Monday, July 08, 2013

THE MEDICI IRIS by Max Medford: Book Review

In my early 20s I went through a period of boredom. I was dying for something out of the ordinary to happen. Typically, college and dating would be enough to keep things exciting, but I'd been living in a nice little suburban bubble for my entire life. I was craving some intrigue...something unknown. Comic books, movies, and episodes of The Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories strove to stimulate what I convinced myself was a stagnant existence. Eventually, here and there, things started to happen. Nothing earth shattering, but occasionally, some random amusing shit went down and inspired me to write about it, although it was nothing quite as cool and bizarre as what happened to fellow Jersey guy Wes Barino in Max Medford's first novel, The Medici Iris.

During the the time I spent with this book, I got a few "what are you reading?" inquiries. Thinking of how to sum this book up and provide an answer to that was a bit of a challenge, but all I had to do was look right there at the bottom of page one: "A tale of murder, sex, drugs...and horticulture." If that's not enough of a description, here's a few key words for you:

Beer, bar trivia games, organized crime, drugs, mysterious monks, strippers, corrupt cops, and crimson colored flowers. More than enough to elicit your attention I gather.

The characters Medford embroils into these exploits feel familiar. From the get go, we become acquainted with Wes Barino, our chain smokin', sub makin' main character. Right away I put myself in his shoes and even though he's supposed to be twenty-something, I pretended he was thirty-something. Wes drives an old Chrysler LeBaron, a detail that I got a kick out of since that was my first car. He's also a master at the bar trivia game, Quiztouch, a diversion that he's perfected at a nearby Houlihan's while drinking with his best friend, Scott, who trolls the establishment for women.

To me, Scott wasn't as likable as some classic best friends like Stiles from Teen Wolf for instance. I always use that comparison, even though Stiles was occasionally kind of a douche as well. I pictured Scott to be played by Kevin Connolly a.k.a "E" from HBO's Entourage, sort of annoying, tries too hard, but a fiercely loyal friend. Scott, who drives an IROC, usually goes a little overboard and he's clearly a bad influence on Wes, who usually keeps his nose clean, well, not always.

You'll be able to relate to Medford's real dialogue, especially between Wes and Scott. Their banter sounds like it might have been transcribed from a conversation you had while hanging out with your friend the other night.

It comes to Wes and Scott's attention that the Quiztouch game is holding a grand competition to determine the national champion of the game in Texas. Before the big championship, they'll hold a regional tournament to see who advances. Wes enters. It's a chance for him to do something that he's really good at while possibly winning a small jackpot. And as Clark Griswold once said "Getting there is half the fun, you know that!" Since I think of everything in film terms, the quest to get to the big game tournament reminded me of "Video Armageddon" in 1989's The Wizard.

Before Wes and Scott embark on their quest, there's a whole load of other drama going on. Wes has to deal with his on-again off-again girlfriend who's made up of Italian stereotypes, Sam, but he can't keep his mind off her. She thinks Wes needs to quit the sub shop and do something more worthwhile with his life. Then there's also his sister who's having issues of her own with her husband who's a cop keeping tabs on Wes. As if that's not enough, there's mysterious messages forming on her fridge. Oh and one more, Wes has an enigmatic flower growing in his yard that is devouring his attention.

Wes can barely focus on all this stuff, but the Quiztouch competition requires ultimate mental sharpness. Piling on even more tension, Wes has been having weird blackouts which have him visiting the doctor. It can't seem to get much crazier until Wes and Scott get appointed delivery boys. They are bestowed with the precarious task of making a drop-off of a mysterious, locked duffel bag on their journey.

Geographical details of The Medici Iris obviously provide a nice frame of reference if you're from Jersey or even have a loose knowledge of it from seeing it on TV. Naturally, for a Jersey freak like me, the Garden State backdrop made me feel even more like I was right there with Wes and his buddy Scott in the book. The duo traverses New Jersey from Montclair and Newark all the way down to the Pine Barrens. The NJ newspaper, The Star Ledger, is also makes a few prominent appearances.

Also a regional thing, the usage of Sub/Hoagie in vernacular gets brought up. Personally, I've never actually heard anyone refer to a sub sandwich as a hoagie, but one of our convenience store chains, WaWa, which happens to be represented in the book, sells these sandwiches under the guise of Hoagies, NOT subs. I give them a pass because they make decent subs, even though they're clearly weirdos. What's weirder, one customer at the sub-shop in the book refers to a sub as a "grinder," and is appropriately scolded for it.

I had no idea what to expect The Medici Iris, especially since the plot synopsis sounded all over the place. I found myself tearing through the book just to see how the hell it was going to come together. I wasn't frustrated by all the twists, turns, and red herrings in the least, in fact, they enticed me even more.  Medford methodically builds a mondo amount of suspense as the story ascends to it's rousing finale. All the while ancillary thrills and mini cliffhangers provide a lot fun along the way. Even after the first 50 pages I wasn't entirely sure where the book was taking me, but all I knew was that it was amusing and I thoroughly enjoyed the story that's constructed like a wild mouse roller coaster.

The Medici Iris satisfied my desire for "something cool to happen," while allowing me to stay out of trouble altogether. If you read this book you might wind up asking yourself "why can't this stuff happen to me?" Wes and Scott ran into a few of those surreal experiences - the kind of times where you feel like they may not really be happening, so you have to pinch yourself. Competently, Medford's intertwining plot unfolds in a similar way to an Elmore Leonard crime novel or in films like 1994's Pulp Fiction and 1999's Go, and even the slacker masterpiece Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

The style of the adventure incorporated stream of consciousness and it felt very cinematic. If you're a fan of films like 1985's After Hours and Into the Night, you'll dig this. While I definitely recommend this book to my fellow New Jerseyans, I also say that if you have an insatiable desire for never-ending stories, fantastic voyages, and excellent adventures, I suggest you read The Medici Iris. It may change the way you look at stuff.

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