It’s a pleasure, when watching the movie Sideways, to partake of a bottle of wine. With David G. White’s new novel The Good Life, it’s almost a necessity, but only because you’d be hard pressed to enjoy this book sober.
The Good Life, the first novel from White, and the first book published by Harmon and White Publishing, is a murder-mystery set against the backdrop of a winery in Napa Valley, California. Vic Miranda, winemaker and half-owner of Maverick Cellars, is found dead in a vat of fermenting wine. The authorities determine the death to be accidental, but Chris Garrett, Vic’s assistant winemaker, doesn’t buy it. Somebody killed Vic, he’s sure, and he won’t stop till he finds out who.
Interested? Well, don’t get your hopes up. What follows is over 200 pages of boring detective work performed by Chris and his best friend Jeff, a deputy with the county Sheriff’s Department, who, apparently, never has to show up for work. And the author wants Chris to shine so much that Jeff – who you would think would have professional training in investigating – looks so often like a bumbling fool that I could see why the Sheriff’s Department didn’t mind his perpetual absence.
The problem of verisimilitude doesn’t end there, however. Every time the investigation “moves forward,” Chris and Jeff simply have a different hunch than the one they had a few pages before. At first, Jeff thinks Eric Miranda, Vic’s son, is his father’s murderer. “‘I’m telling you, Eric’s the one, the little rat bastard.'” Then, when questioning Matt Bakerwood, former assistant winemaker at Maverick Cellars, Chris sees that he “wasn’t going to get anything more from him…. But if I had to wager on Matt, I’d say he knew perfectly well….” If he had to wager. Which is all he does, over and over again. No evidence ever really builds up. Suspicion simply piles upon suspicion until the climax, when Chris reveals that he knows who killed Vic Miranda. But for any reader not in the fantasy world of always correct hunches, there are, at that point, still three possible suspects. And when you find out who Chris was talking about you’ll realize that nothing in the book has actually guided Chris to this decision. Just another hunch.
In terms of the actual writing, I was offended by its low quality. There is no escape from Chris’ narration. Granted, it’s in the first-person, but even then a scene could be set without using “I saw…” before describing everything. Characterization is incredibly weak. Everyone is a plot device. Jeff, the bumbling sidekick, makes Chris look like a genius. Rosalynd, the beautiful mystery woman, slobbers over Chris in her own cool way. Sheriff Coulette was only created to yell at Chris a few times about pursuing the investigation. Other characters do little to enhance the story. All their oddball qualities and half-assed witticisms serve to show us only that everyone in this novel thinks him/herself to be incredibly humorous.
And then the prose itself. The sentences are long, awkward, and state the obvious. White has no faith in his reader to surmise anything, and so he constructs elaborate sentences, with little regard for correct punctuation, trying to explain everything. This would be incredibly annoying no matter what, but where it really trips up is that everything must be filtered through Chris. Here’s something from Vic’s funeral:
“Patricia, who was facing the coffin and most of the other mourners that had come to pay their respects, and Jeff and I for that matter, not that anybody could see her face because of the veil anyway, had lifted her arm to point at somebody in the crowd.”
What did we learn from that sentence? A lot of pointless stuff. What did we need to learn? Only this:
“Patricia pointed at somebody in the crowd.”
The long, awkward sentences never abate, making nearly every chapter painful to read. I asked myself often, how did this pass editorial review? My suspicion is that it never did pass at a legitimate publishing house, and so Harmon and White was set up as a vanity press. If my hunches are anything like Chris Garrett’s, then you can wager that I’m right.