As “a trained seal of the critical fraternity” – Raymond Chandler’s words –, I suppose my job is no more than to say whether Matt Coleman’s A Rocky Divorce (2019) is a good piece of fiction. It is, and if Chandler had his way, this review might stop there. However, we have some complications.
The first complication is that I had already read Juggling Kittens. That novel set a standard that A Rocky Divorce does not equal. A defense might be that I’m comparing apples and kittens. True enough, which brings me to the second complication. A Rocky Divorce is the start of a series, while Juggling Kittens is what the people in the book biz now call a Standalone. A Rocky Divorce has some burdens attendant with a series that Juggling Kittens did not have to haul.
Before laying out all the details of my relatively minor hesitations, it seems fitting the holiday spirit (December) that the virtues of A Rocky Divorce receive their due. Rocky, Coleman’s detective (Raquel “Rocky” Champagnolle), brings Texarkana to life, often against the place’s will. In general, the characters in Rocky’s orbit are settled in their ways, wanting to lie low, but receptive to wild pitches, sometimes even willing to supplement Rocky’s bold ideas with their own improvisations. Everyone can shine when the brassy dame is around. Rocky, as a character type, is at least as old as Mae West, with the let’s-save-the-day-by-putting-on-a-show mentality of Ethel Merman. Rural routines don’t stand a chance with Rocky in the picture. The characters in Rocky’s scenes either raise their game, verbally and otherwise, or they’re reduced to bit parts in someone else’s drama.
In Texarkana, as in most rural areas, a Rocky might not last long as an outsider. Rocky has roots in the community, and other people in Texarkana know her family, and some are indebted to Rocky’s father. In part, Rocky succeeds because she is part of the community. She doesn’t aim to transcend the venue. Rocky isn’t unhappy with Texarkana, wishing it were more like Austin or New York City. That rapport with her surroundings generates some advantages for Rocky. The shared history is a foundation from which Rocky can launch some schemes.
It’s difficult to tell whether Juggling Kittens and A Rocky Divorce had the same editor. Juggling Kittens seems to have been properly trimmed, whereas A Rocky Divorce doesn’t hit the page running. The pacing isn’t as sharp as in Juggling Kittens, though when A Rocky Divorce hits high gear, it gives its reader an enjoyable ride.
Since it’s meant to be the first in a series of novels, A Rocky Divorce has to conclude with some open-ended items that will be the bread crumbs readers will follow to the next book. No issue there. My main hesitation is with A Rocky Divorce’s hyperactivity when it comes to trendy snark. “I prefer Miss Marple, but with an ass that won’t quit. More like a mix between Olivia Benson, Veronica Mars, and Kim Kardashian. Like if Rizzoli and Isles raised the love child of Peter Dinklage and Jennifer Lopez.” It’s as if the novel works too hard to give itself a tone of Leslie-Jones-comes-to-Texarkana. Doubtless more than one woman in Texarkana has called another woman “girl” over the years. Yet, too many instances of “girl” feel as if they’re accompanied by a flamboyant snap of the fingers, a firming of the spine, and a rapid twist of the neck, e.g., “Girl, I heard you’re a regular Nancy Drew.”
To confirm the problem with the trendy snark, consider a rewriting of the passage from the novel above using 1970s TV-speak: “I prefer Barbara Bain, but with Lucille Ball’s luscious lips. More like a mix between Peggy Lipton, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Jo Anne Worley. Like if Columbo and McCloud were a gay couple raising the love child of Tom Jones and Shirley Jones.” The best job of mapping the 70s on to the passage from A Rocky Divorce reveals the built-in obsolescence of the approach. Now imagine a rewriting of Coleman’s passage using references from 70s Canadian TV. Coleman is much better off when he makes use of less unstable elements: “Jen, we can spend all our time stomping out flying monkeys. Or we can go straight for the wicked witch.” You can put those sentences in an oak barrel for smooth aging.
Matt Coleman has the writerly goods. That’s why this reader prefers less trendy snark and more of “I like my tea like I like my men. Transparent, bitter, and disappointing.” The trendy snark, more often than not, disappoints, like having Stephen King write “boo!” It’s Stephen bloody King, and you know he can boo better. Texas already has its Joe Bob Briggs. Coleman has the talent to shine far brighter than Joe Bob, and he demonstrates that he isn’t always tempted by low-hanging fruit. For example, one of the characters in A Rocky Divorce attempts to convince Rocky that Rocky’s imagined narrative about the kind of case that interests her is over the top. Rocky has proposed a situation in which the person Rocky is helping has a grandmother with a lesbian lover. Jen, Rocky’s friend, responds, “There is no lesbian lover.”
If Coleman can refrain from indulging Rocky’s weakness for lesbian lovers when it comes to storytelling, we can expect the Rocky series could make Coleman the Molly Ivins of detective fiction.