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The Ethical Assassin

The Ethical Assassin

4.1 23
by David Liss

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Edgar award-winning author of the popular historical novels A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption, David Liss showcases his amazing versatility with this brilliant new tale of contemporary suspense: a literary thriller set in Florida, where killing is a matter of conscience.

No one is more surprised than Lem Altick when it turns out he’s


Edgar award-winning author of the popular historical novels A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption, David Liss showcases his amazing versatility with this brilliant new tale of contemporary suspense: a literary thriller set in Florida, where killing is a matter of conscience.

No one is more surprised than Lem Altick when it turns out he’s actually good at peddling encyclopedias door to door. He hates the predatory world of sales, but he needs the money to pay for college. Then things go horribly wrong. In a sweltering trailer in rural Florida, a couple whom Lem has spent hours pitching is shot dead before his eyes, and the unassuming young man is suddenly pulled into the dark world of conspiracy and murder. Not just murder: assassination– or so claims the killer, the mysterious and strangely charismatic Melford Kean, who has struck without remorse and with remarkable good cheer. But the self-styled ethical assassin hadn’t planned on a witness, and so he makes Lem a deal: Stay quiet and there will be no problems. Go to the police and take the fall.

Before Lem can decide, he is drawn against his will into the realm of the assassin, a post-Marxist intellectual with whom he forms an unlikely (and perhaps unwise) friendship. The ethical assassin could be a charming sociopath, eco-activist, or vigilante for social justice. To unravel the mystery and save himself, Lem must descend deep into a bizarre world he never knew existed, where a group of desperate–and genuinely deranged–schemers have hatched a plan that will very likely keep Lem from leaving town alive.

David Liss skillfully interweaves a gallery of eccentric characters with a multilayered plot characterized by its unpredictable twists and turns. The Ethical Assassin is a brilliant, darkly comic novel that will leave readers in suspense until the very last page.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Advance praise for The Ethical Assassin

“Gripping entertainment from the opening pages–a terrific read with the page-turning energy of a first-rate thriller, but also far more than that. David Liss has written a genre-bender with more than its share of white-knuckle suspense, vivid characters, and surprising humor.”
–Joseph Finder, author of Company Man

“Hilarious, poignant, and laced with paranoia, The Ethical Assassin reads like a Hardy Boys mystery on acid. David Liss pulls out all the stops in this Homeric coming-of-age tale. A vibrant and sweaty page-turner, this book explodes with fresh, memorable characters and a soundtrack I’d like to own.”
–Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist and Delicious

“Hypnotic and addictive storytelling.”
–Lee Child, author of One Shot

“Imagine David Lynch’s bizarre masterpiece Blue Velvet, scripted by Edna Buchanan and Carl Hiaasen. It’s a blast.”
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

The Barnes & Noble Review
With the brutal redneck sensibilities of a Charlie Huston novel (Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things, et al.) and the darkly comedic existential angst of crime fiction by Charles Willeford, The Ethical Assassin by David Liss is a laugh-out-loud masterwork of a mystery that explores, among other things, animal rights, vegetarianism, methamphetamine addiction, and the ideology of morality-based vigilantism.

Hoping to sve up enough money to go to college, Lemuel Altick is selling encyclopedias door-to-door throughout rural Florida over the summer. His life is irrevocably changed when, just as he is closing a sale with some down-and-out trailer park residents, a gunman storms in and shoots them dead. The fates of Altick and this strangely introspective, white-haired assassin (a "post-Marxist vigilante") become intertwined, as both men try to cover up their involvement in the murder. At the same time, they struggle to unravel a complex moneymaking scheme involving a crooked police chief (who guzzles Yoo-hoo mixed with whiskey and sports a mullet), the pedophilic head of the encyclopedia distribution company, and a ruthless thug named Kenny Rogers whose nickname is, you guessed it, the Gambler. Throw in a formerly conjoined twin who communicates with her deceased other half, the I Ching, a nightmarish hog farm, and an inhumane animal testing facility, and you've got yourself an unforgettable story!

