Clownfish Blues places trademark characters Serge A. Storms on arguably their wildest and funniest ride yet, resulting in plenty of sex, drugs, violence, and lottery winnings.
Clownfish BluesPublisher: William Morrow
Length: 352 pages
Author: Tim Dorsey
Publication date: 2017-01
Indiana author (and “maestro of mayhem”) Tim Dorsey is certainly imaginative and productive. Once a reporter and editor at various newspapers, he decided to leave that life behind and focus on writing fiction full-time in 1999. Since then, he’s crafted nearly two dozen novels that capture the same essence of madcap adventurousness as Christopher Moore, Carl Hiaasen, and Bill Fitzhugh.
In his 20th outing, Clownfish Blues, Dorsey places his two trademark characters -- protagonist Serge A. Storms and his sidekick, Coleman -- on arguably their wildest and funniest ride yet, resulting in plenty of sex, drugs, violence, and lottery winnings. However, its constant unbelievable eccentricities, while unwaveringly entertaining, ultimately overshadow any serious drama and storytelling Dorsey is trying to achieve, so there’s very little weight beneath the superficial insanity.
In their last adventure, Coconut Cowboy (which released only a year ago), Serge and Coleman set off on a road trip inspired by Dennis Hopper’s iconic 1969 film, Easy Rider. It’s not too surprising, then, that this book takes them on a similar journey, only this time stimulated by 60’s television show Route 66. Specifically, they frame each misadventure through Florida as an “episode”, and what starts as a carefree expedition soon becomes much more complex and perilous, as the official synopsis implies:
Someone is trying to tilt the odds in the state lottery amidst a conga line of huge jackpots spinning off more chaos than any hurricane season. With this much at stake, of course every shady character wants in. Crooked bodega owners, drug cartels laundering money through the lottery, and venture capitalists are all trying to game the system -- and lining up to get their cut. They’re also gambling with their lives, because when Serge and Coleman get hip to this timely (and very lucrative) trip, there’s no telling whose number is up next. Throw in Brooke Campanella, Serge’s old flame, as well as the perpetually star-crossed Reevis, and it’s a sure bet that the ever-lucky Serge will hit it big.
In a way, Clownfish Blues is like a reimagining of Hunter S. Thompson and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas if it starred Billy Bob Thornton and Jack Black as Raoul Duke/Serge and Dr. Gonzo/Coleman, respectively. The latter is a mostly quiet (though very quirky) assistant who is always stoned and drunk, while Serge is his resilient, optimistic, and wholly uninhibited leader. Fortunately, the characterizations of these two characters are among Dorsey’s greatest accomplishments here.
To be fair, Coleman doesn’t really do much aside imbibe the aforementioned recreational activities while occasionally watching over -- and then negatively influencing -- ancillary characters (at Serge’s request), but his actions are always funny. Serge, on the other hand, is a much more developed figure all-around; fearless, wise, and opportunistic, he always finds ways to take charge of and benefit from others’ situations. In fact, he’s even an out-and-out psychopath, which he’s more than happy to explain to anyone who’ll listen. Take the following self-referential speech he gives as he’s torturing (yes, torturing) someone:
Ever meet a psychopath? I never, ever want to! But I saw this documentary that said I’ve probably already rubbed shoulders with them many times. When you say ‘psychopath,’ most people think of Manson or Son of Sam, but the vast majority aren’t criminals. Many are actually high-functioning success stories.
It's precisely this personality, coupled with the ridiculous conflicts he and Coleman always insert themselves into (and then escape from unscathed, if not downright championed, in their “vintage silver convertible Corvette just like the snazzy car Martin Milner drove”) that make Clownfish Blues such an quick and fun ride.
