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Snitch Jacket by Christopher Goffard

Snitch Jacket by Christopher Goffard (2007) is the Los Angeles journalist’s debut novel.  It is the story of likeable low-life Benjamin “Bad Benny” Buntz Jr., or at least the story he tells Walter Goins, the Public Defender he has been provided, while sitting in jail awaiting trial at the Inyo County District Courthouse in east-central California. True story, or not? We never really find out. No one believes in him, so they give him a new story.  And Benny, good-hearted and believing as he is, is willing to give the new story a chance.  It lands him in jail for a longer sentence. Too late, but his original story begins to show itself truthful.  Only problem is Benny has taken the new story wholeheartedly, and has changed along with the times.

Sometimes the best reality is that which other’s give you.

“Snitch jacket” refers to Benny’s side-job as an informer for the police department, often his only steady job although not very lucrative. He provides information about the other low-life characters he hangs out with at The Greasy Tuesday bar in Costa Mesa, California, while buddying up to all of them. It also refers to the fact that this informer role was offered to him by the police, and it fits him like a jacket.  The jacket theme is further reinforced when his best buddy at the bar, Gus “Mad Dog” Miller, the very person who Benny informs on, gives Benny an old army jacket, which he wears proudly, and which marks Benny and Gus as the closest of friends.
I admit that I bought the book for its cover jacket, which shows Gus “Mad Dog” Miller, a gruff, tattoo-covered, cigarette smoking, prisoner-type, talking to likeable Benny the informer in a smoky bar with other bar patrons in silhouette slugging beers and small-talking.  The book did not let me down— it depicted a group of poor low-life trash in southern California who’s biggest daily accomplishment was getting to the bar, and doing an occasional crime. But it surprised me also, depicting them in a likeable fashion in spite of the repudiation one felt for them, building up an inner tension in the reader.  
Actually everyone in this novel was both likeable and despicable at the same time—the criminals, the police, the well-to-do who bought hit-man services from the low-life, the husbands who turn against their wives, and the wives who abandon their husbands.  And everyone turns out to have a fictionalized character.  Gus “Mad Dog” Miller, unarguably the novel’s most colorful character, ex-Vietnam Vet with a necklace of ears salvaged from his dead victims during the war, who everyone fears, turns out to be a peace-loving man who couldn’t harm a flea.
Goffard has a good hold of satire, and the highlight of the novel, the murder scene at the Howling Head Festival in the Mojave Desert (an obvious reference to Nevada’s Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert) is both hysterically funny and hideously bungled.
Goffard’s book is both a comedy and a tragedy of identities, as well as a comedy and a tragedy of errors.  Identities are fluid, but still anchored deeply in the unconquerable social heritage which the characters are bound til.
The book was well written, and well worth reading.  I enjoyed his use of language, his colorful characters, who are intricately woven into the plot and make surprise reappearances in new guises throughout the book, and his biting satire.  It was not a typical book for me to read, but then that is one of the pleasures of book reading—entering worlds very different from the one you live in, also different from the ones you normally live in vicariously through book reading. I look forward to see how Goffard’s next book turns out.