‘The Marauders’ takes tragicomic treasure hunt through Louisiana bayou


FICTION

‘The Marauders’

Tom Cooper

Crown Publishers

304 pgs., $26.

By the 10th page of the crime novel “The Marauders,” author Tom Cooper has shown his central character telling knock-knock jokes and popping Oxycontin pills from a Donald Duck Pez dispenser.

The book’s early humor reinforces its dust-jacket packaging, which includes a quote from Stephen King calling the book “fall-on-the-floor funny.” Readers are primed for a Bayou-set equivalent to one of Carl Hiassen’s or Elmore Leonard’s breezy potboilers, in which dimwitted criminals collide with hapless civilians for light-hearted hijinks.

With a title that suggests rollicking adventure, “The Marauders” delivers on the kind of darkly comedic plotting that has the unspoken theme “Crime makes you stupid.” But it’s also proves to be a deeply melancholy tale, as much about the dying way of life on the Louisiana coast as it is about slapstick capers. After publishing short fiction in the likes of the Oxford American, Cooper pens a rich, twisty first novel with lots narrative drive but far deeper emotional stakes than its readers may expect.

The book’s multiple storylines surround Lindquist, a pill-dependent, joke-cracking, one-armed shrimper who nurses a longstanding obsession with treasure. Specifically, he longs to recover a long-lost cache from renowned pirate Jean Lafitte, who frequented the Louisiana coast in the early 19th century. Having lost an arm in a boating accident, then losing his artificial replacement at the outset of the novel, Lindquist comes across as both a comical sad sack and a deluded idealist, like a modern-day Don Quixote with a metal detector.

“The Marauders” takes place in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, with the coastal waters becoming more and more tainted with petroleum and chemical dispersants. Lindquist and his fellow fishermen see their nets pull in dwindling quantities of shrimp and diminishing returns from vendors as restaurants refuse to serve Gulf seafood. The disaster comes across as a potential death knell to an area already struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina just five years earlier. In a harrowing flashback, teenager Wes Trench recalls his mother disappearing in floodwaters because his father refused to evacuate their home.

Cooper shows a penchant for doubles in the book’s ensemble. Over the course of the story, Wes trades one maladjusted father figure with a shrimp boat for a second one. The villains of the piece, The Toup Brothers, are violent, drug-dealing twins guarding a fortune in marijuana hidden in the swamp. They have a pair of funhouse-mirror opposites in Cosgrove and Hanson, two petty ne’er-do-wells who seek a quick score and end up far over their heads. The only character lacking an obvious parallel is Grimes, a self-loathing oil company flunky who returns to his despised hometown to get his former neighbors to sign away their rights to sue.

The desperate straits amps up the tension for everyone, whether its Lindquist looking for his impossible dream of pirate gold, the Toup twins savagely protecting their stash or Wes trying to chart a path for his uncertain future. “The Marauders” builds to a climax with multiple characters pursuing each other in the increasingly labyrinthine swamp, but several of the plot threads unexpectedly trail away, and Cooper offers a faint, puzzling hint of the supernatural.

Despite having such a colorful, well-observed line-up of fools, antiheroes and struggling blue collar workers, Cooper keeps the book’s women on the sidelines. A crotchety pawn shop owner offers sharp comic relief, and male protagonists will pay visits to a mother or a daughter, but the books women seem defined either by their relationships to men, or their lack thereof.

Several times in the book, Cooper drops the name “Robicheaux,” which happens to be the name of the narrator of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set detective novels. Cooper is probably paying homage to a formative influence – like Burke, he shows a fondness for ornate descriptive writing, particularly when evoking the bayou: “As daybreak grew brighter the swamp was seeping back into place, like an old oil painting revealed tint by tint by restorative solvent. Mushroom browns and moss greens and lichen grays.”

Near the end, the book’s nature descriptions take on an incantatory, accumulative power, the richness of the language matching the fecundity of the flora and fauna. Cooper’s prose creates a powerful impression of the bayou’s timelessness, asserting that the wilderness existed before human settlers arrived and despite hurricanes and oil spills, pirates and get-rich-quick schemes, it will remain long after the people are gone.

The book’s final scenes go for the kind of epiphanies one finds in novels with higher literary ambitions than the typical comedy-mysteries. “The Marauders” makes an impressive debut for Cooper with a thoughtful perspective on the Gulf Coast in the early 21st century, but it’s not the escapist lark you might expect early on. “The Marauders” proves deeply familiar with the byways and customs of Louisiana, but only occasionally lets the good times roll.