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VIRGIN HEAT by Laurence Shames (Hyperion, PB, 374 pp.)
MANGROVE SQUEEZE by Laurence Shames (Hyperion, HC, 309 pp.)

Buy this book?

MANGROVE SQUEEZE by Laurence Shames
Ballantine, May 1999, $5.59

Reviewed by Anthony Smith (5/98)

These are the latest of Laurence Shames's novels, which all occur in the vibrant, odd world of Key West. The atmosphere is always humid and wonderful, the tone always nostalgic for a more pure version of Paradise, all the while aware that what's left is still pretty close. Each book revolves around a new cast of outsider characters blended with the ever present local eccentrics, and there is always some type of crime involved that gets in the way of the simple life.

In my opinion, if you have read any of Shames's books and enjoyed them, then you will enjoy these as well, since every one has almost exactly the same plot (Oh, there are variations, but after a few reads, one can see the basic building blocks every time): Dissatisfied person from New York, or the New York area, mostly Mob guys, is fed up with fast paced life and longs for paradise and simplicity. This person then packs up and leaves in a hurry, often not telling anyone where he is headed, and starts over in Key West, where he quickly becomes bored out of his gourd. The problem with paradise is it never lives up to the imagination, and it certainly isn't as convenient as New York. So, eventually, something happens to disrupt this person's life (Mob guys catch up, or character gets involved with Mob crime somehow) that makes everything exciting again. A comedy of errors ensues, yadda, yadda, yadda, and life goes on with a big decision ahead: Is Key West for the main character, or not?

I don't mean to dismiss this so easily. Mr. Shames is a great writer, who has an eye for Key West, a great empathy for the place that is always apparent, and he creates wonderfully quirky, interesting characters. Plot is not the main thing in these books; character and place is. The way these characters see Key West is what stands out most, the beauty of the natural world around us all that we should all recognize and fight to protect (well, maybe that's too strong) but I have become tired of the one-note mechanics here. I always give his latest a shot, to see if he's come up with something different, but...

Of these two novels, I recommend VIRGIN HEAT the most. It was the funniest Shames book I've read in a few years, and had the most interesting characters. The story was nice, another mob one, but with a new element in the lead character. Angelina is very well drawn.

MANGROVE SQUEEZE, on the other hand, wasn't one for me. We have TWO displaced outsiders bored with Key West, plus a group of Russians. Not quite enough heart in this one. Too much of a typical, goofball crime caper. But as I've said, Shames writes very nicely, so it is still interesting in its own unique ways.

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