High Desert Barbecue, by libertarian author and columnist J.D. Tuccille, is a fun romp through the dry country of the southwest. The protagonists are libertarian and manage to slip in many an observation about life and the government. The antagonists are government agents, usually environmentalist wackos and bumbling idiots to boot. Mr. Tuccille does not try to hide his colors, but whatever the reader’s are he will at least find some humor and adventure in the tale, and if he is libertarian some satisfaction as well.
The story concerns a plot by environmentalists to burn out animals — humans especially — from northern Arizona so that plants may take their place at the top of the food chain and not be bothered by inferior creatures. The irony of these mammalian Forest Service enviros passionately fighting for plants, against their own kind, is thick throughout the book. One can sense the author’s amused disdain and the pleasure he takes at the antics of these defectives.
Their act of arson — referred to as “The Carthage Option” — is witnessed and filmed by Rollo, his friend Scott, and Scott’s girlfriend Lani. A chase through uninhabited territory follows, while the fire burns. The three protagonists are desperate to get the footage uploaded to the internet so that everyone can see what the government is up to. The Forest Service hippies, a group of incompetent boobs who are good for a couple dozen chuckles through the course of the story, pursue them, determined to keep the intelligence from reaching Youtube but having difficulties getting out of their own way during the chase.
I think the best word to describe the book is “fun.” The peculiar characters and the humor they create fit perfectly with the lean style and fast story. It is equal parts prose that Kurt Vonnegut would approve of, eccentricity like you might find in a Coen brothers dark comedy, and libertarian morals embracing the permissive side. It is not a long book: if one has the time one could finish it in a single sitting. All in all, it works well.
The story skips the warm ups and the runners taking their places and opens right as the starter’s gun goes off. It does dally a bit in some of the early chapters right after, though. There was a scene or two that might not have been entirely necessary, or whose vital bits could have been folded into another chapter that moved forward more. However, a strong wind can give a ship a good push and keep it coasting until the next wind comes along. Those early bits aside, when the wind picks up once more, which it indeed does and without wasting much time, it never slackens again.
The next several dozen chapters are exceedingly short and told from different perspectives. For a while, the story goes back and forth between the good guys and two groups of bad guys, but then the good guys get split up and we find ourselves bouncing back and forth between many characters and settings. The brief chapters and rapid-fire plot points fit very well with the style and the genre. They can also induce a reader to stay up a little later than he had planned because he knows he can read the next chapter in just a couple minutes. And the one after that. And the one after that, too.
The final resolution, I felt, should have been more desperate. I wanted one decisive chapter, even one decisive moment, where everything hangs in the balance, everything depends on three or four things going off just so and all the characters come together in a madcap rush to see who will prevail. Instead, the victors prevail more by degrees and the balance between triumph and defeat is not as precarious as it might have been. There is less of a perfect synchronization of storylines and more of a petering out of danger.
These venial sins are easily forgiven. It would be unfair to call the ending a bore; it just was not quite the blast that it might have been. It matters little: there is enough fun and humor along the way to make for a very satisfying experience. I recommend it for anyone who wants a quick, short story and a little amusement, and for any libertarian who does not mind a little raunchiness with his dark humor.