Lewis Shiner’s first couple of novels, Frontera and Deserted Cities of the Heart, were, not too make things too general, character-oriented stories that highlighted individuals’ personal dramas—serious fiction, some might call it. Looking to borrow a page from friend James Blaylock’s The Last Coin and take a break from gravitas, in 1990 Shiner released the caper-esque thriller, Slam.
We meet Dave being released from a Texas prison after serving a six-month sentence for tax evasion. Picked up by his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, he is deposited at a beach house where a friend has found work for him housesitting for a recently deceased elderly woman. Her will stating that the house be cared for precisely as she left it—twenty-three cats included—in order for the parameters of the will to be upheld, Dave’s post-prison life would seem to be cushy. But such is not the case. Neighbors and friends of all eccentric varieties stopping by in his first few days of freedom (a deaf and blind couple, a UFO cult leader, a pot-smoking granny, an orthodox parole officer, a group of skateboarders, a prison escapee), meeting the conditions of his parole and the old lady’s will gets difficult, very quickly. If Dave doesn’t get control of the situation, his newfound freedom may be short-lived.
As mentioned in the opening, and as indicated by the book’s dedication, Slam was intended to be something of a James Blaylock offering. Shiner too singular to want to imitate his friend, nevertheless there are similarities between Slam and The Last Coin. Both featuring run-of-the-mill guys caught in semi-absurd stories with matchless characters, the novels devote their energy into unpredictable storytelling. I daresay Blaylock writes better, more subtly effective dialogue, more unique characters (Shiner’s are occasionally stereotypical), not to mention develops his story in less obvious fashion, but on the other side, Slam lives up to its name by moving at a breakneck pace that puts Dave’s life into a whirlwind of cats, marijuana, skateboards, and UFOs.
In the end, Slam is a fast-paced, semi-capering thriller that plays off UFO cults, old ladies with cats, and punk rock skateboarders to tell a fun tale of one man’s entering the world of Texas beach-life Weird after a spell in prison. Not the most tightly executed story from a technique standpoint, but it’s clear the novel was never intended to be another weighty drama. Take it as such.