Book Review : Mike Monson - What Happens in Reno (2015)
I love The Simpsons as much as the next guy, but I never could keep up with them. Too many damned episodes. Perhaps my favorite moment in the series happens in the episode Homie the Clown, where Homer (dressed as Krusty) beats the crap out of Krusty Burger's mascot Kursty Burglar, prompting a kid to cry: "Stop! Stop! He's already dead!" It was a beautiful and profound satirical scene about our unhealthy connection to consumerism.
I've thought about that scene when reading Mike Monson's novella What Happens in Reno. Many hardboiled writers try to outdo one another in bleakness and emotional brutality, but none seems to have taken the dare at heart like Monson did. Don't let the Chevy Chase-esque title fool you, What Happens in Reno is an unflinching trip at the heart of American darkness and it's out to hurt you. There definitely is value to what Mike Monson does, but fair weather readers beware: this is NOT for you.
What Happens in Reno is the story of Matt Hodges, a deadbeat who's been sleepwalking through his own existence, looking for a piece of the American Dream. Every day, Matt dreams of poker tables and beautiful women and shuns bills and responsibilities. When he banks in a twelve thousand dollars inheritance from his mother, Matt leaves his life with Lydia, her intense-looking new man and all the promises he made for a weekend in beautiful Reno, Nevada. But you can only dream for so long before reality catches up to you.
Well, this was ferociously nihilistic, to say the least. I'm not easy to disturb, but What Happens in Reno made me raise my eyes to heavens a couple times, especially during some of Lydia's scenes. She is getting treated like less than dirt by her new boyfriend Hunter Manning a couple times. I had to remind myself a couple times that What Happens in Reno is satire of the abusive relationships in the lower working class, because the reckless abandon of Mike Monson's nihilism can be genuinely unsettling at times. Here's an example:
"How did you get that name, Summer?"
"My mother thought it was nice, I guess. I don't really know. It's what she named me."
She sighed and looked over at Jaime. "You don't look like summer. You look like a stuffed hog in a dress and a wig"
The real star of What Happens in Reno, though, is Matt Hodges. He is irresponsible scum like the other characters portrayed in the book, but he is irresponsible scum with a dream. That makes him slightly more likable than the rest. Matt's ailment is purely American: he wants the dream that's being sold to him. The swanky and luxuriant lifestyle, the women, the endless rivers of alcohol. But Matt is lazy and doesn't want to work his way there. If it's being sold, there must be a way to purchase it and Matt's hellbent on spending he little life owes him on that freakin' dream. The hollow pursuits of Matt Hodges were moving for all the wrong reasons but they were moving, goddamn it!
Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't qualify What Happens in Reno of noir in the traditional sense of the term. It's not anything even remotely existential. I would qualify it of energetic hardboiled satire. Mike Monson deliberately paints in broad and confrontational strokes that dare you to go down into the gutter with him. What Happens in Reno is a bloated, deformed portrait of reality, but it's as real as it gets and perhaps this is why it's so goddamn unsettling. Monson paints a portrait of people like us that we're not ready to accept. I don't think Matt Hodges is anybody in particular, but he could be. That alone gives What Happens in Reno a built-in intensity that will reach any reader.