March 19, 2009


Atomic Lobster. By Tim Dorsey. William Morrow. $24.95.

Nuclear Jellyfish. By Tim Dorsey. William Morrow. $24.95.

     There must be something in the Florida air. Or the water. Or the sunshine. Or, more likely, in the combination. Whatever it is, it seems to attract authors with truly bizarre senses of the interrelationship of crime and humor, from Carl Hiaasen to Elmore Leonard (originally from Louisiana) to Tim Dorsey. Dorsey isn’t quite at the level of Hiaasen or Leonard in terms of plot, but he artfully conceals the fact with a scattershot narrative style that mixes up time, place, characters and sequence to a fare-thee-well, leaving readers so breathless (both from laughing and from trying to follow what is going on) that they just have to get their hands on whatever Dorsey comes up with next.

     Atomic Lobster is the “next” of 2008, and Nuclear Jellyfish is the “next” of 2009. They are, respectively if not respectably, the 10th and 11th annual novels that Dorsey has produced since Florida Roadkill (1999) introduced his thoroughly unlovable but strangely likable central character, a super-smart serial killer with a logical but twisted sense of justice and the name of Serge A. Storms (as in “a storm surge,” get it?). Dorsey is a former Tampa Tribune reporter, and seems to take reportorial delight in ferreting out details of events and describing them carefully (notably the inventive ways that Serge finds to kill people who are evil, or whom he considers evil); Dorsey also gets revenge on traditional inverted-pyramid style by never, ever writing in a way that makes it clear what is important and what is subsidiary. This means that it is perfectly possible to enter Dorsey’s series of novels anywhere and be at the same confused place where you would have been at the start – although, if you begin with Atomic Lobster or Nuclear Jellyfish, you will probably wish you had more background on some of the characters (which will encourage you to go get the earlier books; Dorsey is not dumb). The plots of Dorsey’s books are complex to the point of indescribability – and nearly irrelevant, since the fun of the books is in the weird characters and the way Dorsey writes about them. Atomic Jellyfish includes, among others, Serge; timid Jim Davenport; Johnny Vegas, the Accidental Virgin; the E-Team (four man-hungry grandmas); Coleman, Serge’s dim, drug-bingeing buddy; Rachael, a very sexy but down-on-her-luck prostitute; and Tex McGraw, a bad guy imprisoned in part because of Jim Davenport’s testimony who is now out of jail and out for revenge (thus providing the gist of the plot). Throw together some anger-management classes for Serge and Tex’s “bobbing for catfish” game with his unsuccessful defense attorney, and you can pretty well figure out where Atomic Lobster is going – except that you probably won’t, because Dorsey has a way of twisting things just enough so you don’t quite guess what’s eventually going to happen, or how. This book, like all Dorsey’s novels, is a wild and funny ride – funnier, actually, if you have not read too many of his works, since there is a certain sameness to some of the characters and situations after a while.

     And then comes Nuclear Jellyfish, with yet more of some of the same characters clustered around Serge, but this time with a bad guy called the Eel, plus a stripping community-college instructor, a cameo appearance by former Florida Governor Claude Kirk (hey, Dorsey put Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen in Florida Roadkill), and visits to such Florida attractions as Marineland and the old Spanish fort at St. Augustine. Serge is, among other things, a devotee of Florida’s history; this lets ex-reporter Dorsey toss in some legitimate background and then mercilessly skewer its normal, placid presentation. In Nuclear Jellyfish, it is Serge’s interest in Florida that sets the plot in motion: our friendly neighborhood mass murderer starts blogging about the state for a travel Web site, but his unique approach to certain elements of state travel (say, carjackings) doesn’t go down particularly well, so he decides to travel around and file to his own site. As Serge continues finding Rube-Goldberg-like ways to commit mayhem (with a vegetable peeler, model railroad tracks, and plug-in air fresheners, among other items), Dorsey treats readers to bad blood between philatelists and numismatists, shopping at Home Depot, a series of deaths involving trade-show exhibitors, some hotel drink coupons, and a bit of John Travolta. It’s all madcap fun, if by “fun” you mean blood, drugs, sex, confusion and lots and lots of Florida. Where, apparently, all this stuff is fun. At least when you read about it.

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