a fast read for anyone interested in libertarianism, the outdoors, or both.
It's not a great, ponderous tome by any stretch, at most it's a light weekend read. Nor (Oh, thank you Muses!) does it at any point stop the music to explain the characters' actions or beliefs, or to lecture the reader on why he or she should act or believe that way too. That second thing being one of the two great weaknesses of the average bit of modern freedom fic, I'd have appreciated that even if Tuccille's book had disappointed in every other way.
Which it does not. Tuccille stuck to his plot and stubbornly resisted what must have been occasional temptation to pause and explain philosophical points along the way. To be honest, I don't know what effect that will have on general readers. But as a crazed freedomista myself, I found the way his protagonists dealt with their dilemma quite easy to follow, and the story delightful.
Having said that, character development is both the story's greatest strength and one of its greatest weaknesses. The protagonists are well-rounded characters - they have strengths and weaknesses that are carefully crafted and quite human, you have no trouble believing in these people. I wish I could say the same for the antagonists, who are almost uniformly one-dimensional and whose actions often descend into slapstick. If the "looters" in Atlas Shrugged had spent most of the book without their clothes on (don't ask) they'd be a lot like these characters. It's kind of jarring: the good guys are real people, but I had a very hard time suspending disbelief in the bad guys. Because HDB treats its subject matter lightly but it is really not a light subject, the book sometimes veers rather unevenly between drama and comedy. It's hard to have a light-hearted romp when people are honestly trying to kill you.
And I wish I could discuss that, but here we run into the matter of spoilers and I don't want to spoil this. So when I say that one pivotal scene was ruined for me because by the time Tuccille (skillfully) arranged a fateful meeting between two characters, I already knew what was going to happen because the resolution was quite conventional, the most I can do to defend that is to say, "Well of course (CENSORED) would (CENSOR) the (CENSORED,) and then (CENSORED) would respond by (CENSORING) the (CENSORED,) because that's what always happens." Which doesn't really explain anything, does it?
The ending is rather pat, and smacks of deus ex machina in a way I wish Tuccille had been able to find a way around but honestly I can't think of a way to improve it that doesn't involve all the protagonists being (CENSORED) or going to federal (CENSOR,) and it doesn't spoil the story by any means.
I always beat up on a book's weaknesses, but all books have weak bits and that doesn't impeach them. It only points out that the writer is human and not God. Freedomistas will thoroughly enjoy the protagonists, not all or even most of whom are far-gone opponents of government power - they're just in over their heads and muddle along as best they can, not always in the best ways imaginable. The bad guys are enjoyably despicable. I do fear that the average reader would find much of what goes on a little hard to buy, but screw the average reader if he can't take a joke. Despite the disclaimer at the beginning - "Please don't attempt to use this novel as a hiking guide" - Tuccille clearly has particular settings in mind and he describes and uses them vividly and with confidence. The plot is crisp and clear and mostly rollicks along, and if it conforms to reality no more than the settings, well, that's why they call it fiction.
I got the book in trade paperback, which cost more but I'm glad I did it because I want this little book on my shelf. The settings are lovely and quite well described, the plot and protagonists are believable and entertaining, and I intend to enjoy it again some cold afternoon, probably soon.
You should buy it.