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Mark Haskell Smith

I just finished reading Moist by Mark Haskell Smith. A friend had suggested his books, saying Smith writes funny ones as I do. I don't think of myself as a humorist, just that funny things pop out of serious situations.

The same is true in Smith's fiction as I quickly learned in the first novel I read of his, Baked. In that, a young man, Miro Basinas, hadn't discovered his calling until he started cultivating marijuana plants for the medical pot market in Los Angeles, and Miro ends up winning the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. When someone steals all his plants, criminals trip all over themselves to get a piece of the winning weed.

Next I tried out Smith's book Salty, which is about an overweight and talented bass player whose metal super group has disbanded, and he's trying out monogamy, having recently married a former super model whom he met in rehab. She was there for cocaine, he, for sex-addiction. When she's kidnapped while they're on vacation in Thailand, he gets involved. Hell breaks loose. Smith creates such wonderfully absurd moments, I become hooked in the first few pages.

When I started Moist, I started dissecting Smith's voice more. If you admire someone, figure out what you like and why. In Moist, as in his other novels, the reader moves among a number of points of view. This one, though, is more like a Robert Altman film such as Short Cuts or Thieves Like Us. There is no single protagonist, but multiple main characters whose POVs the reader flits among.

One major player is Esteban, a Mexican drug lord working in L.A. who becomes upset when one of his hit men, Amado, accidentally severs his arm while killing an associate gone bad. The missing arm that the police find might end up pulling down Esteban's empire.

This is where a pathologist named Bob comes in. Bob's life has fallen apart after he's left his girlfriend, a masturbation coach. While trying to deliver the arm to the police after analyzing it, Bob is kidnapped by Esteban's gang for the arm--and Bob falls in love with the crazy characters, realizing his life had been boring until now. A crazy plan emerges where Bob will deliver to the police someone else's fat and tattooed arm.

Smith's humor is like Elmore Leonard's in Get Shorty. Both novelists masterfully meld over-the-top characters with a hard-driving storyline, bringing to light many of the absurdities of modern America--and modern Los Angeles in particular. The movie business can't ever be too bizarre, and in Moist, when one-armed Amado realizes he can no longer do the grunt work of killing--bodies are very heavy--he tries screenwriting. He takes a weekend course, where he meets a young and tender suburban girl, Cindy, in search of life experience. He gives her some.

In fact, all the main characters happen to each find love in unexpected places. Bob had become obsessed with a tattoo of a naked woman on Amado's severed arm and learns the model for it was a woman named Felicia. When Bob finally meets Felicia, "tears streamed down his cheeks as he just knelt there, looking at her with that look on his face. He was grateful. He was in rapture."

As funny as the characters are when they become smitten, what takes over is deep, true love. That and following their bliss seem to bless many of his Smith's major players. Bob, falling into the excitement of the gangster life, discovers he's great at it. He changes his name to Roberto and vows to learn Spanish. His pure goodness seems to infect the gang.

These criminals are loveable, and the police detective, Don, who has devoted his last few years to bringing down Esteban, becomes the bad guy.

You'll have a good time reading Mark Haskell Smith.

(Christopher Meeks's new comic novel, Love At Absolute Zero, is available on the Nook and Kindle now, and in print September 17. Click here for more information.)