Hippo Manchester
September 15, 2005

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More than I could take

Roberge novel tries hard but misses target by feet

By Robert Greene

More Than They Could Chew, by Rob Roberge, Harper Collins, 2005, 306 pages

Someone remind me to ask Hippo books editor Lisa Parsons why she keeps giving me books to review that feature 30-something men who are failing at anything approaching normal life. I mean, c’mon — I’m 33 and have been known to subsist on beer and Kraft dinner for weeks at a time but I have my act together. Right? Right?!

Surely I’m nothing like Nick Ray, the main character in More Than They Can Chew. Nick, 34, is a loser. He’s a “sucker bet,” says his ex-wife. He drinks and takes speed. He’s a desk clerk at the Lincoln Hotel, the flop house he also lives in. Occasionally Nick  makes a few extra bucks cleaning past-its-prime fish bait out of live-bait vending machines. Oh, and he’s in love with a lesbian who has a live-in girlfriend but hangs out with Nick because he helps her fulfill her often bizarre sex fantasies.

But screwed up as he is, Nick is no dummy. So when he buys a used computer (in order to e-mail his lover), and finds on its hard drive a list of the identities — both real and assumed — of folks in the federal Witness Protection Program, he senses an opportunity. He goes back to the computer store, buys nine more used computers, and tells his friends, a junky ex-lawyer named Maggot Arm Joe and a half-Russian leg breaker named Sergei, that he can cut them in on a deal. (Maggot Arm Joe is so named because his heroin habit resulted in an armful of gangrene and doctors decided to treat the problem with maggots.)

The guys soon hit on the idea of selling the computers to the highest bidder, either the witnesses themselves or those whom the witnesses testified against. Hijinks ensue. Innocent fingers are broken. A bomb shelter is purchased. The top bidder dies and the FBI comes sniffing around. Nick is beaten up by mistake. The lesbian likes Nick, but only as a friend.

Roberge seems to be aiming to be the next Elmore Leonard, filling twisty plots with quirky characters from unlikely backgrounds. The difference is, Leonard’s plots are fun and interesting and his character’s quirks make them likable or at least engaging. Roberge’s ideas are good but they all fall flat. Too many words are wasted on colorful secondary characters, leaving far too few to show the motivation of the leads.

At several points in the book I wanted to find Roberge and shake him.

“What was the point of the fetal pigs, Mr. Roberge?” I’d ask. “Why waste precious paragraphs on them when you can’t be bothered to use some to make me care about your characters? What’s up with the gratuitous enema fantasy in the middle?”

More Than They Could Chew, while describing Nick and Friends’ predicament, is also a good indicator of the one this author placed his readers in. Although, Roberge might have been in that situation himself.