In his last few weeks, my grandfather was wracked by constant pain, the cancer that later killed him taking its sweet damn time to rip and tear, piece by piece, through every joint and cavity. He moved into hospice care--a lousy low-cost cell with a lousy little bed and a lousy la-z-boy knockoff and a constant buzz of lousy noise from the hall, but with a drop-in medical attention that kept the pain minimized, even if it also maximized my grandfather's irritation. He was always a smartass, 'though generally the kind of guy who could snap at a stupid comment and then offer up a with-you-not-attacking-you smile and wink. So when one morning at hospice the caregiver in a loud singsong voice rushed in, all practical outfit and can-do chipper energy, and barked "Have you had a bowel movement today, Mr. Blossom?," he didn't miss a beat growling back "Nah--have you?" And then he turned to me, his audience, while the nurse tutted and shushed him, and blazed a neat, nasty little smile, pleased as can be that he'd gotten her goat.
I tucked into this novel expecting nothing but smartassery. Many prepub raves rightly swoon over Buck Schatz's punchy derision, his refusal to put up with the pleasant singsongy patronizing aimed at the elderly. I figured the mystery would be barebones poles over which to drape the joking. I expected gags, giggles.
And, sure, I laughed. Quite a bit. And, sure, the mystery was competently set up but (as even Buck's grandson, Tequila, notes) mostly McGuffin. What I didn't expect was the lovely and whipsmart attention to Buck as a human being, not just a cutout type of smartass old guy. When he barks, there's a bite: a careful attention to the indignities of lousy hospice care and bodies wrecked and wracked and a full, rich life not reducible to this particular embarrassing reality. It's a great read with a real, richly-understood aged character. The story is fine, maybe slight--but the man at its center is a find. My grandfather preferred westerns, but he might have enjoyed this. He sure as hell would have adored having coffee with Buck, barking at the dumbasses that bedevilled them.