By the Time I Get to Nashville by Lionel Fenn
Ace Books, 1994
Price I paid: $2.25
The man they call Diego hitched a ride on a time machine—but the Old West didn’t prepare the gunslinger for the new Nashville of the 22nd century…
The good news is that the Old West is now a religion, and Diego’s being worshipped as the Grand Cowpoke. The bad news is that he’s about to be hanged…for impersonating the man they call Diego!
Comedic books are hard to review. So are books that aren’t especially bad. There are only so many times that I can say “Man, this just wasn’t as funny as the author thought it was,” and in the meantime I don’t get to make fun of things like bad science or weird characterization because there’s a good chance they were intentional, and again, there’s only so many ways I can say “Naming your character Bingus Butthole is not funny except in very specific situations.”
By the Time I Get to Nashville, fortunately, did not have a character named Bingus Butthole. In fact, it completely avoided the “funny name” trope that I’ve ranted about on more than one occasion. So I’m glad about that.
The book also had a lot of good things going for it. It had good pacing, a decent story, and characters that weren’t completely unlikable. All told, I’m happy I read it.
This book is one that my friend picked up for me while he was out of town. I appreciate having a friend who will be in another town and think of me just long enough to check out their used-book store. John also found a whopping nine Penetrator books there that I haven’t read yet, so my joy is boundless.
This book stood out because, and I’m not sure if I’ve actually ever said this, I live in Tennessee. Specifically I’m in Knoxville, but I’ve been to Nashville on more than one occasion, mainly on school trips to see our state capitol.
It’s funny, though, because I don’t feel much of a connection with Nashville, even as a Tennessean. It’s a good three hour drive away, and I don’t even drive so Google tells me it would take 61 hours to walk. I’m not much of a country music fan and the folks in the capitol have routinely established that they doesn’t represent me in any meaningful way.
But I’m still familiar enough with Nashville that I can tell you that this book doesn’t actually take place in Nashville. Part of me thinks this is fine, because the book is supposed to be funny or whatever, but really a little research would have gone a long way. The only two places referenced in this book that actually exist are Union Station and the Grand Ole Opry, which in this book is referred to as the Palatial Ole Opry Arena. Some kind of recognition of the rest of the city would have been nice.
I take that back, another place is mentioned that actually exists. The Tennessee River has some action in this book. The problem is that the Tennessee River doesn’t flow through Nashville. Its headwaters are in Knoxville (woo!) where it heads south into Chattanooga, flows through Alabama, and then cuts back up through Tennessee but nowhere near Davidson County. One gets the feeling that the river avoids Nashville in much the same way I do.
For those of you playing along at home, Nashville does have a riverfront, and it’s on the Cumberland River.
It’s also worth saying that the cover to this book has a shout-out to Elvis, who I don’t think is ever referred to in this book and besides, is more commonly connected with Memphis than with Nashville.
The book is the second in a trilogy, which isn’t stated anywhere on the cover but does get called out in the author’s note at the beginning of the book. The series follows a man named Diego, a gunslinger from 1880 who gets picked up by a pair of time travellers who use a train as a time machine. The time machine is referred to as the TT, which stands for Time Thing.
From what I could piece together from the text, the first book involved Diego being taken to the 90s, where Virgil and Molly, the creators of the Time Thing, are from. It was an adventure and in the end, something damaged the Time Circuits or whatever and they ended up in the future instead of the past. Specifically they ended up in the 22nd century and everything is just wacky.
At some point the United States collapsed and balkanized. Nashville is now part of the nation of Greater Tennessee, whose boundaries are never defined although I think it says they stop just west of the Appalachians, so I don’t know if Knoxville is a part of it or not. Knoxville is never once mentioned, which is a disappointment considering how the book stole our river.
Come to think of it, no cities outside of Nashville are ever brought up.
So in 22nd century Nashville it seems that the Old West has become a religion led by a guy named Hiram Bufoally. Bufoally has plans to extend his religion and influence outside of the Greater Tennessee area.
The god of this religion is none other than our hero, Diego, so as soon as he steps out of the Time Thing he is chased around by people who want to arrest or kill him for impersonating himself, which is blasphemy.
I like that.
The bulk of the book involves Diego, Virgil, and Molly trying to find a part they can use to fix the Time Thing and then take Diego back home. In the meantime, we get to look at the setting and see Diego’s reactions to it, which are mainly negative. The book did a good job of not dragging on a bunch while this happened, and in fact I can only think of one or two points when the action stopped so somebody could exposition us.
Once the necessary part is found, about three-quarters of the way through the book, Diego decides that since this whole crazy religious world domination scheme is based around himself, then he needs to be the one to put a stop to it.
Along the way, we meet several folks from this time period who join our heroes. There’s Belle, a prostitute who takes up with Diego. There’s Rowman, a member of the Greater Tennessee Resistance. And there’s Sara, Rowman’s daughter, who is also a member of the resistance and is spying on Bufoally from the inside as one of his “cowgirls.” Together, they make a plan to oust Bufoally from power. Mainly the plan involves humiliating him.
It doesn’t really work out that way. They plan on carrying out the plan on the evening of some big announcement. See, Bufoally’s religion preaches that one day Diego will return and lead them to glory or somesuch, which sounds familiar. Also familiar is the fact that if he ever did return, he would probably have some things to say that would undercut Bufoally’s own ambitions, so the thing to do is to make a fake Diego and say that he’s the second coming.
So Diego intercepts this fraudulent version of himself and faces down Bufoally onstage, causing the preacher to go crazy and foam at the mouth and so forth, thus ending his power over his flock. The problem is that Bufoally then grabs Belle, of whom Diego has grown quite fond, and tries to hold her hostage, so then Diego has to shoot him between the eyes, which is apparently one of his many trademarks. Then they head back to the Time Thing along with the new members of the party and try to go home, which of course fails because we have a third book coming.
In terms of plot the book was a little on the light side, which again speaks to the fact that it was supposed to be funny. I’ll admit, I didn’t actually find the book all that funny. I didn’t exactly roll my eyes a bunch or threaten to throw the book away, but I also only cracked a smile a few times, and laughed openly exactly once.
See, the police in this crazy future Nashville drive flying cars called pearls. And at one point it’s revealed that there’s a smaller version of these police cars called mini-pearls.
The joke works better in the book because it wasn’t actually spelled out for me. I had to figure it out, and that’s how you make an effective joke. A lot of the rest of the jokes in the book were either too heavy-handed or were less jokes than just one-off references to titles of Western movies.
There was also this bit where, whenever Diego had to say his name, it was really emphasized. His catchphrase was “They call me…Diego.” Whenever he said it, which was about two or three times, there would be a chapter break, then he’d say the line, and then another chapter break that gets us back into the action.
That’s right, every time he said it would be a chapter unto itself. And maybe it’s because I haven’t read the first book, but it felt like the joke hadn’t really earned that level of being called-out.
I’m getting hypercritical but honestly the book was pretty good. I won’t call it any kind of comedic masterwork, but between the story and the comedy it kept me going, and it was a fast read, so that’s nice.
The author used the name Lionel Fenn to write this series and the Kent Montana series, and that’s a pen name for Charles L. Grant, a prolific author who also wrote under the names Geoffrey Marsh, Simon Lake, Felicia Andrews, and Deborah Lewis. I can’t say I’d ever heard of him or any of those pseudonyms, but he did have a World Fantasy Award and a Nebula to his name(s), so that’s something. While this book didn’t do an awful lot for me, I’d be interested in checking out some of his other work. Maybe even finding the first and last books in this trilogy and seeing if a little context doesn’t help it out a little bit.