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Book Review

Mark Haskell Smith: Baked

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By Mark Haskell Smith

Black Cat, paperback

Los Angeles crime novelist Mark Haskell Smith has always harbored a comically ludicrous streak. From his 2002 debut Moist (in which a tattoo on a woman’s severed arm begins a descent into Los Angeles’ Mexican criminal underworld) through his 2007 third outing Salty (in which a corpulent, sex-addicted rock star’s decompression holiday to Thailand is thwarted when his wife is kidnapped by pirates), Smith has a knack for winningly blending James Ellroy blunt violence with Elmore Leonard deadpan wit. With his new Baked, however, Smith approaches even rarer heights. In this dash through L.A.’s medical marijuana industry, Smith doesn’t so much twist reality to give it a more comic edge as realize ordinary people can be pretty fucking mental all on their own. And with its lovingly ordinary absurdity, Baked starts to approach the gimlet-eyed barbed satire of Terry Southern.

Miro Basinas isn’t your ordinary pot-growing amateur botanist. He’s inspired by Floyd Zaiger, the plant geneticist who developed the pluot: three-fifths plum, two-fifths apricot. Basinas has his own theories about marijuana breeding, and his original strain is unique and tasty enough to win the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. Perhaps that’s why he catches a bullet in the chest one morning after he returns from the Netherlands the crowned champion. Perhaps that’s why the egotistical owner of the Compassion Center—the Starbucks of medical marijuana outlets—is planning some cushy opening where he’s going to unveil a new exclusive product. Perhaps that’s why bodies keep turning up killed by slugs matching the one that passed right through Miro’s torso.

Smith navigates this terrain with a gifted ear for dialogue and a minimalist’s ability to plot efficiently. This simplicity, though, doesn’t prevent Smith from firing off ribald observations, such as when a mere description of two of Miro’s friends becomes a window into their lives:

Rupert . . . looked like some kind of hobo skate punk with his scruffy beard and ridiculous habit of wearing shirts on top of shirts with a T-shirt on top. Rupert’s girlfriend Stacey was dressed like a thrift store kook, in a vintage 50s sweater set over tight turquoise capri pants and pink Converse sneakers. Her arms were covered with tattoos, as if she’d taken Rupert’s idea of layering to its logical conclusion.

Middle-class hipsterism isn’t just a straw target here; this cataloging is merely one of many moments in which Smith lets America’s cultural melting pot make its own comedic casserole. By the time Smith arrives at his mock Hollywood ending, Baked introduces you to a young missionary who recognizes the Trinity in the creation of a burrito and has his first sincere religious experience when his entire body is restrained in Japanese binding rope and his scrotum is slathered in shaving cream; an ex-army female EMT who used to go to bed comforted by the firearm under her pillow but now finds solace falling asleep with her hand wrapped around a dildo strapped to her waist; a Korean-American homicide detective who knows he should take his wife’s advice about better living through brown rice and yoga but still can’t let go of the more dependable relaxation of a series of beers punctuated by the occasional shot of tequila; and an Irish-Salvadoran drug-muscle-for-hire who clips the bitch who tried to make off with his stash and, pausing before her painting of Jesus on the beach, decides this poster of Jim Morrison would really pull his crib together. You might not come away from Baked with a newfound respect for pot growers, but you just may chortle at the completely plausible idea of the legalization of an ameliorative treatment for chemotherapy, AIDS, and glaucoma patients being turned into an upwardly mobile wellness industry.

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