My review of Graveyard Special by James Lileks

Graveyard Special is a purported mystery told in a pseudo-noir style set in 1980 at the University of Minnesota. It’s lead character is Robert Thompson. Thompson is a Woody Allen-esque character if Woody Allen had been mid-western and Lutheran but still short.

The novel starts out with a bang when a cook is shot in the head through the front window of the diner where Thompson works. After that the story just sort of wanders. It’s as if the author was a waiter and a college student during this time and he wanted to get down all his memories before time or possibly Alzheimer’s erased them from his mind but do it in mystery novel form.

I’ve followed Lileks around for years from his Bleat to his Diner podcast and over at Ricochet. My general sense is he is a wonderful commentator. He has a thoughtful opinion on just about everything. In fact, I don’t know if there’s anything around he doesn’t have a thoughtful opinion about. And obviously the man can write. I worked third shift for half my twenties and this bit rang true as the Gospels.

“…but 3 AM isn’t the night anymore. It’s limbo. Hit the hay before the clock strikes three, and you can still tell yourself there’s a whole new day on the other side, fresh as new eggs, ready for the griddle. After three, tomorrow feels like a check you’ve already cashed and spent.”

And he’s full of humor. This piece brought back memories of working at a diner in high school getting a one minute buzz on whipped topping accelerant (not me of course).

“A long ride on a short nozzle. Heard a tink! as if Dick had dropped the can, which he did from time to time. Fine motor control was the first casualty of a whipped-topping bender, I suspected, but at least the sphincter and bladder kept things together.”

Graveyard Special is full of these great observations and Lileks is at his best when describing two women that come into Thompson’s life. You can tell Lileks loves women. There’s no question whether he’s likes “screwdrivers or sockets” as Thompson’s father might have put it.

Like I said, obviously the man can write but can he plot? The commenting just keeps going on and on while the plot just sits there wondering when it’s going to get picked to play in the novel. The scene is constantly being set: we learn about a myriad of characters that don’t function as either red herrings or factors in the resolution of the mystery. We learn about pinball and the Asteroids video game and 3.2 beer and Star Wars and weed and the politics of the time.

And the murder and a subsequent possible terrorist attack (or was it just a gas explosion) just sits there until about three quarters of the way into this novel. The wrap up happens fairly quickly and, to me, felt cursory.

One mystery for me was left unresolved: Why is the words “Mill City” in parentheses in the title? Maybe it’s answer in the promised future novels.

Finally, be prepared for a few typographical errors: double words, typos, misplaced punctuation.

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