Set during the ’70s inflation crisis, David Anthony’s first novel, Something for Nothing, is a suspenseful thriller with literary realism. You just may miss your next train stop.
What makes a good ventriloquist’s show so enjoyable is that you know the dummy’s not really talking. When reading Something for Nothing, the suspenseful first novel by David Anthony, I had to examine the teeny photo on the back cover a couple of times to convince myself that the author wasn’t some old codger who, half a century after putting pen to paper, had finally gotten his rant about gas lines, teenage rebellion, and America’s waning power published. But no. Anthony appears to be a young writer who, without a single anachronistic misstep, has fabricated a ’70s period piece complete with a toupee-wearing hero who thinks, acts, and talks exactly as I would expect him to.
Anthony works hard to make us hate the poor schmuck, Martin Anderson, and yet I couldn’t help liking him—even if he is a self-involved compulsive liar who lives in a fantasy world and supports President Nixon. Like any good action hero, Martin is really good at facing physical dangers that terrify reasonable people, such as piloting small planes and making conversation with gorgeous large-breasted women. He resides in suburban Contra Costa County, where his home with a pool is located in the inexplicably renamed “Walnut Station.” (All other place names, from Pleasanton to Ensenada, go unchanged.) He’s married with two kids and owns his own company that sells used aircraft. He worries continuously about how others see him, so that when his thirteen-year old daughter storms out of a restaurant and he drives after her, shouting out the window of his Caddy for her to “’get in the fucking car,’” his chief concern is that onlookers will be thinking, “That guy’s not in control of his family.”
Martin’s big problem is debt: mountains of it. In his highly prejudicial worldview, “the Arabs” have jacked up the price of oil, and now they’re hoarding the world’s greenbacks in their palaces. Meanwhile, poor Martin can’t sell any planes because none of his potential customers can afford the cost of fuel. What’s a fellow to do? Run drugs over the Mexican border, of course! Val Desmond, who trains Martin’s racehorse Temperature’s Rising, offers to pay Martin $5,000 per trip to fly cash down and heroin back up. Complications of the grisliest, deadliest sort soon arise.
Anthony is terrific at providing the realistic detail to delight armchair fans of midnight landings on runways lit by burning kerosene-soaked rags. He’s also great on horse racing, from the intricacies of betting to the etiquette of the Winner’s Circle, and he really knows fishing boats. After reading this novel, I feel as if I could find my way around a fishing boat blindfolded. In fact, I began to actively desire being stuck out on a boat on a foggy evening in Suisun Bay with only a .22 to protect me (and my hard-earned drug money) from the sadistic last-person-I-would-have-guessed-to-be-the-villain. Just so I could have the chance to come out ahead, despite my painfully obvious personal limitations. So I could be like—Martin Anderson!
Don’t be fooled by the literary veneer, because you are at serious risk of missing your transit stop when reading this novel. Yes, the realistic details are there; but with the exception of Martin, the characters are flat. And Martin is so limited in his thinking that his more philosophical reflections on life and its meaning must, of necessity, remain sophomoric. The style is workmanlike, but the plot is exceptionally well made, such that every seemingly random scene turns out to be necessary. A brilliant example is the early episode when Martin takes his nine-year-old son on a fishing trip to fill up the days during which young Peter is suspended from school. Is the purpose of this scene to show us readers what a feckless yet lovable dude Martin is? Yes, but key details provided here are also key to the unfolding of the novel’s climax many pages later. Discovering that connection, in those tense moments when the hero’s life hung in the balance, was very satisfying to this reader.
If the ’70s were eerily present throughout (Martin finds margaritas strange, anti-Semitic jokes amusing, and “traffic backups” familiar), one stylistic tic came to seem irritatingly authorial, and therefore presumably amenable to change. Having just demonstrated this linguistic habit, I will do so again by quoting Something for Nothing: “Martin walked quickly up the left side of his circular driveway (he liked the fact that he had this setup, thought that it set him apart from all the people with boring, perpendicular driveways).”
David Anthony: Please lose the too-oft-occurring parentheses before publishing your next gripping, thoroughly enjoyable work of fiction.