GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, we are told, was written in the throes of the 2007-2008 film and television writers’ strike. Indeed, this debut novel by Lou Berney has a cinematic feel to it; as with the best of books, you can see each and every scene unreeling in your head as sentence after sentence flies by. In fact, there are parts of the first few chapters that will put you in the mind of the film Transporter (though it does not stay in that groove for long), and its overall tone --- lightheartedly serious --- is reminiscent of Midnight Run. By the time you have reached the last few pages, however, odds are that you won’t have a clue as to how it’s going to end.
The focal point of GUTSHOT STRAIGHT is a likable con named Charles “Shake” Bouchon (the origin of his nickname is worth the price of admission itself), a short-timer whose release from prison on a grand theft auto beef finds him almost immediately picking up where he left off. Bouchon is offered big money for a simple job: drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, deliver an automobile, pick up a briefcase, and fly back. Things become complicated, though, when Shake hears a persistent thumping in the trunk and discovers a very frightened woman inside. She introduces herself as Gina, a Mormon housewife whose husband has a gambling problem and who finds herself involuntarily transformed into rough collateral for his creditors.
As we and Shake soon discover, however, Gina is lying about everything, and Shake, by virtue of having opened the trunk, is in even more trouble than Gina is in. Shake’s employer is unhappy with him; even worse, a homicidal character named Dick Moby, otherwise known as “The Whale,” is extremely angry with him, given that he wants to take possession of Gina in the worst way. What makes Shake’s life even more interesting is that the briefcase contains mysterious contents, which turn out to be a strange sort of historical artifacts.
Shake and Gina become reluctant, on-again/off-again partners, neither of whom can completely trust the other and yet cannot entirely screw each other over either. Before it’s all over, Shake, Gina and a very dangerous supporting cast are involved in a face-off on the island of Panama, where it is anyone’s guess as to who is going to walk away with what --- or with whom.
Comparisons between Berney and Elmore Leonard are perhaps inevitable, with Berney more than adequately holding his own. There are plot twists that are wondrously and skillfully navigated, one of the most unique MacGuffins I have encountered recently, and, perhaps most importantly, Gina, a strong, smart, attractive and dangerous woman who you won’t soon forget. Nor will you forget GUTSHOT STRAIGHT.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 20, 2011