by Marc Lecard
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
352 pages, 2007
Reviewed by James R. Winter
I snagged Vinnie's head while I was out fishing for flounder off the end of the town dock in Comapogue ...
Thus our humble narrator, Johnnie LoDuco, begins stumbling across New York's Long Island with a severed head packed inside a cooler. Only his best friend, Vinnie McCloskey-Schmidt, a computer-savvy con artist -- he of the disconnected cranium -- could possibly have gotten him mixed up in such a fiasco. And only Johnnie could wreak so much havoc trying to extricate himself from it.
Johnnie is a loser. So much so that when he goes flounder fishing, he catches nothing but Vinnie's sunken noggin. Which becomes a problem. You see, Vinnie, together with an infomercial doctor named Jennifer Smeals and Johnnie, had been planning to go to Paraguay and live off the proceeds from a credit-card scam Vinnie had cooked up.
Vinnie's good like that, coming up with outrageous schemes and then making even the most rational person want to go right along with him. Too bad the mob's not impressed. Now, as it happens the mob is actually looking for our favorite small-time crook, Johnnie, because they think he's the brains behind a convenience store heist. But Johnnie, without telling Vinnie, had "borrowed" his friend's identity, leaving Vinnie to be targeted as Johnnie, instead. Nice guy that he is.
Vinnie's Head, by debut novelist Marc Lecard, brings gonzo noir to Long Island. And if I worked for the Nassau or Suffolk County chambers of commerce, I'd sue him. However, since I don't, I will simply say that this Killer
Year author has penned one of the fastest, most ridiculous, and funniest romps of 2007 so far.
Normally, when one finds a severed head, his or her first instinct is to call the cops. But if, like Johnnie LoDuco (called "Lo Douchebag" at one point, his name sounding almost as absurd as "McCloskey-Schmidt"), you've had a run of bad luck and are hiding out from law enforcement, you throw the head back in the lake or toss it in a Dumpster. Naturally, Johnnie, in his finite wisdom, tries to hide the head. It might be important, considering that his one chance to escape his rotten South Shore life has gone sour.
Obviously, when Johnnie's luck is bad, it's very bad indeed. When it's good, though, it's very good. While being chased at one point in this story by a huge bounty hunter named Stosh and a mobster he knows only by the cute nickname "Worm Lips," our "hero" is first saved and then menaced by Vinnie's girlfriend, Jennifer. She's a physician who made her original fortune hawking hair-transplant methods on late-night infomercials. Jennifer needs Johnnie alive, but she's a bit scary. After all, she killed someone for the motel suite in which they're staying. Johnnie's bigger enemy, however, is a Long Island criminal kingpin named Malatesta. His chief allies, on the other hand, are Patrice, a dreadlocked computer-hacking video-store clerk who becomes his girlfriend; and Bogdan, a serial murderer-turned-private eye who finds in all the killing surrounding Vinnie a chance to add to his ... um, collection.
Of heads. Human heads. But he's a nice guy, really, once you get to know him.
I particularly liked the character of Patrice, as she becomes equal parts fawning admirer and ego-deflating foil. She thinks Johnnie's a loser -- no, she knows that for sure -- but heck, he's an exciting loser at least. He stumbles into her dull life of video-store clerking and soon has her eluding bad guys and trying to steal $12 million.
Vinnie's Head is a lesson in the absurd. Lecard spins an unbelievable plot and laces it with cartoonish violence and bizarre players. Yet he does so with tongue firmly planted in cheek. LoDuco is as much a spectator to the storm around him as he is a participant. I suspect Lecard enjoyed dangling over Johnnie the promise of wealth and an escape from all his problems, and then promptly kicking him in the groin. Critics mention Carl Hiaasen when talking about this book. Kinky Friedman also came to mind as I read it. The whole story is improbable, but Lecard gets away with it by not giving the reader time enough to think before dumping Johnnie into another predicament. By the end of the first chapter, I wasn't saying, "Nah, that can't happen." I wanted to see what poor Johnnie blundered into next. Reality, frankly, would ruin this novel.
In addition to its relentless pace, what makes the book's unreality work is it's real-world setting. Johnnie is from Comapogue, which I'm told by reliable sources is a composite of several South Shore towns, none of which seem worth remembering. Comapogue is a burg with a Walgreen's, a deli (which contributes to Johnnie's problems) and cookie-cutter ranch homes. Lecard laces his fictional settings with plenty of real ones, including Hicksville. Indeed, in one scene, Johnnie slips off the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) in Hicksville and goes past a shopping center that looks suspiciously like the original home of Dead
After reading Vinnie's Head along with Hose Monkey (2006), by Tony Spinoza (aka Reed Farrell Coleman), I can safely say I'm never moving to Long Island. It's too dangerous for any sane individual to stay there for long, if Spinoza and Lecard are to be believed. But if Marc Lecard keeps writing about it, I'll keep laughing. | April 2007
James R. Winter is a regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine and a reviewer for Reflections in a Private Eye, the newsletter of the Private Eye Writers of America. His first novel, Northcoast Shakedown, came and went in 2005. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Winter now makes his home in suburban Cincinnati, where he works for an insurance company. His short fiction has appeared in Plots With Guns and ThugLit, as well as at The Thrilling Detective Web Site and Crime Scene Scotland. He enjoys hiking and travel and is a rabid rock-trivia buff. Send kielbasa, as he misses Cleveland.