Seth Greenland's "The Angry Buddhist" begins with two sexy American women getting matching tattoos in Puerto Vallarta — and then it swiftly jumps forward into the madcap final week of a congressional race out in the desert around Palm Springs. The incumbent, a wily and infinitely pragmatic political sleazebag named Randall Duke, finds himself facing a new kind of problem, namely, an opponent who might actually defeat him. Her name is Mary Swain, and here she is, observed at a rally by the angry Buddhist of the title, one of Randall's brothers, the busted cop called Jimmy Ray Duke:
"She glides to the microphone and Jimmy notes the burnished skin, the blinding smile, the five hundred dollars' worth of blond highlights, fitted red blouse set off against the matching white linen skin and jacket that wraps her like cellophane. Then he envisions her without any of it. Which he knows is the whole idea."
Mary Swain, a revved-up Sarah Palin, "hell in high heels," used to be a flight attendant but now she's rich, courtesy of her husband, Shad Swain (great name!), who "became rich selling sub-prime mortgages to bad loan risks and then bailed out before the con imploded."
The delighted reader soon discovers that for Greenland politics is no noble calling but an emblem of "the florid culture of modern America," an anarchistic dog-eat-dog world in which campaign managers shoot for new heights of Darwinian ruthlessness, "a game played with everything from pointed elbows to pointed knives."
A local blogger, "Desert Machiavelli," acts as an ultra-cynical Greek chorus to the unfolding action, for starters reminding her blogheads that "Mary Swain's danger lies in her cheerful erotic charge. When fascism arrives it will not be in jackboots but, rather, wrapped in an American flag, carrying a cross"; and it will be, the Desert Machiavelli goes on, wearing the kind of snazzy high-heeled pumps that encourage thoughts not to be mentioned in a family newspaper.
Lurking in the background of these swift-moving opening chapters are those matching tattoos (of manga kittens, if you want to know), waiting to trigger mayhem like guns shown on the wall in the first act of a Chekhov play. Greenland, who in recent years has scripted and produced episodes of the HBO series "Big Love," isn't just a knowing, irreverent satirist. His story structure has the kind of effortlessness that comes with only bucket loads of hard work. Clues are planted, leads followed, and scarily pungent oddball characters introduced, including gun-for-hire Odin Brick, "sporting designer knock-off shades, smoking a Camel and doing his best Johnny Depp."
Blackmail is assayed and surprises are sprung before murder blooms upon the page with cool, comic nonchalance. "Odin pivots forward toward the cash register, squeezing the trigger and puts two bullets into the counterman, one in the head, one in the neck, blood spurting backward baptizing the whiskey bottles red."
This idea — that messy and inept human striving is the best producer of plot — recalls the recent fictive universes of Elmore Leonard, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers (lords of anarchy, all of them, and, I'd venture, influences here). This novel is Greenland's third, after "The Bones" and "Shining City," and it's easily his most ambitious.
Some one-liners still come off sounding too glib and cute (a young reporter "looks like she studied at the Victoria's Secret School of Journalism" and "Guilt is as pointless as the Pope in Tel Aviv"), but it's better to stuff in too many jokes than avoid them altogether. In any event, Greenland does bring more serious themes into play. The big issue, explored through the questing character of Jimmy Duke, is: "how is it possible to practice non-attachment if you have a moral perspective on the world?"
Jimmy hopes that his ad hoc study of Buddhism will help him shrug off the shackles of the past, but events keep sucking him back into the red rage of the present. He's the novel's detective, not its hero exactly, but its wavering ethical barometer.
Greenland lays none of this on too thick, but Jimmy Duke's presence provides grace notes that offset the wicked aphorism in which the novel's prose otherwise abounds. "How well a politician dealt with the unexpected: that was what prolonged a career. One survives turning up in a hooker's black book, another gets re-elected after a car accident kills the woman with whom he was returning from a tryst.… You have to be light on your feet."
Greenland lives in Los Angeles, and he knows California, deftly evoking the "golden oasis" of Palm Springs, so close to the more hardscrabble towns of Desert Hot Springs and Twentynine Palms. He gets the desert: "Molecules madly dance beneath the relentless glare. Unity gives way to chaos. And every day, people lose their minds."
Novelists too need to be nimble, and "The Angry Buddhist" is a wild entertainment as well as a novel about the way we live now that dares to dance with the profound.