As irreverent as it is enlightening, The Ethical Assassin is equal parts mystery, thriller, philosophical entreaty, coming-of-age tale, and dark comedy. Like Pulp Fiction meets Catcher in the Rye, this is a singularly unique storytelling tour de force that readers will not soon forget -- a work of pure twisted genius. Paul Goat Allen
Ron Charles
All this is great fun, and if Liss is trespassing on Carl Hiaasen's turf, well, who cares? It's a big state. What's more troubling is the heavy-handed moralizing that Liss dishes out in this otherwise comic thriller. Once he's dispatched Karen and Bastard, Melford spends the rest of the novel patiently leading Lem (and us) to the wisdom of animal rights, with a dose of wide-eyed Marxism. There's a tedious earnestness to these passages, as though we've been trapped by one of those well-meaning volunteers on the street with a clipboard who wants to explain why our lives are immoral. Several times, the novel's humor evaporates, even the plot is suspended, and the colloquy begins: "What about medical research?" "Shouldn't we have the right to take advantage of our position on the food chain?" "Is cruelty motivated by capital less evil than other kinds of cruelty?"
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Liss (A Conspiracy of Paper) recycles familiar conventions-drug dealers, missing money, an innocent hero mixed up with bad guys-but salvages his novel from banality with a few quirky touches. In sticky south Florida of August 1985, Lem Altick, a 17-year-old door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, witnesses the murder of two potential customers in a mobile home. Fearing he'll be fingered for the crime-or worse, that he's next-Lem establishes a wary relationship with the likable killer, Melford Kean, who is either a violent psychopath or an animal rights vigilante fighting agribusiness. Lem must also watch out for Jim Doe, the corrupt, redneck police chief who saw Lem at the trailer on the night of the crimes. Lem's paranoia heightens when he learns of Doe's connection to his employers at the encyclopedia sales company, which turns out to be a front. While Lem repeatedly skitters away from danger as he gathers clues that reveal a web of corruption, he finds time to fall for fellow bookseller Chitra and to undergo a political awakening under Melford's tutelage. Liss provides enough entertainment to keep the pages turning, but this hybrid of a thriller and a coming-of-age story doesn't quite succeed as either. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Seventeen-year-old Lem Altick has a problem. While selling encyclopedias in a South Florida trailer park, he witnesses the killing of two of his potential customers. Unless he cooperates with the assassin, a vegan animal-rights activist with a series of lessons to impart, he risks being implicated in the crime. Sharp-witted Lem apparently still has much to learn, including why it's OK to kill certain people but never animals. Among the villains who complicate his life are the local police chief and a middle-aged meth overlord who "mentors" young boys. As events turn increasingly bizarre, Lem finds that it is only by looking at life from the assassin's skewed perspective that he can survive. Edgar Award-winning novelist Liss (A Spectacle of Corruption) writes his first contemporary thriller, a twisted 1980s tale that mixes just the right touch of levity (characters include B.B. Gunn and Chuck Finn) with serious philosophical issues (e.g., should animals be used to test the lethality of drugs?). Readers will enjoy this wild and highly entertaining ride. For all popular fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/05.]-Ronnie H. Terpening, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The brainy young author of three critically praised historical mysteries (including the Edgar-winning A Conspiracy of Paper, 2000) moves on to a murderously funny thriller set in contemporary Florida. Recent high-school grad Lemuel Altick, who narrates, is selling encyclopedias door-to-door to finance his future college education-unfortunately, in a rundown trailer park where he pitches his goods to down-at-heels couple Karen and "Bastard." Enter the eponymous assassin, who blows the pair away, then cheerfully informs the nearly catatonic "Lem" that their deaths were necessary. Then things get weird, as Liss weaves together multiple plot strands. The primary one involves homicidal redneck police chief Jim Doe, who's also mayor of the "municipality" the trailer park has been legally declared-making it a lucrative speed trap that helps fund Doe's secret Cayman Islands bank account. But that's only the tip of a malodorous iceberg that also includes the crooked encyclopedia operation, a hog farm where animals are brutally mistreated and the "waste lagoon" containing their by-products, which doubles as a dumping lot for the rising body count. Handling his dippy plot with ease, Liss simultaneously keeps the wisecracks coming. Lem is tutored in the possibilities of sex, the ethics of animal rights activism as explained by the imperturbably genial assassin (self-identified as Melford Kean) and the collusive misdeeds of "The Gambler" (yes, his name is Kenny Rogers). Among those we meet are hog-farm heir William "B.B." Gunn (whose creepy compulsion to "mentor" preadolescent boys actually isn't sexually oriented) and lissome moll Desiree, a Siamese twin separated from her late sister Aphrodite(whose channeled "advice" keeps Desiree somewhere in the vicinity of the straight and narrow). It all ends, to nobody's surprise, at the waste lagoon. Imagine David Lynch's bizarre masterpiece Blue Velvet scripted by Edna Buchanan and Carl Hiaasen. It's a blast.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
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5.19(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Ethical Assassin

