Book Review : Johnny Shaw - Imperial Valley (2017)
"So it wasn't just the goodness of your heart," Angie said.
"Nothing ever is."
Author Johnny Shaw earned an enviable reputation for writing novels featuring self-depreciating protagonists that kick a lot of asses and crack a lot of jokes while doing it. Whether he's writing a Jimmy Veeder fiasco or a standalone novel, Shaw always manages to remain fun and "fun" is a variable that's often overlooked in literature. The latest Jimmy Veeder fiasco Imperial Valley is going to hit the bookstores next TUESDAY and I had the privilege to read it prior to its release, thanks to Mr. Shaw himself. While it was not very high on its predecessor Plaster City, Imperial Valley managed to explore moral questions from a different, more interesting angle and made Jimmy Veeder interesting again. Flawed and imperfect, sure. But I believe it's by design.
Hear me out.
Imperial Valley begins on the eve of Jimmy's wedding to his now five-years girlfriend Angie, who he rekindled with in Dove Season. Jimmy, Angie, Bobby and Griselda are still in party mode the morning after the wedding when Jimmy is visited by his childhood friend Tomas Morales, now a Tony Montana-like figure in Mexicali, and he's bearing a surprising wedding gift: the identity of Jimmy and Angie's son's biological grandfather. Now, those of you who've read Dove Season know that Juan isn't Jimmy's biological son, but rather his half-brother. He is rather the son of Jimmy's father and a Mexican prostitute named Yolanda. So, Jimmy and the gang leave for Mexico on Tomas' dime in order tell Juan's grandfather about the existence of his grandson because it seems like the right thing to do. It might be the right thing to do, but it's a baaaad idea. Perhaps the worst idea Jimmy had yet.
So, Imperial Valley is the Jimmy Veeder fiasco that lives up best to the series' ambitious moniker. Jimmy's simple and well-intended mission goes awry in quite spectacular ways and he only has himself to blame. That's what's so interesting about this character. He would've been an excellent cowboy except for inability to make immoral choices in life-of-death situations. In Imperial Valley, he leaves a man he took hostage and threatened to kill alive hoping that showing mercy will convince him not to exert vengeance and it goes horribly, horribly wrong. As much of an unrealistic, gun toting semi-responsible adult Jimmy can be, he efficiently exposes how complicated and counter-intuitive the whole "being the good guys with the guns" argument can be. The violence in Imperial Valley understandably escalates to Sam Peckinpah-levels and eventually, everyone will leave pieces on the battlefield.
One thing that bugged me about Plaster City was the forceful progressive subtext and while Johnny Shaw considerably toned it down in Imperial Valley, it's still poking through at times. Angie, for example, gets into feminist arguments out of nowhere and in rather dangerous situations. Don't get me wrong, I think feminist characters are great in this kind of setting and I like Angie, but she doesn't need to go gender studies in the middle of a novel in order to convince me of who she is and what she stands for. She's a great feminist character without doing that. She's a strong and smart woman, but calling out a shadowy Mexican crime figure on "sexist bullshit" in the middle of a dinner IN HIS OWN HOME doesn't strike me as really smart. It's a pet peeve of mine. Most of you will probably not even blink at this, but judging from how Shaw toned down the forceful rhetoric since Plaster City, it seems important to him too. I'm blowing it out of proportion here, but it made me roll my eyes a couple times.
I liked Imperial Valley a lot. It might've not have the peaks of Dove Season, but it was perhaps the most cohesive and structurally sound novels Johnny Shaw has written so far. He's always had a tendency to overdo the action scenes in his novel, but it isn't the case here. It's just cray enough. The Jimmy Veeder fiascoes have evolved a lot since Dove Season. The first novel was about a man looking for his place in the world and it became since a series about fatherhood, family and defining the happily ever after, which is considerably more ambitious. What Jimmy Veeder goes through (marriage, fatherhood, loss of recurring characters) as he gets into trouble with Mexican criminals is uncharted territory for this kind of literature and it is why it's always exciting to read his new adventures. Imperial Valley will be available next Tuesday, March 7. So pre-order your copy now! And don't stop reading until you meet Pepe.