It’s been almost 10 years since the publication of KING BONGO, Thomas Sanchez’s last work. He has never been the most prolific of authors, having published only six novels since 1973, when the highly and still acclaimed RABBIT BOSS was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Sanchez’s latest finds him exploring a new theme in a familiar place --- Key West, the setting for 1989’s MILE ZERO --- in this novel-length but shorter work, with mixed results.
"AMERICAN TROPIC is not unlike what one might expect from, say, Tim Dorsey or Tom Robbins after several months of Adderall therapy, though the tone is far more grim than any of those gentlemen’s tomes. Still, the book shares the somewhat surreal atmosphere of Dorsey’s settings..."
AMERICAN TROPIC is very much a character-driven work, taking a number of dissimilar individuals with tenuous associations and throwing them into the cauldron of the story. Noah is a disbarred environmental attorney whose alcoholism has cost him his career and his marriage to the lovely Zoe, who gave up her own dreams to put him through law school and who now tends a popular dive bar to help make ends meet. Noah spends his days on his boat, Noah’s Lark, operating a pirate radio station off the coast of Key West, using his talk-show call-in format under the moniker of “Truth Dog” to rail against the damage that he perceives as being done to Mile Zero and points north. Noah’s sister, Joan, is in a relationship with Luz, a Key West cop whose younger daughter is involved in a valiant if failing fight against cancer while Luz is caught up in a serial murder investigation.
A costumed apparition, modeled after a legendary voodoo figure, is engaged in a murder spree that is targeting a number of ecological offenders of both great and small magnitude, ritually killing each of them and then very publicly displaying their bodies. Those whose reading diet consists primarily of novels within the mystery or thriller genre will spot Sanchez’s efforts to direct the reader’s attention to a particular suspect or two, but the somewhat "Scooby Doo" ending, where the villain of the piece is unmasked, doesn’t quite reach the convincing level. Still, if it was Sanchez’s intent to make the killer a sympathetic figure, he succeeds in spades, due in large part to the inhumanity of the victims. Their actions, particularly in one case, merit a permanent trip off the island.
AMERICAN TROPIC is not unlike what one might expect from, say, Tim Dorsey or Tom Robbins after several months of Adderall therapy, though the tone is far more grim than any of those gentlemen’s tomes. Still, the book shares the somewhat surreal atmosphere of Dorsey’s settings, as well as the beery but righteous indignation of both authors when they find a suitable target in their sights. There are two elements that make AMERICAN TROPIC worth reading. The first is Sanchez’s rare ability to peel back the flora and fauna of his real-world settings in order to get into the cracks and crevices of scenery and backgrounds that most people notice fleetingly --- if at all --- out of their side windows as they move from Point A to Point B. The second is the power of his prose, which, after four decades of writing, remains undiminished.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2013