By David Liss

Random House

David Liss
All right reserved.

ISBN: 140006421X

Chapter One

Chapter 1

It was friday evening, just after seven o'clock, and still bright as noon. In Florida, August is perpetual, relentless, refusing to unclench its fist, and despite the looming sunset it was close to a hundred degrees. The heat settled in my body, dull and enervating, and it accentuated the smell that hung in the air--a stink both tangible and elusive, like the skin of grease on a cold bowl of stew. It was more than a smell, but a thing, heavy enough to weigh like cotton balls shoved into the back of your throat. A putrid miasma whirled and eddied through the streets of the trailer park. I don't mean hot-garbage-by-the-curb smells--rotting chicken carcasses and old diapers and potato peelings. No such luck. It smelled like a prison camp outhouse. Worse.

I stood there on the spiderwebbed concrete step leading up to the mobile home, propping open the screen door with my shoulder. Sweat trickled down my side and clung to my overworked undershirt. I'd been at it since a little after lunch, and I was in a haze now, an automaton lost in the blankness of ringing doorbells, delivering my pitch, lurching forward again. I glanced left and right at the faded white mobile homes and thought it both amusing and profoundly sad that I couldn't remember coming down this street.

I wanted nothing more than to make it inside someone's home, to get out of the heat. The trailer's window-unit air conditioner hummed and rattled and almost bucked, trickling condensation into an eroded gully of white sand. I was overdressed for the heat, and every few hours I needed a blast of AC, like an antidote, in order to keep up the fight. I'd chosen my attire not for comfort but to look smart and to do business: tan chinos, wrinkles smoothed out by the humidity, a thickly striped blue-and-white shirt, and a square-cut, knit turquoise tie, maybe three inches wide. It was 1985, and I thought the tie looked pretty cool.

I knocked again and then jammed my thumb into the glowing peach navel of the doorbell. No answer. The muted hum of a television or maybe a stereo barely pierced the door, and I saw a slight rustle of the slatted blinds, but still no answer. Not that I blamed them, whoever they were, squatting behind their sofa, pantomiming Shhhh with fingers pressed to lips. I was on their stoop, a teenager in a tie, trying to sell them something, they would think--rightly so--and who needed that? Then again, who needed them? It was a self-selecting system. I'd been doing this for only three months, but I knew that much already. The ones who came to the door were the ones you wanted to come to the door. The ones who let you in were the ones you wanted to let you in.

The heavy brown leather bag, which my stepfather had given me reluctant permission to borrow from its mildewing box in the garage, dug a trench into my shoulder. Touching the thing always made me feel dirty, and it smelled like split-pea soup. He hadn't used the bag in years, but my stepfather had still thought it important to act put-upon before he reluctantly agreed to let me clean out the mouse droppings and polish it with leather restorer.

