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Book Review: The Albuquerque Turkey by John Vorhaus

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I normally avoid novels with plots that revolve around heists, con jobs or grifting. With an Ocean Eleven-ish type of storytelling, I find them predictable and formulaic. The characters are usually smooth, very intelligent, egotistic and unlikeable. Why would I invest the time to follow these cookie-cutter yoyos for 300 agonizing pages? The Albuquerque Turkey somewhat takes the formula out of the equation and injects a Hiaasen type of humor to the storytelling, making it a rare exception.

The novel features 30-something grifter Radar Hoverlander, his beautiful and sexy girlfriend Allie, and avant-garde wannabe artist Vic Mirplo, all of whom are laying low in Santa Fe after wrapping up an enormous swindle in Los Angeles. With the huge take, Allie wants to retire from grifting in favor of a life of suburban domesticity. Pressuring Radar to do the same, she gives him an ultimatum: An idyllic life with her or a life alone in the world of con artists. As Radar contemplates his future, he pictures himself living in domestic bliss with the woman of his dreams, someone who still inspires fantasies for him despite years of living together. He imagines them living a stress-free life in a house with a yard, a dog, and a white picket fence. The thought causes a flutter in his chest. But is he ready? Grifting is like a drug; the thrill he derives from it is addictive.

Just when Radar has finally decided to acquiesce to Allie’s demands, his crooked father and master scammer Woody who abandoned him when he was eight years old shows up with a Las Vegas casino boss hot on his trail. The father convinces Radar to do one last swindle to save his hide, putting Radar in conflict with Allie’s wishes. As the group embarks on an outrageous plan to create make-believe fame/demand for Vic Mirplo’s avant-garde art, targeting the casino boss in the investment scam, Radar’s adrenaline starts flowing. Grifting is his art and he is in his element.

The narrative voice is upbeat and funny, the pacing fast enough to keep me turning the pages. The characters are colorful and quirky, especially the depiction of eccentric scam artists Vic Mirplo and Radar’s father, Woody. The dynamics between Radar and Allie add extra dimension to what could have been a standard swindle story. At times, the narrative bogs down by delving too much into the grifter’s psyche. The mistrust on Radar’s part (who narrates the story) is overdone as he constantly analyzes every dialogue exchange and motivation of people he comes in contact with (even Allie), such that he almost becomes an unreliable narrator, which is frustrating. We get it — grifters are suspicious people, don’t overdo it.

The Mirplopalooza scam, which involves hyping the demand for Vic Mirplo’s art by launching a Burning Man type of installation/performance in the Nevada desert, severely tests the novel’s verisimilitude. Tactics of misdirection, endless feints and switcheroos contrived by Woody and company to mask the real con makes for a convoluted read. There are simply too many of them to keep track of. Putting the protagonist in the role of a blundering puppet (Radar is clearly overmatched by Woody’s cunning) instead of having him actually pulling the strings also disappoints. But then, Radar’s cluelessness does go with the quirky flavor of the narrative. It is unfortunate that the book is saddled with these flaws because the storytelling is very engaging. Somewhere in the editing process, the editor should have done a better job. Overall, The Albuquerque Turkey garnered three stars out of five from this reviewer. Despite its faults, the book is enjoyable enough for a lazy afternoon read.

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