Dorsey works in some poignant social commentary, too, with the most overt being a critical observation on the state of modern journalism. Aside from using Reevis’ arc as a means for even more hilarity (including a news team showdown reminiscent of those from both Anchorman films), he regularly forces Reevis -- who considers himself a respectable and serious reporter -- to work with a camera crew whose main goal is to capture, manipulate, or even outright fake sensationalized footage. Eventually, Reevis has had enough and decides to confront his boss, who then decides to school Reevis on how things work now:
"I told you, we don’t show corpses!" said Reevis.
“New directive.” Brisbane flipped a sheet of paper as proof. “This is the future. We posted crime-scene photos on the internet and took a poll, promising to ‘like’ the page of anyone who approved. They couldn’t get enough, the more grisly the better, especially if there were sexual overtones or the victims had funny haircuts...”
“Because there’s something deeply wrong with them,” said Reevis.
“That’s our specialty,” said Brisbane. “All of my audiences have problems. That’s why they watch.”
“But journalism is supposed to lead the way,” said Reevis. “Not follow.”
“Not anymore.” Brisbane held up a page with another directive.
There’s also an all too relevant discussion of modern gender inequality. In particular, Campanella’s legal partner, Jacklyn Lopez, tells Serge that she teaches a women’s self-defense class, to which he responds with a feminist-friendly (yet inherently ironic since he’s a womanizer) breakdown of men vs. women that, while unintentionally sexist itself, would probably make Jean Kilbourne proud nonetheless:
That’s so important these days. Most men don’t realize it, but women are living in an entirely different world—a whole extra level of danger that requires constant vigilance and precautions that men never have to think about. Mainly because we’re the problem. On behalf of my gender: Our bad... Every day you probably pass a dozen bone-deep crazies out in the public, maybe even stop and talk to one in a parking lot. A guy can look perfectly normal and charming, but you never know which dinner date will end up in a cloud of Mace. Us men, on the other hand, have it so easy. If a woman turns out to be batshit, you can just tip over a rack of potpourri jars in the Pottery Barn and run away.
Structurally, Clownfish Blues is quite interesting as well, if also a bit disorienting. Not only does Dorsey segment the book into interconnected episodic novellas, but most of the chapters contain multiple focuses. For example, Chapter 14 initially zones in on a hippy attorney named Ziggy Blade, but soon it moves over to Coleman and Storms before ending with an update on Reevis’ state. True, these constant shifts can make it difficult to follow along and maintain investment at times, but for the most part they make the novel feel lively, clever, and unpredictable.
Although it’s wildly inventive and amusing, Clownfish Blues suffers a bit from two major issues: repetitiveness and an underdeveloped central conflict. Basically, Serge and Coleman get into so many ludicrous predicaments that they eventually lose their charm and surprise. In other words, the more you place unrealistic and exaggerated characters in unrealistic and exaggerated circumstances, the more each instance becomes, well, expected and normalized. Along the same lines, Dorsey spends so much time on these whacky schemes that they overshadow and distract from the state lottery [sub]plot.
In fact, it’s very easy to forget about it altogether, so you’ll finish with another one of their adventures, be placed back in a convenience store or law office, and think, Oh, yeah, there’s something about a jackpot, drug cartels, and monopolized control in this novel, too, right?. Because of this, the inevitable resolution of the plot isn’t nearly as impactful as it should be. As a character study, it works, but if Dorsey intended it to also have a compelling and tense storyline, too, well, he kind of defeats his own purpose.
All in all, Clownfish Blues works best as superficial entertainment. Serge and Coleman are great characters, and the ways in which they instigate -- and then escape from -- various obscene, fantastical, and often violent situations are wonderfully detailed, comical, and resourceful. That said, such depictions can only remain fresh for so long¸ and without an engaging and dense plot to carry them, they ultimately lose some of their resonance and staying power. Dorsey is clearly a skilled writer with a rich imagination and a great sense of humor, but he does a disservice to his characters by not giving them a sufficiently captivating and meaningful narrative in which to run wild. It'll amuse you as it goes, but it won't leave you with anything substantial afterward.