I adjusted the strap to lessen the pain and plodded down the steps and along the old walkway that bisected the lawn--really just an ocean of sand peppered with a few islands of crabgrass. At the street I looked in both directions, unsure which way to go, which way I'd come from, but down to my left I saw a flyer flapping lazily against the corner mailbox, affixed with a long swath of dull silver duct tape. The missing cat flyer. I'd seen--what?--two or three of those that day? Maybe twice as many missing dog flyers. Not all the same dog or cat, either, and I was sure I'd passed by this one already. It had a photocopied picture of a white or tan tabby with dark splotches across its face, its mouth open, tongue barely visible. Anyone seeing a plump kitty named Francine should call the number below.

I headed away from the flyer. I was sticking to the same side of the street, passing a vacant lot to get to the next trailer. My legs, defying the demand for pep from my brain, moved slowly, shuffling almost. I looked again at my watch, which hadn't much budged since just before I rang the bell. At least four hours to go, and I needed to rest. I needed to be able to sit still for a while, but that wasn't really it. What I needed was relief from thinking about the job, even a good night's sleep, as if such a thing were possible, but I could give up all hope of sleep. It wouldn't happen on the road, when I worked all day and half the night. Not at home, on my one day off, when there were errands to run and friends and family to see before the cycle began again. I'd been operating on less than four hours a night for three months now. How long could I do it? Bobby, my crew boss, said he'd been doing it for years, and he seemed okay.

I had no plans of doing it for years. Just one year, that was all, and that was plenty. I was pretty good at the job--more than pretty good--and I made money, but there I was, seventeen years old, and I could feel myself aging, feel soreness accumulating in my joints, feel a beleaguered rounding in my shoulders. My eyes didn't seem to work as well, my memory had begun to frazzle, my bathroom habits were irregular. It was the lifestyle. I'd gone to sleep at home, just outside Ft. Lauderdale, the night before. The alarm had jerked me out of bed at six so I could get to the local office by eight, where I'd sat in pep meetings until we all hopped in the car and headed out to the Jacksonville area, checked into a motel, and got to work. Another standard weekend gets under way.

Tires rumbled behind me, and I instinctively veered over toward the empty lot, careful to avoid the nests of fire ants and the prickly weeds that would find their way to my dark gray gym socks, which only a seventeen-year-old could convince himself passed for respectable as long as no one saw the sporty stripes.

Keeping over to the side was the smart thing in places like this. Locals wouldn't have to look at me twice to see that I was way out of my element. They would throw mostly empty beer cans or swerve at me, half-playful and half-homicidal. They would shout things, and I thought it a pretty good guess they were withering insults, insults that would sting like salt in my eyes if I could hear them, but they'd be garbled against the whoosh of a speeding truck and the crackling speakers blasting 38 Special. I didn't know if the other guys had to put up with the same crap, but I doubted it.

A dark blue Ford pickup rolled to a stop. It looked freshly washed, and its paint glistened like a tar pit in the glare of the almost setting sun. The passenger-side window lurched down, and the driver, a guy in his thirties with a black T-shirt, learned over toward the window. He looked handsome in an odd way, like the debonair guy in a cartoon out to steal the hero's girl, but like a cartoon character, he was oddly distorted. He was puffy. Not fat or heavy or anything. Just puffy, like a corpse beginning decomposition or a man suffering from an allergic reaction.

The puffiness was weird, sure, but what I mostly noticed was his hair. He kept it sheared to almost a military cut, but in the back it came down in a straight fan to his shoulders. Today they call this style a mullet. In 1985 I'd never seen a mullet before, had no idea what a mullet was, what it was called, or why someone might choose to endure such a thing except for the simple thrifty pleasure that comes from having two haircuts on one head. All I knew was that it looked monumentally stupid.

"Where you going?" the guy asked. His voice buckled under the weight of his syrupy accent, uniquely Florida. Half pecan pie, half key lime. We were about thirty miles outside of Jacksonville, and heavy accents were par for the course.

