James Wilcox's latest novel, Hunk City, is like nothing I've ever read. Not because the plot resembles a strand of wild ivy (it winds and twists around unpredictably). Not because his characters are quirky and real (there are certainly others who have created convincing fictional characters). Hunk City was an eye-opener for me because Wilcox assembles an immensely compelling story using ultra-ordinary ingredients.
The setting is Tula Springs, Louisiana. Burma Van Buren's husband has died and left her precisely $36,497,682.47 in lottery winnings, as well as Graceland II, his oversized replica of Elvis's house. Despite the pile of gold on which she sits, Burma dresses like a Roman and slaves away working at a place called Redds (a subsidiary of BurgerMatCO).
Conflict colors Wilcox's imaginative story. Burma must fend off not only greedy heirs but also, as she tries to dispense her fortune (of which everyone wants a piece), spiteful threats coming from Republicans who disagree with her proposed donations.
Enter the gorgeous Dr. Schine (the titular hunk), who arrives to landscape Graceland II. Dr. Schine immediately captivates Burma for two reasons: first, he convinces her that his anti-hormone activism will help save endangered rainforests; and second, his lean, defined body makes Burma salivate. Dr. Schine lets us in on a secret: he's really an academic who wants to "redefine the concept of legally blind" so that it refers to sad rich people like Burma, who compromise their quality of life by working at places like Redds. Dr. Schine leaves Tula Springs only after profoundly impacting the lives of its citizens.
Wilcox, who first introduced us to Burma et al. with his 1983 novel Modern Baptists, has a knack for making the mundane seem at once hilarious and interesting. If his characters are ultimately ridiculous, he draws them in such a way that they appear gallant and graceful. With Hunk City, he's done a lot with a little.