One should always be wary of titles that tell you what you should expect to get out of a novel. In the case of Rhubarb Culture: A Humorous Novel, the expectation of humor, as most readers would interpret it, as comical, is misleading. Think instead of the Merriam-Webster definition: “a: that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous b: the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous,” and then you may have an idea about where this novel will be headed.
Cary Marks and his no-longer-suicidal-but-still-bridge-jumping girlfriend, Marisol, bond over their shared ideas that civilization is on the brink of destruction. When Cary shares with her his little cabin in the mountains a la Uni-bomber, she falls so completely head-over-heels in love with Cary that she overlooks his job dragging suicides in from the river under the Jose Marti Bridge, his passion for testing recipes involving crickets, grasshoppers, termites, and scorpions, his involvement in two kidnapping incidents, and his general continued interest in her as merely a sex object, and helps him formulate a “survivalist” plan. Along the way, Cary gets mixed up in his brain-obsessed boss’s (Jordan) crackpot scheme to kidnap the leader of a “New Age Suicide Cult”: Rhuella Barbara Smith (Rhubarb), who is “freak show fat” and claims to have it on good authority that Hell is not a bad place, so that she might channel some good business investments for Jordan and his company. Needless to say, things go sour and that little cabin in the woods becomes mighty handy for eluding “streaks” (STreet + fREAKS), cops, Jordan and his senior management team, Rhubarb and her cult, and society in general.
Shear’s first novel is a bit overwhelming. He seems to have drained his well of ideas and blended them all into one dense and, unfortunately, poorly edited novel. From eating fried bugs to eating brains, from mini-Fidel Castro voodoo dolls to oversize divas, the reader is constantly bombarded with bizarre and sometimes incongruous images (humorous?) that are interrupted by missing words and repeated lines of text. The most unfortunate lack of editing occurs smack in the middle of the climax and leaves the reader wondering exactly what was intended.
While the male characters in Shear’s novel are fairly compelling (if unlikable), the women in this story fall flat and their characteristics border on offensive. Marisol, despite Shear’s attempts to infuse her with a Cuban heritage and a psychologically challenging background, is non-dimensional. She is seemingly only good for raising babies and having sex and becomes whinier and needier as the book progresses until she gets the satisfying domestic life she has been picturing. The suicide cult leader, Rhubarb, is simply a Jabba-the-Hutt-esque dimwitted puppet to her manager and ultimately becomes so diminished psychologically that by the end of the book, she has nearly faded away. The only other female character, Gloria Petaduchi, is the Human Resources manager and part of the Senior Management Team for Jordan, and has basically slept with and humiliated men to get above the glass ceiling and is thereafter a faceless amalgam of the corporate yes-man. This is not to say that Shear’s men are portrayed through rose-colored glasses, merely that they are more wholly rounded visions of psychologically disturbed men and not flat, stereotypical amalgams.
Shear does have the ability to evoke the senses, despite the fact that most of these evocations are rather unpleasant, and the reader is often caught up in the bizarre possibilities for the directions the narrative can run. I am hopeful that Shear will refine his writing and pare down the number of eccentric characters needed to fulfill a story’s destiny and that his second novel will be thrillingly bizarre.