Book Review : Johnny Shaw - Floodgate (2016)
Annabella Colombo, like thousands of others, died on that December day. In a matter of hours, the city burnt out of control in the largest gang war recorded in American history. An unnatural disaster.
The papers called it the Flood.
Portland-based writer Johnny Shaw is kind of the Shane Black of contemporary literature. He writes humorous genre novels about rudderless and turbulent men bending the law to solve problems an indifferent and impotent system would otherwise be unable to solve. They're very American novels by nature. His protagonists take responsibility for their lives, kick ass and take names. Needless to say, Shaw's always a lot of fun to read. His fourth and latest novel Floodgate is sprawling, unpredictable and unapologetically colorful. Other reviewers compared it to Sin City, which is not completely wrong. They're in the same ballpark in terms of narrative experience. I have to admit, though. It's Johnny Shaw's most memorable novel since his debut Dove Season.
Floodgate is the story of Andy Destra, an disgraced cop turned conspiracy theorist in beautiful (and very fictional) Auction City, USA. Despite being framed and kicked off the force, Andy is still fighting the good fight and looking to rid the city of an inherent and seemingly generalized corruption he could never prove. He's what you may call a hopeless optimist. He gets an unexpected breakthrough the day a mysterious woman named Kate Girard drops by his grandmother's retirement home. Girard briefly worked for the DA's office in the 1960s and dropped from the face of the Earth soon afterwards. Andy's investigation on her will bring him back to the Flood, a violent gang war which Auction City never really recovered from. How did the Flood really end? Was gang violence eradicated or merely contained. Andy's quest for truth and justice will lead him right to what has been slowly destroying Auction City since the Flood.
I love that Johnny Shaw has no use whatsoever for realism. Contemporary hardboiled mysteries and noir are defined by grit, bleakness and visceral storytelling. Not Johnny Shaw's novels. Oh, no sir. Shaw doesn't give a fuck. Floodgate reads like a conspiracy theory set in alternate history America. Auction City is a vibrant and unique creation crawling with colorful bad guys, secret passageways and it's weighted down by an untold history Johnny Shaw walks us through with the same passion than his protagonist. Speaking of which, I thought Andy Destra was a quite successful underdog protagonist. He lives in miserable conditions, being forsaken by the city he served for many years yet he's such a positive and passionate person about investigating, he's hard not to like. Andy's living condition are exposed by Shaw, but the character never complains about them. He's possessed by his mission AND he's got a killer self-depreciating sense of humor.
That said, I thought Floodgate suffered from a problem I've seen before in Johnny Shaw's novels: it's way too big for what it's trying to be. Let me explain. Floodgate has a conventional thriller structure: half the book builds a mystery and half deals with the unraveling consequences of solving it. Shaw keeps it floored down for too long and loses dramatic effect. At some point there's just too many characters doing too many things, I'm losing the sense of scope and dramatic momentum. It had also happened in Dove Season. That and the colorful, cartoon-y nature of Floodgate somewhat undermined the menacing nature certain characters were supposed to have. The members of a certain shadowy organization never really seemed dangerous to me. I just took Johnny Shaw's word that they were. The flaws of Floodgate didn't really undermine the reading experience for me. I still had a blast. It just got out of control towards the end.
I love reading Johnny Shaw's because they're straight, colorful, well-structured and it's easy to think critically about them. Floodgate was a memorable read for many reasons: its giddy rejection of gritty realism, its powerful sense of place of a city that doesn't exist and the life-affirming optimism of its protagonist Andy Destra. I've read every novel Johnny Shaw has published (and then some) and Floodgate is one of the best things he's written so far. He's a rare bird in the landscape of contemporary literature. Few authors have figured their own things the way he did. I mean, you need to be in the mood for colorful and humorous material to enjoy him but he does his thing better than most authors out there. I've called him a heir to cult author Joe R. Lansdale in previous reviews, but Floodgate is the novel where he asserts himself as a force of his own.