‘Big Maria’ is set in the worst corner of Arizona yet is still delightful

Press Photo

Press Photo

Andrew Conlogue

Despite a national preoccupation with winning, everyone can’t help but root for a loser. And in Johnny Shaw’s new book, “Big Maria,” the protagonists are about the biggest losers there can be.

Harry Schmittberger (who has a long standing nickname that’s easy to guess at) is a Blythe, Calif. prison guard on disability who does little more than get drunk and sit around in his dirty trailer. Ricky is a married man with a daughter and ekes out his living by driving oldsters to Mexico for cheaper drugs. And Frank is an old Chemehuevi Native American who is dying of cancer, living his last days in constant fear of his incredibly controlling daughter Mercedes. They’re just a trio of unrelated sad sacks until Harry, down and out in the parking lot behind a bar, overhears a conversation about a literal goldmine in the Chocolate Mountains of Arizona. It’s right in the middle of a U.S. Army ordinance testing range, but that doesn’t dissuade Harry from looking into it. In time, he recruits new friends Ricky and Frank into his scheme, and the gang of losers sets out to turn their consistently terrible fortunes around.

What follows can only be described as delightfully madcap and disgustingly enjoyable. The first five pages of the book are actually the hardest to get through, with graphic descriptions of bodily functions abound, but if a reader can get past them, he or she is in for a hilarious adventure. Harry, Ricky and Frank run into insane obstacle after insane obstacle, from nearly being blasted into oblivion by artillery tests to being captured by Mercedes and her two pothead sons. Many of their difficulties are of their own, ill-advised making. Self-inflicted injuries occur as a result of stupidity, and there are more scenes in hospitals in this book than most medical thrillers. Slowly but surely, however, in fits and starts and through a continuing lifetime of terrible, terrible luck, the three men march on to their destiny.

“Big Maria” is certainly a gloriously fun adventure, but perhaps the best thing about it is how much the reader ends up feeling for these poor bozos. Make no mistake, the three men (and especially Harry and Frank) are really not good people in addition to being total fuckups. But they are some of the most interesting characters to come around in a long time, and one cannot help but root hard for them as they endure setback after setback. There’s a purity of spirit in the narrative and in the characters that brings out the dreamer in all of us. Though the antics are hilarious they are also surprisingly poignant, and the reader can’t help but get more emotionally involved in this very funny book than they might in more dramatic fare.

Set in perhaps the worst corner of our very own Arizona, “Big Maria” is a book about how fun, funny and heartening it can be when the bottom of the human barrel shoots for the top against all odds. It’s a highly recommended read for winners and losers alike, of which there is a bit in every single one of us.

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