By Sarah Osman
Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love is a delightful beach read, a lampoon of American culture that provides plenty of suspenseful fun.
Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love by Carlos Allende. Red Hen Books, 312 pp, $25.95.
One of the most difficult feats for any writer is to create a sympathetic, yet unlikable protagonist that a reader wants to spend time with. There has been a recent trend in “antiheroes,” but not every one of these rebels has been winning. For every charismatic Don Draper there’s a Joker in the form of Jared Leto. In his novel Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love, Carlos Allende pulls off an impressive trick: he has created two unlikable protagonists that are a lot of fun to be around. Two rather difficult people turn out to be surprisingly sympathetic leads.
The novel follows Jignesh, an overweight, gay Indian man who is stealing money from the insufferable rental company he works for. He goes on a date with Charlie, an effeminate talker from a tiny town in Kentucky. After the evening he has no intention of going out with Charlie again. But then Jignesh accidentally kills his coworker, who was continually mocking him. He is forced to reach out to Charlie for the use of an oversized freezer to put the body in it. This is the absurd farce conceit that propels the plot. What makes this strange setup work is that both of the characters are highly immature for being in their late 30s-early 40s, but it’s in this immaturity that the pair work so well together.
Obviously, Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love is a work of black comedy. Allende is all about gallows humor, given that Jignesh continually ends up killing his coworkers accidentally. Eventually, he has to move in with Charlie so he can keep using his freezer to house the dead bodies. Allende’s focus on blood, the couple’s strange courtship, and their family fights is used to generate a kind of sardonic humor that one rarely finds in American writing — this is more like the kind of farcical mayhem that marks British and Australian fiction. Fans of macabre humor will appreciate what Allende is up to here. At its best, the novel is hysterical; fans of gruesome giggles will be grateful.
Still, it took me a little while to enjoy living in the minds of the two protagonists. The novel is narrated by both Jignesh and Charlie. Jignesh’s pretentiousness becomes grating, but you can’t help but be delighted by his putdowns of what he sees as his idiot coworkers. Jignesh struggles to bond with those around him, but it’s not entirely his fault. We learn why Jignesh has such a big chip on his shoulder: he has been bullied from childhood on because of his sexuality, race, and weight. We understand why he’s so angry so much of the time. While Jignesh’s voice is abusive, Charlie’s perspective on the world is lighthearted, rambling and, at times, downright racist. Charlie lives in his self-created pop culture fantasy; he constantly models himself after admired femmes fatales. He is not as sympathetic or as funny as Jignesh, but Allende gives him a backstory to explain his strange sensibility. His upbringing wasn’t easy either. Charlie grew up in the deep South where he was ostracized because of his feminine mannerisms. In this sense, the target of Allende’s satire is homophobia: Charlie and Jignesh are people who have been shaped, not for the better, by this country’s rampant gay-baiting. Because Allende has a political point to make, Charlie and Jignesh never become entirely insufferable. And, to the novelist’s credit, he doesn’t entirely let them off the hook.
The most amusing part of the novel is how Allende builds so nimbly on Charlie and Jignesh’s murderous plight. You can’t help but read ferociously onward, eager to see when and how the pair will be found out. Allende is not afraid of becoming outrageous as the pair elude detection. Charlie keeps up his part of the scheme because Jignesh takes Charlie to the opera. This device becomes even funnier once Charlie grows madder and madder that he is not getting enough “likes” on his Facebook posts about the productions he sees. As for Jignesh, he has a moral conscience. He doesn’t enjoy killing people. As his panic grows, Allende generates plenty of humor out of Jignesh’s haplessness — despite himself, he can’t stop digging his hole deeper.
The problem with this kind of homicidal buffoonery is landing the ending. To keep the proceedings wild and unpredictable, a novelist has to keep coming up with unpredictable twists and turns. How does one provide a fulfilling end point? No spoilers here, but Allende supplies an ambiguous conclusion (which also sets up a possible sequel) and it left me unsatisfied. Still, despite its weak ending, Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love is a delightful beach read, a lampoon of American culture that provides plenty of suspenseful fun.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman