Gator A-Go-Go. By Tim Dorsey. William Morrow. $24.99
Electric Barracuda. By Tim Dorsey. William Morrow. $24.99.
Tim Dorsey’s novels are formulaic, repetitious, cut from the same cloth, filled with recurring characters, and packed with plot points that change little from book to book. They can also be hysterically funny, as well as the stuff of revenge fantasies fulfilled against all the irritants and petty nastiness of modern life. And they’ve got a pretty good handle on Florida history, for those interested in the soft underbelly of one of the most interesting states in the U.S. They’re an acquired taste that many readers will never acquire – and an addiction for those who do find them, well, addictive.
The two most recent books, the just-released Electric Barracuda and its predecessor, Gator A-Go-Go, are utterly typical of Dorsey’s work in both positive and negative ways. They are his 12th and 13th novels featuring serial killer Serge Storms (who is the good guy); his stoner pal, Coleman (who is the comic relief); an assortment of generally (and sometimes genially) incompetent law-enforcement and vigilante types (who provide the Keystone Cops elements of chases); a variety of bad guys, from the seriously evil to the merely exceptionally irritating (many of whom Serge dispatches in exceptionally clever ways, the details of which provide much of the macabre amusement in the books); and an assortment of women, hangers-on, old and jaded Floridians, kids, animals and other stuff.
Dorsey’s style involves throwing most of this mess at the reader and seeing what sticks; generally, a lot of it does, and at his best, he makes sure to tie up all the plot points by novel’s end. Despite a rather delightful if not wholly unanticipatable twist near the end of Electric Barracuda, the newest books do not quite show Dorsey at the top of his game – in truth, the return of characters from earlier books and the failure of either Serge or Coleman to develop in any way are making the series start to seem a little tired – but both novels have enough fun, history, fast pacing and outright oddity to be delightful (if quick) reads.
Each of the books turns on Serge’s current preoccupation, which involves the travel blog he is writing for those of a bent similar to his (assuming there are any such). In Gator A-Go-Go, this leads Serge to chronicle the Florida tradition of spring break, from its innocent start in 1935 to its far-from-innocent modern incarnation. In Electric Barracuda, Serge is putting together the Fugitive Tour, designed as a counterweight to all the theme-parks-and-beaches attractions of Florida – for instance, those on this tour will pretend they are on the lam and visit cemeteries to uncover identity-theft opportunities.
The necessary frisson of evil in Gator A-Go-Go comes from a combination of federal agents and vicious drug dealers, all of whom are after a college student who, for typical Dorsey plot-twist reasons, has come under Serge’s protection. The student wants only to party at Panama City Beach, but the baddies have other ideas, such as murder. So Serge dishes out some typical mayhem of his own (deaths by garage door and cement mixer, for example), while Coleman – playing his typical role – becomes a sort of guru to spring breakers, given his perpetually stoned demeanor and full-blown hedonism.
In Electric Barracuda, the focus shifts to Florida’s Southwest (Serge’s and Coleman’s perpetual road trip lets them move anywhere in the state, anytime), where they encounter a variety of bad guys of all types, from a child molester to a group of financial executives celebrating their government bailout money – and oh yes, Serge makes sure they get what’s coming to them. Dorsey also makes it a point to satirize the mass media, among other things: here, one of the people pursuing Serge is a highly accident-prone TV bounty hunter (in Gator A-Go-Go, Dorsey’s target is the “reality” show, Girls Gone Haywire).
Dorsey’s novels contain a certain number of in-jokes and tributes to other writers: Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen, from both of whom Dorsey draws some elements of his style, appeared in Dorsey’s first book, Florida Roadkill, and there are cameos by Randy Wayne White (of the Doc Ford novels) and two-time National Book Award winner Peter Matthiessen in Electric Barracuda. The Serge Storms stories also contain an underlying theme that can easily be missed by casual readers and of which it is not always clear that Dorsey himself is fully aware: the meaning of family. One element of it is Serge’s fatherly protectiveness of Andy McKenna in Gator A-Go-Go. Another is Serge’s discovery in Electric Barracuda that he may be a father – in fact, he and Coleman determinedly mismanage care of a five-year-old of whom they are put in charge. Electric Barracuda actually makes a connection of sorts with Serge’s family (which is also “of sorts”), since part of the book involves Serge’s attempt to help out the survivors of the No Name Gang, a group to which Sergio Storms – Serge’s grandfather and the man who raised Serge – once belonged. The old criminals who survive have themselves become crime victims, and they turn to Serge for help, and the result is decidedly not a series of warm family moments, although there is a hint of appropriately distorted sweetness here and there. Certainly the “family” idea would explain why Serge remains so attached to the otherwise totally useless Coleman – that is, why he does so in the novels’ context rather than for the authorial need to contrast the meticulous, obsessive planning of Serge with the laid-back, devil-may-care attitude of his foil.
Most readers will not bother to analyze these books, and there is really no need to probe them too deeply – they are larks, and it does no harm to read them entirely on a surface level. Indeed, it is reasonable to argue that they are all surface, just as it is reasonable to argue that Florida itself contains nothing much except beaches, theme parks, retirement communities and mobile homes. But as Serge’s history lessons, sprinkled throughout all Dorsey’s novels, show, there is considerably more to the state than meets most people’s eyes. And there just may be more to the books themselves than most readers realize.