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Buck Fever

Ben Rehder

St. Martins/Minotaur

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-312-29114-0

Publication Date: September 2002

262 Pages; $23.95

Date Reviewed: June 17, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003



Mystery, General Fiction

Avid mystery readers always keep their eyes open for new books or writers that generate some mystery genre-buzz, especially new first novels. It's a treat to discover a new writer with promise and follow them as they develop and mature and to spread glowing words about your new "find". 'Buck Fever' showed up on my radar screen when it was nominated for an Edgar (the mystery world's answer to the Oscars) as Best First Novel of 2003, and it showed up on my doorstep as a selection of M is for Mystery's "first novel" book club. I wouldn't normally choose to read a mystery about deer hunting in Texas, being none too interested in either the sport or the state, but this one was appropriately credentialed, so I gave it a go. Less than a couple of hours later, having finished it in one, very short, sitting, I'm in shock that it could have been nominated as "best" anything. I'm nominating it for oblivion.

'Buck Fever' is a caper novel about deer hunters, drug smugglers, and the "law", set in Blanco County in southern Texas. It features an immense cast of characters, each thinly portrayed, hackneyed and completely colorless. Rehder, with Texas exuberance, believes he can make up for failing to create one good character by creating lots of bad ones. We meet the virtuous local game warden, John Marlin, his childhood friend, Phil Colby, clerk in a local tourist attraction called 'The Snake Farm & Indian Artifact Showplace', and even Colby's pet, a white-tailed buck named...Buck. This being Texas, there's a corrupt local sheriff there to protect the super-wealthy Roy Swank. Landowner-swindler Swank is turning his gazillion-acre ranch into a deer-hunting resort. It's pre-stocked with the biggest and best bucks waiting to be shot and mounted by Swank's rich cronies. Add to the mix two truck-driving, red-necked, beer-swilling, gun-toting morons (actually, for these two, the tag "moron" may be aspirational) Red and Billy Don, the heart-of-gold nurse who looks like Julia Roberts and, of course, the down-to-earth local waitress with legs up to there and big tits. The true villain is the heartless Columbian drug lord, Oscar, an Antonio Banderas look-alike, who speaks in heavily accented English ("My name ees not 'amigo', it ees Oscar.") when Rehder remembers to write his dialogue that way, something he often forgets. There's not a quirky, original or entertaining character in the bunch.

All these characters interact in a story with half-a-gazillion threads that's essentially about drug lord Oscar and landowner Swank importing Mexican deer to stock Swank's Texan hunting ground. These deer are brought over the border laden with latex balloons full of heroin inside them. The story twists and turns, jump-cutting from one vignette to another, with enough offshoots, threads, sidetracks and dead ends to make the reader scream for relief. Rehder applies the same philosophy to plot lines as he does character -- quantity trumps quality.

This is a caper book, so it's supposed to be fun and funny -- the kind of funny that's rooted in unusual, quirky characters placed in a series of increasingly implausible situations. Caper books work best if some of the characters are stupid and all of the situations are absurd. Unfortunately, 'Buck Fever' doesn't come close to working as a caper book for the simple reason that Rehder can't write. His writing is incredibly, embarrassingly, elementary - the see-Dick-run-level stuff that bored you way back in the first grade. Sentences are rudimentary - a noun, a verb and one or two short, dull adjectives. There are very few compound sentences, and absolutely no big words. It makes Bambi look highbrow.

What should read with zip and energy is wooden, stiff and lifeless. Would-be absurd escapades collapse under the weight of bad words, and so-called colorful characters are deadly dull. The writing is lame and laughable, but it's not funny. It's not even sufficiently witty or sophisticated to qualify as camp. Donald Westlake writes capers well (his Dortmunder series) and Carl Hiaasen writes them masterfully. Rehder writes a Texas-sized clunker.

It's possible there's a whole sub-sub-genre (mystery - humorous - Texan) that I'm just not plugging into. There's certainly an audience for a book about cheating, corrupt officials, landowners of ill-gotten wealth with illegal agendas and our God-given right to own guns. Especially if this is a book with few compound sentences and no big words. I know one Texan who'd probably love it.

Note: The winner of the 2003 Edgar for Best First Mystery was Jonathon King's 'The Blue Edge of Midnight'.