Laguna, Putegnat’s first novel, is set amid the water and sand with which he’s so familiar. His theme is likewise familiar to his readers: the means by which power and wealth work an insidious corruption on men. The supposed evils of oil wildcatters and dynastic families should be familiar to anyone who remembers “Dynasty” and “Dallas.” So, too, should the David versus Goliath battle playing out as a tiny band of “friends of the Laguna” covertly takes on a man who has a U.S. Congressman at his beck and call, not to mention all of local officialdom. Although the plot and the characters are familiar, the setting will be relatively new to most readers. Presumably, any resemblance of Magne Ranch to the powerful King Ranch just up the coast from where the action in Laguna takes place is coincidental.
Writers are often told to write what they know; Putegnat is strongest when he describes the setting he clearly holds dear - the flora and the fauna and the insignificance of man against the vastness of nature. The passages about sailing are alive with detail but almost seem pasted in to add bulk to the text. Putegnat’s plot suffers when he addresses topics about which he knows little, in particular how oil and gas exploration is carried out. A visit to a local college geology department might have been useful.
Half culmination of a sweeping dynastic saga straight from a John Jakes miniseries and half a call to environmental action reminiscent of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Laguna sadly tends to chase its own tail at times. The plot suffers from an overemphasis on the evils of the Magne family coupled with a curious lack of detail about the inner workings of the tiny force arrayed to save the Laguna from the family's brand of hubris. The twist that delivers the coup de grace is well-nigh masterful, except that it lacks any basis in the plot itself and does not work for readers because we have not overlooked the author’s subtle clues – there were no subtle clues. Readers are left with a “Mission: Impossible” style plot in which they never even see the original dossier before it self-destructs, a disconcerting and ultimately unsatisfying structure that leaves far too many logistical questions unanswered.
Laguna plows no new ground in addressing the themes of power, corruption, and money. It covers an unfamiliar setting better, taking readers deep into the steamy reaches of the Texas coastal marshes. As such, it’s an average or slightly better read, one that could have been improved by less preaching and more intrigue.