VJ Books Blog

(The Washington Post, Feb. 2, Patrick Anderson)

Bright Futures by Stuart Kaminsky

When people ask if I have ever suffered writer’s block, I have to admit I don’t quite grasp the concept. The words suggest that wonderful ideas are teeming in the writer’s head, but some sinister force is stopping them — blocking them — from exiting his fingertips and making their way onto paper. That has not been my experience. The problem arises when I run out of ideas. But that’s not being “blocked”; that’s what happens when the well runs dry — a different matter entirely. Still, in certain circles you can find alleged writers who have been dining out for decades on the tragic tale of the great novel that is mysteriously “blocked.”

All this is preliminary to saying that Stuart M. Kaminsky is one of the most unblocked writers in America. The man has written more than 60 books. “Bright Futures” is the sixth novel in his Lew Fonesca series, and he also has his Abe Lieberman series (10 books so far), his Toby Peters series (24, including “Mildred Pierced”), his Porfiry Rostnikov series (15), plus two stand-alone novels, two short-story collections and eight books of nonfiction about movies and television. For these Herculean efforts, Kaminsky has received both an Edgar Award and a Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America. He’s also a very funny fellow.

“Bright Futures” can be best considered a sitcom that has yet to make it to the screen. Although murders take place and Fonesca is investigating, the novel is most distinguished by a high level of whimsy and by the eccentricity of its cast. We start with Fonesca himself. Several years earlier, back in Chicago, his beloved wife, Catherine, was killed in a hit-and-run. The distraught Fonesca climbed in his car, a Cubs cap on his head, and drove a thousand miles until the car died in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen in Sarasota, Fla., where he has lived ever since.

Fonesca seeks no friends but keeps finding them anyway. The cast of characters includes Victor Woo, who sleeps in his sleeping bag on Fonesca’s floor. Woo was the drunk driver who killed Fonesca’s wife. Fonesca urges him to go home to his family, but Woo stays on, seeking to make amends. There’s Fonesca’s best friend, an aging cowboy who once killed a man and still carries a gun, which often comes in handy. There are two women in Fonesca’s life: his 80-something therapist, who has him ask people the first lines of their favorite novels, and a social worker named Sally Porovsky, who is his sort-of girlfriend (much talk, no sex, uncertain prospects).

The novel’s far-flung plot begins with the murder of a rich, nasty fellow named Horvecki, who had many enemies. A teenager has been charged with his murder, and another teenager hires Fonesca to prove his friend’s innocence. The teenager who hires him has a bizarre grandfather named D. Elliot Corkle who also, for his own reasons, hires Fonesca to investigate. Corkle has made a fortune selling household gadgets on TV (the Corkle Pocket Fishing Machine, Power Pocket Entertainment Centers) and says things like “Fonesca, D. Elliot Corkle is not the bad guy here, Fonesca.” Other suspects include a cop whose mother and aunt were raped by Horvecki years before, and a radio evangelist whom he tried to rape as a teenager.

The plot meanders here and there. People keep shooting at Fonesca. The murdered man’s clueless daughter, now an heiress, is missing. A main character turns out not to be the person he claimed to be. A fight breaks out in Fonesca’s favorite post-Dairy Queen hangout, a Waffle House where Elvis allegedly had breakfast. Fights, murders and shootings aside, “Bright Futures” is an extremely good-natured book. The murders keep the plot spinning, a bit slowly at times, but I think Kaminsky cares most about the easy humor and essential decency of his oddball cast. These are his people. Will Fonesca get over his near-suicidal depression? Might he and Sally have a future? Will Victor Woo ever take his sleeping bag and go back to his family in Chicago? The novel is a nice juggling act — of crime, humor and sentiment — and if you’re in the right mood, it’s an enjoyable read.

I most enjoyed Kaminsky’s offbeat humor. Take the time when Fonesca asks someone to quote the opening line of his favorite novel. The fellow quotes this: ” ‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

“Stephen King?” asks a baffled Fonesca, who obviously has no children.

No, he’s told: That’s the opening line from “Charlotte’s Web.”

It’s hard to resist a novel in which “Charlotte’s Web” can be confused with a Stephen King novel, but axes at the breakfast table can confuse anyone. May the prolific Kaminsky stay unblocked forever.