Stephen Dobyns pulls off a neat misdirection in this brazenly titled comic crime novel. On its face, “Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?” is a frivolous romp through an underworld of solecism-spouting thieves and doltish enforcers. But for a book with a cigarette-smoking beagle on its cover, there’s surprising depth here, as Dobyns convenes an ensemble cast whose thwarted ambitions suffuse an antic story line with an air of poignancy.
Chief among the unfulfilled is Connor Raposo, a 26-year-old teacher who lost his job when his Michigan school district slashed its budget. A subsequent hitch in a Detroit casino was brief and depressing.
The action starts with Connor having relocated to coastal New England, where he’s linked up with some shady pals who are running an eccentric con game. Working from a motor home parked on a Rhode Island beach, the scammers use their computer-hacking and cold-calling skills to prey upon naive locals. Their latest scheme involves a phony charity aimed at rescuing dogs from laboratories where they’re purportedly being subjected to tobacco testing. The scammers have a penchant for the absurd, which is reflected in the name of their faux foundation: Free Beagles from Nicotine Addiction, Inc.
This part of Connor’s life eventually causes numerous complications, but more pressing difficulties arise during a visit to New London, Conn. There he sees a motorcyclist plow into a dump truck. Astonishingly, the driver appears to have caused the crash on purpose, killing the biker on the spot. As Connor and other witnesses compare notes, he recognizes a guy from his casino days. Although the man introduces himself as Sal Nicoletti, Connor recalls that he once went by another name. Connor begins to ask around, and as he learns that Sal might be in the witness protection program, he rues his failure to keep quiet.
Meanwhile, there’s some confusion about the motorcyclist’s identity. The bike, a Harley Davidson “Fat Bob” model, is registered to one Robert Rossi, a stout fellow who shares a nickname with his mode of transportation. But it seems that “Fat Bob” Rossi had loaned his Harley to a friend, and it was this luckless soul who was flattened by the truck. Sensing that his gambling debts are now endangering his life, Bob goes into hiding. Smart move, as the unfortunate bike-borrower isn’t the last to meet an untimely end in these pages.
From these disparate plot points, Dobyns fashions a churning but always coherent narrative. He incorporates new characters and explores their old resentments until late in the proceedings — well past the point at which a less assured writer might have wrapped things up. This teeming assortment of personalities is the book’s biggest asset, and Dobyns does his best work when paying close attention to the disenchantments that plague his cast.
The cops investigating the motorcycle crash are particularly well drawn, and, refreshingly, they’re not cliched antiheroes. One of them is crestfallen about everything from his hairline to his long-distance relationships with his children, and “each disappointment had carved a new wrinkle on his face until the wrinkles formed a portrait of his disappointment, which in itself was disappointing.” His partner is an equally believable if less sympathetic figure, a closet sexist who’s angry about his female colleagues’ promotions, and “now he’s mostly known for being gloomy.”
We also meet an ex-prom queen who’s desperate to recapture her grandeur, a quick-witted housewife trapped in a sham marriage, and a math genius who has lost count of his many financial crimes. It’s a yearning cavalcade of unmet potential and stifled dreams.
Dobyns has published dozens of books — novels, poetry collections, writing manuals — so it’s no surprise that his most effective stabs at comedy derive from his fascination with language. He devotes a page to an amusing debate about the pronunciation of “karaoke” and has fun at the expense of a self-righteous bit player who thinks he’s quoting the Bible but is actually citing “Hamlet.” His most linguistically challenged character spouts ridiculous malapropisms, coining terms such as “righteous inflammation” and “nervous shakedown.”
Occasionally, Dobyns gets carried away in his effort to make things wacky. We’re told, for instance, that the man heading up Connor’s con-artist gang “once raised a thousand dollars with his pitch for Victims of Roadkill Gastronomy” and has also had success with a fake charity called Orphans from Outer Space. Mostly, however, he keeps both feet on this planet, blending wisecracks and despair into a satisfying whole, and making sure that “Fat Bob” has some heft to go along with its humor.
Canfield is a writer in New York City.
By Stephen Dobyns
Blue Rider. 351 pp. $26.99