I'd lived in Florida since the third grade and had long been afraid of just about everyone outside a major urban center. In no way did I consider this cowardice, but common sense. Despite the popular belief that big cities like Ft. Lauderdale and Jacksonville and Miami were nothing but suburbs of New York or Boston, they were, in reality, dense with longtime Florida natives, a vocal minority of whom included Confederate flag wavers, "Dixie" hummers, and cross burners. These cities were also full of transplants from all over the country, so things balanced out reasonably well. Step out to the boonies, and the flavor became considerably less cosmopolitan.

I now stood, as far as I was concerned, in the boonies, which meant that the iridescent kick my jew ass sign on my forehead, visible only to those who preferred Hank Williams Jr. to Sr., began to throb and fire off sparks. I conjured a polite smile for the pickup driver, but the smile turned out badly, crooked and sheepish.

For an instant, I considered giving the guy my line, about how I was in the neighborhood to speak with parents about education, but I knew instantly it was a bad idea. Puffy Guy with his weird hair and his pampered pickup radiated a low tolerance for bullshit. My crew boss, Bobby, could probably get away with the pitch. Hell, Bobby would probably score off the guy, but I was not Bobby. I was good, maybe the best guy in Bobby's crew--maybe the best guy Bobby had found in a long while. But I wasn't Bobby.

"I'm selling," I said with a startling realization, like the flip of a switch, that I wasn't merely uneasy, I was afraid. Even in all that heat, I felt cold, and my muscles had begun to tense. "Door-to-door," I added. I took the bag off my shoulder and set it down between my black dress sneakers.

The man leaned a little farther toward me and grinned a mouth full of haphazardly arranged teeth. The two front ones, in particular, were long like a rabbit's, but widely spaced and moving in opposite directions. Their crookedness stood out all the more for their unusual, even radiant, whiteness. I wished I hadn't seen them, because now I had to try not to stare.

"You got a permit for that?" He yanked at something between his legs and came up with a nearly full bottle of Yoo-hoo, which he put to his lips for a good ten seconds. When he set it down again, the bottle was now more than half-empty. I suppose an optimist would say it was half-full.

A permit. I'd never heard of such a thing. Did I need a permit? Bobby hadn't said anything about it; he'd merely dropped me off and told me to hit the trailer park hard. Bobby loved trailer parks.

I had to stay focused, act confident, presume this guy wouldn't try anything too crazy, not in the middle of the street, albeit a sinisterly deserted street. "My boss told me to sell here," I said, looking at the pavement rather than his teeth.

"I didn't ask who told you to do nothing," the guy said, shaking his head with sadness at the poor state of things. "I asked if you had a permit."

I tried to tell myself I shouldn't be so afraid. Nervous, sure. Anxious, guarded, alert--you bet. But this was like being ten years old again, caught in the nasty neighbor's yard or messing around with your friend's father's power tools. "Do I need one?"

The guy in the pickup fixed his gaze on me. He curled his upper lip into a half pucker, half scowl. "Answer the question, boy. You stupid?"

I shook my head, partly in disbelief and partly in answer to his question. "I don't have a permit," I said. I tried to look away again, but his eyes were bearing down on me.

Then the redneck burst into a huge, crooked-tooth grin. "Well, it's a good thing you don't need one, then, ain't it?"

It took me a minute to understand what had happened, and then I forced a nervous attempt at an I'm-a-good-sport laugh. "Yeah, I guess it is."

"You listen up. You best stay out of trouble. You know what happens to people caught breaking the law round here?"

"They're asked to squeal like pigs?" I tried to keep it from coming out, but despite my fear it slipped through my grasp and got away from me. It could happen to anyone.

The redneck's dark eyes went narrow over his long nose. "You being a smart-ass?"

What the hell kind of question was that? Could there be any explanation for what I'd said other than smart-assedness? I decided not to point that out.

When people say that they had the metallic taste of fear in their mouth, that metal is generally copper. My mouth tasted like copper. "Just keeping things light," I managed, along with a forced expression of calm and affability.

"What's a smart-ass like you doing out here, anyhow? Why ain't you in your college?"

