Book Review : Andrew Nette - Gunshine State (2016)
Andrew Nette is an Australian writer, journalist and scholar (not sure in which order) perhaps best known to North American audiences for his debut novel Ghost Money, which I happened to quite like. Novels set in foreign locales are seldom interesting to me because they spend crazy amounts of energy describing places I don't know and bet on emotional bonds that don't exist, yet Ghost Money got it right. Nette's depiction of post-dictatorship, pseudo-apocalyptic Cambodia got to me and his classic, Hemingwayesque writing style created understated drama that sneaked on readers. When I heard his novel Gunshine State was coming out this Fall, I got excited at the possibilities. It turned out to be a VERY different project from Ghost Money and while it was wild and technically sound, left me yearning for that extra oomph it didn't quite offer.
Gunshine State is a heist novel, which is wildly different from the slower pace of Ghost Money, a detective story. The protagonist Gary Chance, a former truck driver for the Australian army in the Afghanistan war, is hired for a job in Surfer's Paradise. It seems quite straightforward from the get-go: local gangster Dennis Curry organizes non-casino poker games and plans to rob one of his high-rollers, a shadowy Filipino named Freddie Gao. The crew is quite unusual, though: there is Frank Dormer, a private security contractor; Sophia Lekakis, a receptionist looking for emotions and excitement in the wrong places and the mysterious Amber, a young women who lives with Curry, a known homosexual in the underworld. The job is simple enough, yet the circumstances couldn't be any more precarious and you know Murphy's Law: whatever can go wrong...
I took forever to warm up to Gunshine State. The first section is a rather standard heist novel and I tend to find these sterile if they're not starring a certain ruthless legend of the underworld. There are clever references to the Parker novels in the book, which I appreciated. Andrew Nette's Hemingwayesque understated style both play for and against him here. On one hand, there is no weepy exposition and cliché character motivations. Chance and Amber aren't upstanding citizens with special sets of skills who HAPPEN to have a kidnapped relative or a score to settle with the dead. They're thieves, like the support cast. Which is great. The problem is that they're little more than that. Chance and Amber are semi-realistic characters caught in a scenario that's way too much fun for them. They're like your cousin playing in an Indiana Jones-type scenario. Does that make sense?
That said, I cannot criticize Andrew Nette's storytelling skills because they're pretty damn stellar. While Gunshine State doesn't stand out through its character treatment, it does through its wild and unpredictable narrative. Great storytellers do this thing where they redefine the scope and the stakes of their novel at regular intervals. It starts as a precise kind of story and evolves into something completely different. Joe Lansdale's Cold in July is a good example. What begins as a vengeance story narrated from the wrong side evolves into a family tragedy. Gunshine State goes through a similar kind of redefinition while it is unfolding. What begins as a standard heist novel turns into a crazy, sprawling interloper adventure story before you understand what hit you. It definitely had a pulp appeal that Ghost Money didn't have. Few novels actually shine through their plot, but Gunshine State definitely does.
So, I liked Gunshine State. Considerably less than Ghost Money, but I liked it anyway. The slower pace of Andrew Nette's debut novel fit the inherent seriousness of his style better and left more breathing room to his killer observational skills. Gunshine State was different and had appeal of its own, but I feel like the lead protagonists clashed with the overall tone of the story if this makes sense? I think it would've benefited from more wisecracking characters? At some point * Gunshine State takes off and leaves its protagonists behind. Part of my criticism is based on personal taste. I've always had difficult time relating to thieves and other "professional" criminal characters. Make up your own mind on whatever Andrew Nette novel is your favorite and read both Ghost Money and Gunshine State. They're both good. They're both very different. I just had a marked preference for the former.
* About when they leave Australia.