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Onyx reviews: Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? by Stephen Dobyns

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 08/15/2015

The title of Stephen Dobyns' comedic crime novel poses a legitimate question. From the very beginning, it's obvious that someone wants the biker—nicknamed for the kind of motorcycle he likes to ride—dead. A gruesome collision with a dump truck spreads the corpse of a man on one of Fat Bob's Fat Bobs over a city block, splattering incredulous bystanders with gore. But was it an accident? And who was the unfortunate rider of the motorcycle, whose head and ID cannot be immediately located.

Thus begins a series of loosely connected misadventures that allow Dobyns to present one of the most colorful set of characters since Fargo (the movie or the TV series). There's a lot going on in this normally sleepy town. Crimes are being committed under everyone's noses, and the perpetrators are not all top-notch criminals.

One of the witnesses to the supposed accident is a twenty-six-year-old man named Connor Raposo (originally called Zuco—just about everyone in this book has at least two different names), who has ties to New London. He's part of a shifty group of telemarketing fraudsters operating out of a Winnebago parked on the beach. The rest of this rag-tag gang consists of a Vaughn, a man whose dialog is a steady flow of almost-meaningful malapropisms; Eartha, the stunningly beautiful woman who drives Connor to distraction by flaunting her bountiful naked body; and Didi, the ringleader who claims to be Connor's uncle, who enjoys scamming people, in part for the money it brings in but mostly to see what outlandish schemes he can get people to finance. He has solicited money for such diverse "organizations" as Holy Sisters of the Blessed Little Feet, Orphans from Outer Space, Organ-Grinder-Monkey Retirement Ranch, Prom Queens Anonymous and Free Beagles from Nicotine Addiction (hence the book's cover). Didi and Eartha man the phones, using voices that sound like famous people, encouraging people to part with their hard-earned money.

On the other side of the equation are Benny Vikström and the perpetually disappointed Manny Streeter, the detectives assigned to investigate the motorcycle incident. This isn't a buddy cop story. Vikström and Manny (his mantra: This is a bad sign) can't stand each other and take every opportunity to antagonize one another. Vikström is fairly upbeat, graciously bearing the constant jokes about him being one of those "famous Swedish detectives," but Manny knows all of his triggers, including his fear of bridges. For his part, Vikström likes to poke fun at Manny's passion for karaoke. It's a wonder they get anything done, so busy are they tormenting each other. Their investigation takes them across the bridge (frequently) to Rhode Island, and brings them up against the state police and the FBI. None of the law enforcement agents really have much idea what's going on.

Among the book's other colorful characters is a homeless man who believes he has a tail and who has seen more of what's happening in town than is good for his health, a lethal mobster who rides around town in a Denali, a somewhat familiar (to Connor) man with an Elvis pompadour who is in fact in witness protection, Fat Bob's cantankerous ex-wife who is selling his prized motorcycles at bargain basement prices to make him mad, the scooter-riding man who seems determined to answer the novel's title question in the affirmative, and the requisite femme fatale, the swaying of whose hips "strikes Connor with the force of lightning knocking a squirrel off a high branch" in one scene where she comes up with the most memorable stalling tactic ever.

There is a story of sorts, one worth pursuing to its amusing climax, but Dobyns is having a lot of fun along the way. This isn't his first crime novel, but it's a very self-aware one. It has first-person plural semi-omniscient, anonymous narrators ("...we don't really know Sal Nicoletti. That is, we can see him from the outside, see his actions, but we don't know what he's think," the narrators confess) who make observations about the nature of the genre and its consumers while recounting events. They underscore details that will be important, lest the reader miss them. "We could surely drag this out because the chase goes on for another two minutes," they say at one point, before jumping straight to the scene's outcome. A spear-carrier character's name is of no significance, the narrators say, "But we know some readers like to write down characters' names as they hurry along," so they assign him one.

This sort of cavalier irreverence may be off-putting to some readers, but if taken in the vein of the story, it adds to the book's amusing tone. The plot isn't quite as out-there as, say, Carl Hiaasen nor as gritty as Elmore Leonard, though it does bring both of these writers to mind. Fat Bob wanders through the story on his motorcycle, brushing up against most of the major characters, the focus of attention without ever truly becoming the center of activity. That honor falls to young Connor, who gets tangled up with several bad men and a few women as well (most of them not good for him). He's a charming protagonist. "We, of course, like him," the narrators say, "but we're prejudiced." Readers will like him, too, and the other characters as well in this rollicking romp.

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