The Max – Jason Starr and Ken Bruen

4 out of 5

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After brutalizing us with the extreme amorality and ignorance of perpetually failing upwards Max Fisher and his never-actually-on-again-off-again pseudo girlfriend Angel Petrakos across two books, writers Jason Starr and Ken Bruen figure out how to double-down on their formula: by turning it into a cartoon.

I cannot quite say how the swath of stereotypes and racist characters featured in The Max come across today, in 2021; this series of books came out when its shock-jock style of humor was maybe a bit more palatable. However, I think one of the reasons it may still work – or at least that I can admit that it worked for me – is because everyone in this world is slime. Everyone uses other people; everyone is a scumbag or scumgirl. Every stereotype is assumed of others by everyone, and then everyone is those stereotypes, and it’s such an overload of that that it becomes senseless. Furthermore, because the humor (to me) isn’t mined from those stereotypes, but rather from how idiotic each of the characters is – in no small part due to each one possessing ridiculously heady self-belief – it sort of subverts its Irish, Greek, black, white, lesbian, and etc. jokes. Does that mean the writing is genius, and that the book is for everyone? Absolutely not. It’s rather willfully stupid, and I’d be totally open to hearing other takes on that matter. But in terms of my opinion at this point: I laughed. Starr’s / Bruen’s first entry in the series irked me because of how mean-spirited it was, still tinged by taking place in something like the real world; the followup landed much better, but the landscape was still littered with some sadsack (relative) innocents who were affected by our leads’ madness. In this third entry – no one is safe. No one. And so it becomes like the potty-mouthed Naked Gun: the humor works because no character is “in” on the joke – only the reader is.

We’re right back in the mix, with Max off to Attica, and Angela trying to scare up a life for herself in Greece. But in no time at all – or perhaps within a hundred pages or so – the two are crossing paths, with Angela somehow on the run again from some Greek heavies and a British, Lee Child lookalike; Max restyled into a jail kingpin (The M.A.X., y’know), trying to hock his story to disillusioned writer Paula Segal; and Attica’s Crips and Aryans being stirred up into a frenzy by Fisher’s nonstop machinations. (Which are always decided upon a whim, with Fisher quite assured of their genius.)

The pacing is, on the one hand, rather perfectly paced for this kind of nonsense – the cartoonishness comes from how we never pause for any actual “story” or legitimate “drama” or “conflict” – The Max is just a series of ridiculous events, perilously stacked upon one another, page after page, jenga’d together by the absurd actions of… uh… everyone. On the other hand, our writerly duo keep mentioning a forthcoming jail riot – said to be one of the most vicious ones ever – which gives all of that stacking a sense of stacking up to something, and we do get there, but that blazing pace means it’s kind of over as soon as it starts. A flash to read, but with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it climax.

Still, upon reading Bust – book one – if you told me I’d be laughing out loud at a third book in this series, and looking forward to a fourth, I’d’ve slapped you silly. Instead, I find myself looking for other books Starr and Bruen have worked on…