REVIEW: Gator Bait
– By Zombie Rob
Prohibition-era 1930s… After an affair with the wrong man’s wife, seedy piano player Smitty Three Fingers flees the city and finds himself tinkling the ivories at a Louisiana honky-tonk owned by vicious bootlegger Horace Croker and his trophy wife, Grace. Folks come to The Grinnin’ Gator for the liquor and burlesque girls, but they keep coming back for Big George, the giant alligator Croker keeps in the pond out back. Croker is rumored to have fed ex-wives and enemies to his pet, so when Smitty and Grace embark on a torrid affair… what could possibly go wrong? Inspired by true events, Gator Bait mixes hardboiled crime (James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice) with creature horror (Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive) to create a riveting tale of suspense.
A while ago I had the purring pleasure to read and review Black Cat Mojo by Adam Howe and to say I was impressed is quite the understatement, as I nearly exploded attempting to keep the gushing hyperbole in check. Bearing this in mind, you can imagine how excited I was when I heard there was a new one from the messianic Mr Howe – and when it finally met my palsied grasp I went all light-headed and retired to the chaise with a touch of the vapours…
“I fled the city: Two fingers short and sworn off dames for life” – is the opening line from GATOR BAIT and in this one efficient sentence, you know exactly what’s happened. Our hero has been caught dipping his dirty pen in someone else’s inkpot, there’s been violent reprisals and he’s legged it without thought or plans. He’s running hard and running south by a variety of means, stopping only at the flashing neon sign of ‘The Grinnin’ Gator’. This is a bar in the middle of nowhere, constructed over a swamp, but it soon becomes clear that the pond-life is actually inside, pushing their money over the bar and down the drawers of whichever scantily clad skank is dancing with dead eyes for their delectation.
Horace Croker is our host, ladies & gentlemen, and a more unpleasant and odious toad has rarely been committed to the page. The Grinnin’ Gator has a further attraction – out back there’s a railed viewing platform extending over the swamp, and in the swamp resides Big George – an unfeasibly large alligator with a voracious appetite and a talent for thrilling a crowd. Completing this heady mix is Grace, Horace Croker’s beautiful, coerced and defeated fourth wife. Horace has his fourth wedding ring on his finger but wears a chain round his neck with three further wedding rings on it. It seems this is all that remains of his three previous wives, three gold rings and a little heartburn for Big George perhaps…
Adam Howe has done it again – he’s given a book so deftly written it’s as though I’m looking out of Smitty’s eyes as we navigate through this intriguing and horrifying slice of Americana, set in the 1930s or thereabouts. I mentioned before about his efficiency of narration and this is prevalent throughout. There’s nothing over-done or unnecessary in there but he writes so masterfully that we can smell the steamy pungence of the swamp, we can feel our flesh crawl and goose as Smitty approaches these horrible bastards, our muscles tense as his fear rises and our heads turn away at the appalling injustices & hate-fuelled violence.
His characters, just as in Black Cat Mojo, are again wonderfully drawn. Generally within a short story, or in this case a novella, there isn’t enough time to satisfyingly flesh a character. However, in GATOR BAIT each person we encounter reveals themselves through their actions, speech patterns, accents, opinions and interactions rather than relying on weighty exposition which would interrupt the flow and pace of the narrative. This means these characters feel complete and familiar very quickly and the breakneck pace doesn’t falter for a second.
“…that was no small spuds for a city gig, let alone a backwater tonk in the willywags”
Adam’s use of language is captivating but writing in the first person as a character familiar with these surroundings could mean the reader is excluded by impenetrable references and vocabulary. I’ll give you an example: “that was no small spuds for a city gig, let alone a backwater tonk in the willywags”. Isolated from the surrounding text you’d be forgiven for being somewhat bemused by a sentence like this but Adam’s use of colloquial language and idioms are SO embedded in context that you have no doubt what he means. Instead of excluding the reader, it includes us in the story even more as we become part of this secret world. It’s a cunning and instinctive way of writing and brings to mind Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’, where Burgess created his own language, Nadsat. I didn’t once struggle to decipher what Burgess was telling me and it’s exactly the same in GATOR BAIT because the context launches these words & phrases straight into your understanding. These speech patterns and reference points become ours, and we invest in the story until we feel like a character in the story ourselves.
Don’t forget GATOR BAIT is set in the 1930s, in the deepest of all Deep Souths, so it’s unsurprising that the story is highly racially charged. To these people the abolition of slavery doesn’t really apply to them and seeing as the sheriff is passed out by the gents with a length of drool between his bottom lip and his chest, the law in general is largely moot. This is another risk that Adam has taken but as Quentin Tarantino & Steve McQueen both did with ‘Django Unchained’ and ’12 Years A Slave’ respectively, he’s presented racism in it’s worst light but without pulling his punches and sparing the audience feelings in any way. The violence is breathtaking, it was difficult to keep my eyes on the page at times but it serves a definite purpose. Racism is so ingrained within these people and landscape it’s inescapable but it also defines the bad guys as the most terrible type of bad: cowardly, inherently hate-filled and cruel. These are the purest of jingoistic Confederates, and mixed with enough bathtub sipping whiskey they’ll reach for a length of rope and strike out for a lynchin’ as sport. So assured is Adam’s writing though, coupled with the purity of his intention, that he shows us the depths of human nature without glorifying or sensationalising it in the slightest.
Adam Howe, first & foremost, has told me another extraordinary story. It’s Porky’s crossed with Angel Heart (with a dash of Lake Placid) but this is both underselling it and over-simplifying it. He’s taken the darkest noir and combined it with an original & compelling yarn to produce something new and exciting and encouraging. My expectations were impossibly high for his new material after Black Cat Mojo, so I’d heaped a great burden upon GATOR BAIT. Instead of meeting these expectations though, GATOR BAIT exceeds every one.
Buy it now! And don’t forget BLACK CAT MOJO – you won’t regret it: