THE LAST OF THE SMOKING BARTENDERS is one of those rare books that don’t give a clue as to what is going to happen on the next page or even in the next paragraph. In addition, debut author C.J. Howell keeps the significance of the enigmatic title of his odd little gem unclear until the last quarter of the book. The title is every bit as original as the novel, which, for a minute or two, might put you in the mind of a smashup between Killer Joe and a street-level Fargo. Yet it stands on its own as a flawed but extremely readable and unforgettable wonder.
The story itself is the chronicle of a drug- and madness-fueled (depending on the individual) road trip across a long expanse of western states that is told from a few different points of view. The primary characters include a troubled sort named Tom, who is slowly hitchhiking his way across Utah and Arizona toward the Hoover Dam. He is stalked along the way by The Network, a collective entity that has the dam in its sights as a target. The power of The Network is such that it can track Tom even by the filaments in dollar bills; as a result, he just carries coins. Yes, Tom is a disturbed individual, but Howell drops just a tidbit or two of information that gives us doubt as we follow him through the rides he gets and the long stretches of the ones he doesn’t get.
"I loved every word of this crazy, violent, occasionally poetic and at times disgusting work, so much so that C.M. Howell now has a place on my favorite author list, even if he never writes another word."
One of his rides is a fateful one with an affable burnout named Lorne, who joins Tom for part of his sojourn before the two are separated, only to be joined again at a particularly apocalyptic moment later in the book. During their separation, Tom experiences a long feverish spell on the streets of Phoenix, and Lorne becomes entwined with a group of Indians who join him on his addled quest to meet up again with Tom to do battle with The Network at Hoover Dam. Join up they do, but not at Hoover Dam, as Lorne’s past --- one that he doesn’t entirely remember --- collides violently with his present. Then there is Hailey, a part-time FBI agent who loosely follows the trail that Tom and Lorne are leaving along I-40 and Route 66. She will ultimately join them as well, and we will learn if Tom is delusional or perfectly sane. Perhaps.
THE LAST OF THE SMOKING BARTENDERS is not perfect, though the blemishes could have been resolved with some quick and judicious editing. Lorne has a leg in a rotting cast (the book is full of interesting touches such as this, which makes it worth reading simply for that element) that impedes his ability to walk but apparently doesn’t keep him from climbing ladders early on in the book; one of the secondary characters has an arrow go through his shoulder or chest (it’s not entirely clear); and the pacing falters here and there. However, the cinematic narrative unwinds like an independent film that has a couple of continuity lapses but makes you love it more because of its (admittedly minor) imperfections. I couldn’t stop reading.
The novel also concerns itself with the folks on the periphery of your vision who you want to keep there, the ones who pass by in a blur as you go from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. And so help me, the last 30 or so pages put me in the mind of the end of CITIES OF THE PLAIN by Cormac McCarthy, except that Howell doesn’t make you work for it.
Anyway, I loved every word of this crazy, violent, occasionally poetic and at times disgusting work, so much so that C.M. Howell now has a place on my favorite author list, even if he never writes another word. Here’s hoping he does.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 7, 2013