Andrez Bergen’s Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat (TSMG) is set in a post-apocalyptic Melbourne, Australia at an unspecified point in the future where the fortunate ones live an opulent life secure under the high-tech Dome that encases the city. The less fortunate live a harsh existence in rundown areas on the outskirts of the Dome in a world where the sun seldom shines and acid rain seems to fall endlessly.
Our narrator, Floyd Maquina, is a Seeker. Employed by the government to hunt down so-called Deviants for what is euphemistically called “hospitalization,” Floyd has the authority to terminate those who won’t come along peacefully. It’s something he’s only had to do once, but that encounter weighs heavily on his mind, driving him to seek comfort in drugs, alcohol, and classic Hollywood films.
Indeed, Floyd peppers his narrative with copious references to films like The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, The Big Sleep, and Brazil amongst others, and throws enough hardboiled slang around that a Tobacco-Stained Glossary and Encyclopedia Tobacciana are included as appendices.
With one foot planted firmly in a futuristic world where Seekers routinely undergo Matrix-like virtual reality “tests” to ensure they are still in the fold and capable of carrying out company orders, TSMG manages to simultaneously have its other foot rooted in an authentic, throwback, hardboiled detective vibe. And it is in that fuzzy blending of post-apocalyptic and old-school noir that TSMG carves out what is one of the most wonderfully unique books I’ve had the pleasure to read.
Along the way author Andrez Bergen works in clever jabs and astute commentary on everything from reality shows (Floyd finds himself an unwitting TV star when thrust front and center in a Dog the Bounty Hunter type show) to media manipulation by corporations and the government (that “reality” show being a carefully scripted and edited attempt to control public opinion about Deviants) to our obsession with cosmetic perfection (people in TSMG routinely get surgical enhancement, including photosynthetic technology which allows them to swap out lip, eye, skin and hair color with thousands of available shades), while the conflict between the Deviants and the citizens inside the Dome serves as a rather timely exploration of the social upheaval that results when the economic gulf between classes becomes a seemingly unbridgeable chasm.
TSMG is not for everyone, there’s no way around that. Some will find the film references too frequent and, if you’re not familiar with the movies, potentially confusing. But if you’re willing to roll with them – or to put the handy Encyclopedia Tobacciana to good use – I think you’ll find they actually add a verisimilitude to Floyd’s character, going a long way toward explaining how he copes and makes his way through a world he often finds as foreign as the reader does.
In any event, I can say without qualification that not only is Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat one of my Top Reads of 2011, it is one of the most creative and engaging books I’ve ever read. Period.
PS – In case you didn’t recognize it, the book’s title is taken from a line in the movie That Certain Feeling, one of the many with which Floyd is obsessed – actor George Sanders in particular.