One can feel the scorching heat sizzling off the pages of C.J. Howell’s scorching noir novel. I’ve read my share of hard-boiled pulp and I can say without hesitation that this is one of the most unique entries on the noir shelf. In plot terms it’s defiant of traditional narrative since this does not have a conventional beginning-middle-end tautness but rather a sprawling (in 200-plus pages) burn scar of death and delusion. A bleak, blistering savagery of nihilism and existentialist grimness, THE LAST OF THE SMOKING BARTENDERS doesn’t follow a story so much as it does its lost soul characters, Lorne, Tom and Hailey, each very different from the other. The novel almost stands a window into their lives, a window whose dimensions are determined by a starting point before the three’s lives intersect and an ending point after. Tom is the central thread, a homeless paranoiac who eschews paper money because THEY can trace his location. Lorne is his methed-out friend, who pretty much along for the ride in life. Then there’s Hailey, the FBI agent, lonely but not exactly unhappy, running a one-person office in the middle of nowhere. It’s in the midst of this nowhere that Tom and Lorne’s paths intersect in a bloody insane collision of motives, desires, drugs and madnesses. A clutch of Native American drugheads, a mean bastard named Bulldog Frank and his young poon all end up embroiled in the chaos brewing from Tom’s mental conspiracies, Lorne’s fuck it all addiction attitude and Hailey’s wrong-place-wrong-time luck. The prose spends long graphs describing the surroundings of the characters, and their thoughts, bringing an abundance of descriptiveness beyond what one typically expects from noir. It’s a long short book. I was even reminded obliquely of The Heart of Darkness. Being long on description and short on dialogue makes for slow going, but that doesn’t stand as a critique. Howell’s mode of writing is what makes this such a scalding piece of darkly philosophical pulp fiction. It’s not about crime or murder or other such shenanigans. It’s about something brooding, malevolent and American. It’s in the subtext. I’d tell you what it’s about but the only words for it are those of this novel.