"I'm trying to earn money for college," I told him, hoping my industry would impress him.

It didn't. "Ain't you something, college boy? Am I going to have to come out of here and smack you in the pussy?"

There was, of course, no dignified way to answer that question. Maybe Bobby would be able to shrug it off, crack some self-effacing joke to make the guy in the pickup like him. Next thing you know, they'd be laughing like old friends. Not me. The only thing I could think of was groveling--or to imagine an alternate universe version of me, the Lem who would walk over to the open window and pound the guy in the face until his nose burst and his stupid haircut was matted with blood. The Lem in this universe didn't do that sort of thing, but it always seemed to me that if I could do it once, if I could be the sort of person who might beat the living shit out of a jerk giving me a hard time, then that fact would be written on my body, my face, in my walk, and I wouldn't be, once again, under the thumb of a bully high on his own power over me.

Excerpted from The Ethical Assassin by David Liss Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Liss is the author of A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader, and A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and daughter, and can be reached via his website at www.davidliss.com.

Brief Biography

San Antonio, Texas
Date of Birth:
March 16, 1966
Place of Birth:
Englewood, New Jersey
B.S., M.A., M.Phil.

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Ethical Assassin 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
-hugs them both as tears stream down my face- Guys. I just need some time to think. Ill be on late...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Walks in
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yay hes ok walks back to camp.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
-screams in pain and took Jordan out of his crib and heals the wound and he vanished with Jordan-
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Connor... -cries for the first time since mom-
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
-blood bends the blood and carefully pours it to ur mouth- "he'll be fine" -i whispered-
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Slits my wrists and collapses on the dooe
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Apollo Cabin
msmys More than 1 year ago
Interesting story with many twists and turns. One of the characters poses an interesting question worth thinking about.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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thirsting_for_knowledge More than 1 year ago
i got this book from my cousin and was reluctant to read it. i opened it up for a quick red of the first few chapters and it grabbed me right away. the characters are quite surprising in some instances, but can also be predictable at times. it is a short read but worth the time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book. I have read two of this author's books and enjoyed them both. I liked the characters and the plot, although I kind of guessed what was going to happen. Still, if you are looking for a good read that won't tax your brain, you can't go wrong with this book
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book was a fun read and easy to get through. I thought the story was great but as someone else said I could've done without the public service announcement about Animal Cruelity. Overall quite entertaining novel though.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story moved along at a great pace and the characters were very well developed. But... I am definitely not a PETA fan and could've done with a little less doctrine from the 'ethical assassin'.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1985 in a trailer park near Jacksonville, seventeen years old Lemuel ¿Lem¿ Altick goes door to door selling encyclopedias. Though he makes good money, the job devastates his nonexistent social life and makes him feel middle aged so he plans to stick with it for one year and then find something more appealing like sleeping through college. --- Lem tries to sell his wares to Karen and the SOB when someone kills both of them. Stunned into inertia Lem listens to Melford Kean explain that these two, as animal abusers, deserved death. Meanwhile police chief and self declared mayor of the trailer park Jim Doe investigates the double homicides, but seems more interested in keeping Lem quiet anyway possible. Apparently the killings interfere with the Mayor¿s fund-making rackets including a speed trap, the encyclopedia selling operation, and a hog farm where animals are brutally mistreated before being dumped in the 'waste lagoon' that also serves as a human cemetery. Not sure which side is less psychopathic, Lem wants to live long enough to register in college and steal kisses from a bookselling peer. --- In the tradition of the zany South Florida (though this is few hundred miles north on I-95) suspense thriller, THE ETHICAL ASSASSIN is a wacky coming of age tale starring a bewildered teen wondering how he got into this quagmire. The story one told from the shocked Lem¿s perspective is loaded with puns, barbs, and satirical asides on life in Reagan America. The secondary cast makes for a wild time with loonies (whose names matter) aging the stunned teen. Sub-genre fans will welcome David Liss, who provides a fresh madcap mayhem to the Florida swamps. --- Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Talk to u later