Some weeks ago, I reviewed “After Things Fell Apart…” by Ron Goulart, calling it one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and, in fact, better than several of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. In trying to find more information about it to write the review, I discovered that it was actually the first installment in a series called “Fragmented America.” Excited, I quickly tracked down a copy of “Gadget Man,” the second in the series. I tore into it, expecting more of the same, and quite eager to get more of the same, since the previous book was so darn good.
There’s no polite way to say it: This book just isn’t nearly as funny as its predecessor. It starts out dry, and chugs along for quite a while before it really decides to give us some comedy. It’s not that it’s entirely unfunny, just that it’s wry, not, you know, crazy screwball stuff like the first book. Eventually, about half or two thirds of the way through, it actually seems to remember the previous book was a comedy, and it finally brings the humor, but the fact is, even then, it’s not nearly as good as “After Things Fell Apart.” In fact, having cogitated upon it for several days now, I kinda’ don’t think it was even trying to be. The author was perhaps attempting something different, or perhaps the spark was gone, or perhaps he was just over thinking it.
Remember “Tom Tom Club” from the 80s? An offshoot of Talking Heads? Remember how they had those first two albums that were blow-offey and kinda’ great? (Built entirely around leftover Adrian Belew guitar parts from Talking Head’s album “Remain in Light” from the year before. And, yes, there was a lawsuit, since he wasn’t paid, nor even credited). No pressure, just something fun to do between ‘Heads albums. And then the Talking Heads broke up, and they came out with their long-delayed third album, and it sucked beyond the dreams of Hoover. Why? Well, firstly, no Adrian Belew, but also because there’s a change that happens when something you do on a lark becomes your day job: you over think it, and the stuff that made it fun in the first place kinda’ dies.
That might be what happened here. I don’t know. Certainly it felt like it.
Anyway: The plot is pretty similar to the previous book. We’ve got an investigative guy who’s assigned to track down a mysterious goings on, and the result is a road trip that brings him into contact with a kind of weird girl, they have various adventures, and ultimately defeat the big boss badguy in a somewhat anticlimactic and abrupt final scene.
The specifics are quite a bit different, of course: The book is far less funnier than the last one, the main character isn’t a detective, it’s not a wave of killings he’s trying to figure out, but rather a wave of riots. This book takes place in the Republic of Southern California, rather than San Francisco, and whereas the first book has the protagonist continually bumping into a friend who helps him out, this book has the protagonist continually bumping into a friend (Well, co-worker, really) who keeps trying to kill him. Also, whereas in the first book the girl was a hippie chick who’d fallen in with a bad crowd, but had repented of it, in this book the love interest is an arch-terrorist.
There’s been a wave of flash riots all throughout the republic. No one knows why, the rioters themselves don’t know why they did it after the fact. It just comes over them, then leaves an hour or so later. The police suspect it’s a band of terrorists attempting to overthrow the government, and so our protagonist - Jim Hecker - is assigned to contact one of the terrorists, a girl who’s not interested in not being a terrorist, but who’s willing to work with the police because she feels there’s a larger threat looming. She doesn’t want the other terrorists to know, however. There are a lot of them, and they’re all related to her in some fashion. He goes undercover as a shirttail relative and is attempting to get information at a family dance when the police - headed by a guy named “Sane” - raid the place. Hecker and chickiebaby escape.
There are multiple kinds of cops in this story, some working at crossed purposes. Hecker works for, essentially, a paramilitary