Forgotten Books: Missionary Stew by Ross Thomas
Our story opens in a grubby African prison with an American named Citron who will, in the course of this introductory chapter, and I'm not making this up, eat a child. It seems the sociopath who is the exalted grand wazoo leader of this country is a cannibal. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Citron, a decent guy, asks what happened to the little kid who came around the prison. The henchman in charge of the prison tells him that the grand wazoo was displeased with him for some reason. Citron says the stew tastes funny. The henchman watches him eat with a broad smile. It is only afterward the Citron realizes what he has just consumed.
Welcome to the wold of Ross Thomas. I can't think of a better story teller than he was. The language is so deft and graceful, the characterization so perfectly etched even though much of the novel is the blackest of comedies, that you are swept away into a very believable world of government treachery, incompetence and viciousness all the more startling because of the ironic tone of the writing.
The novel was published in 1983 thus the U.S. government in power is quite Reaganesque and the dilemma it finds itself in not unlike (prescience on Thomas' part) Iran-Contra. The McGuffin here is intriguing--the incompeents of the CIA and the FBI want to silence anybody who can tell the tale of our goverment's atrocities. And "tell" is the correct word. None of the evidence is written down but there are a number of participants who can tell the story.
One of the funniest running gags in the book is how when Citron is returned to the United States everybody he meets asks him the same question, "Was that grand wazoo guy really a cannibal?" He doesn't tell them about his last meal in captivity; all he says is that "I'ms not sure."
And I dare you to find another book where the lead female is named Velveeta Keats. Her parents were once hippies who believed in their stoner wisdom that you should name things after other things that give you pleasure. Since they weren't exactly gourmets, they called her Velveeta. Of course later on they changed horses and became as evil as the Cheneys.
There is no other writer like Ross Thomas and no other novel like Missionary Stew (or most of his novels for that matter). Treat yourself to two nights of amazing reading. While he exposes the practices of our government with comedic effect, he also constructs a novel of inter-locking cliff hangers that keep you flipping pages long after you should have grabbed your teddy bear and gone to sleep.
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I have a Forgotten Books post on Thomas coming up in a couple of weeks. One of the greats in my book, for sure.
I love your reviews/recommendations, Ed. They're casual, yet incisive and insightful. You always make me want to read the book you're talking about, which is problematic because there are too many books already in my TBR pile. So knock it off! ;)
The first Ross Thomas novel I ever read and still my favorite.
Good review of a great author.
Care to swap links? I'm at http://paulonbooks.blogspot.com/
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