David Schickler's follow-up to his well-received KISSING IN MANHATTAN (which I haven't read) features a rural love-on-the-run tale in SWEET AND VICIOUS. A guy's version of love and romance isn't nearly as deep and introspective as so many romance novelists would have us believe, and along those lines, it was refreshing to read Schickler's SWEET AND VICIOUS. Humor, adventure and love beget a much-needed levity in this grim adventure starring two lovers. Like most male authors writing about love, traces of tragedy rears its ugly head here. Unlike others, I wasn't so much disappointed by the ending as I was unhappy by the execution of it. I wish Schickler spent some time integrating the Stewart McFigg character into the storyline a bit more. As it stands, the end reeked of Grace settling down after high adventure and passion with Henry. There's elements of the paranormal in the story though nothing overstated (Color Danning and her intuition, Hunter "Honey" Pobrinkis' glimmers). The first two chapters grip but then the book sags considerably when we look into the back stories of our mobster goons Roger and Honey Pobrinkis, and continues to stagnate even when we return to Henry and Grace. I'm not sure rural America is really like this with so many extremes (the slutty Perry Danning vs. the pious Stewart). For an afternoon book, it took a week for me to finish this 242-page hardcover; I was reading other novels and my interest in SWEET AND VICIOUS waned the more I read it. The prose is pretty good and Schickler enriches the reading experience by deftly setting the scene, fleshing out all the characters, and gut-punching you with an intense writing style. The intense writing style reminded me of my favorite SFF author: Matthew Woodring Stover and his book HEROES DIE (*****).
The Story, possible SPOILERS.
Thirty-two year-old Henry Dante, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound bruiser, works for the notorious Chicago mobster Honey Pobrinkis, a brutal man with an obsession for diamonds. Henry tells us that he "bust(s) people's heads [for a living]," but he's secretly proud of the fact that he's never killed anyone. Apparently, he wants to give his soul a "sporting chance." Henry's defining characteristic: two bulging, spiking knuckles on his left fist. Henry seldom talks, he's street-smart, a gentleman at heart and has a soft spot for women in distress.
When Honey receives a premonition (a "glimmer") that his long-time associate Charles Chalk will abscond with his 40 million dollar diamonds, Honey dispatches his enforcers on a bringback. Honey's womanizing nephew Roger, Henry and the dumb Floyd drive to Chalk's farm to retrieve Chalk and the diamonds. The 40 million dollar diamonds in question represent seven planets minus Pluto and Neptune (the later two planets weren't discovered when the Planets were made). When Roger decides to have a little fun on the side with Chalk's supermodel wife, Henry intervenes. Henry knocks out his two partners Roger and Floyd, filches the Planets instead and heads west from Illinois into Wisconsin. Henry is honorable though and doesn't change cars or license plates, wanting to give Honey a "sporting chance." I liked Henry overall, but not changing plates or cars due to some notion of honor was just plain dumb.
Meanwhile, we get plenty of back story on Grace McGlone growing up in Janesville, Wisconsin. After Grace dubiously loses her virginity in the backstage trailer to a famous evangelical orator (Reverend Bertram Block), Grace decides to clean up her reckless teenage act and "try for heaven." She avidly devours religious literature and decides to get baptized. Shy and bumbling yet muscular, Stewart McFigg has liked the sexy redhead Grace since grade school, and after college the two date a bit. As opposed to the womanizing devils of romance novels, it's nice to root for an underdog hero for a change. Grace however awaits the "one" and the adventure she feels is coming. When Grace spies the huge man with a suitcase and red truck bearing Illinois license plates, she instantly knows he's the one. Grace walks through a car wash she works at, introduces herself to Henry and promptly joins Henry on the adventure. Drenched and soaked, Grace puts her feet up on the dashboard of the passenger side of the truck and declares, "Tallyho!" Grace believes the Planets acquired from "blood money," and convinces Henry to give away each of the seven diamonds as they traverse west across the country.
The book slows down from there as Henry and Grace marry, enjoy hot passion, and make their way across the northwest. Roger and Floyd are hot on Henry's trail, and Henry takes steps to delay them but still gives Roger and Floyd a "sporting chance." All the plotting climaxes at Great Falls, Montana, where Bertram Block, 12 years after taking Grace's virginity, is putting on a performance at the Hammerspread, an open-mouthed amphitheater. For almost all his life and across the country, Bertram Block invigorates audiences, casts out devils, champions the Gospels, and lays hands on townsfolk. Grace needs to confront Block after all this time, and Honey and Roger Pobrinkis follow.
Not a bad book, but ultimately falls flat after the initial two chapters. The token two paragraphs of back story Schickler gives Stewart at the very end seemed rushed and shallow. I wanted to know the how and why behind Stewart deciding to forgo saving himself until marriage when he was so earnestly "trying for heaven" before. Also seemed like Grace was settling for Stewart. The writing can be intense, dark, humorous and adventurous, but also disengaging with so many back stories.