There is no shortage of novels devoted to the outdoors whose stories appeal to backpackers, campers and hikers (the granola sort, we call them in Colorado). It takes only a minute’s thought to conjure up such titles as Into the Wild, Hatchet, or Hemingway’s famous short story, Big Two-Hearted River. Many of these seriously and studiously explore nature as a vast healing power, a thunderous force not to be trifled with, or a dangerous coming of age challenge.
Rare are those stories that depict nature with a lighthearted chuckle, to be respected, sure, but also to be enjoyed by people who know what they’re doing in the Great Outdoors. Rarer still is such a story written from a free market, libertarian perspective. Luckily, author J.D. Tuccille has taken it upon himself to rectify that deficit with his new novel, High Desert Barbecue.
Scott and his friend Rollo are both renegades, but both in their own unique, quirky ways. While Scott commits minor acts of vandalism against police vehicles, and willfully ignores building codes when renovating his house, Rollo eschews civilization altogether, living alone for months at a time in the dusty Arizona wilderness (the eponymous High Desert).
When Rollo, never friendly with the state Forest Service, is kicked out of his squatter’s cabin by rangers, he escapes to the relative safety of Scott’s home in Flagstaff. When he is then blamed by government officials for a large wildfire ravaging the western state, he drags Scott and his girlfriend Lani into a dangerous chase that will pit them against Forest Service rangers, wacko environmentalists and a plot that could threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
J.D. Tuccille’s first novel, High Desert Barbecue, is a great read. Filled with likable characters, tons of humor, and a nice sprinkling of libertarianism throughout, its breezy style makes it an easy story to pick up and get into.
Tuccille’s writing is fast and fun, and he manages to incorporate a libertarian perspective without becoming pedantic or preachy, instead weaving it deftly into the storyline. For instance, when Scott first meets his next door neighbor and future girlfriend, Lani, he has just woken her up with some loud construction work.
“I don’t see a permit posted.”
“I don’t have one.”
“You may not know, but the city requires–”
The man shook his head and interrupted.
“I know, but I don’t care. The city doesn’t own this house. I do. The mayor doesn’t have to ask my permission to make city hall even uglier than it already is, and I’m not gonna ask his permission to install some cabinets and an electric oven that won’t burn my dinner.”
Lani stood at the doorstep with her mouth open. Then she smiled.
“You don’t like being told what to do, do you?”
I did have a couple gripes with High Desert Barbecue. While Tuccille’s main characters are well fleshed out and believable (if excessively comedic) the baddies are a little too one dimensional, their motives not as developed or well explained. Arch enemy (and chief ranger) Martin Van Kamp is made into something resembling a cartoon. While an element of the ridiculous can certainly add to the comedy in a fun novel like this, (and is used to great effect by Tuccille elsewhere in the story) here it detracts from the level of danger we feel the heroes to be in which in turn undermines some of the tension and conflict that propel the plot.
Tuccille also makes the odd decision to break up the book into incredibly small chapters (many no longer than a page). While breaks come at logical times, having to page through to the next chapter after only a short couple paragraphs interrupts the flow unnecessarily.
Happily the rest of the story flows so well that it weathers these interruptions with ease. The plot is fun and tight, the philosophy not overwhelming, the local flavor excellent for anyone who enjoys hiking and the west, and the ending satisfying.
In all, Barbecue is an easy book to recommend and a fast read for anyone interested in libertarianism, the outdoors, or both.