I know Rob Byrnes from the annual Saints and Sinners conference in New Orleans and have found him to be a smart, witty conversationalist—you know, the kind of guy with his tongue tucked firmly in one cheek and a martini olive in the other. But I had not read any of his books. I was looking forward to Holy Rollers, which not only met but exceeded my expectations.
In this insanely funny caper novel, Grant Lambert and Chase LaMarca, small-time crooks as well as life partners, hear about seven million dollars of tithes in a safe located deep within the walls of The Virginia Cathedral of Love, a mega-church run by one Oscar Hurley and one Dennis Merribaugh. Lambert and LaMarca gather a motley assortment of gay and lesbian crooks, choose a covenant-controlled suburban manse for a hideout and proceed to make their seven-million dollar dreams come true. Complicating factors include an ex-gay conference, an FBI investigation, a corrupt congressman and his gay aide, a twink with a penchant for see-through shirts, and a “Christianized” version of The Sound of Music.
As wildly divergent as these plot elements are, Byrnes makes them work brilliantly together. Religious right-wingers are an easy target for satire, but Byrnes’ shots are never cheap. One of my favorite bits is about Hurley’s office desk, a monstrously ugly piece of furniture fashioned from cypress, cedar and pine (the woods used in making the True Cross) called—naturally—The Desk of Christ, complete with a worn spot touched by parishoners to be closer to Christ. Can’t you see that in Newt’s office? But even the Desk of Christ has a role to play in the heist.
Byrnes works the plot angles for all he’s worth, milking laughs from the most unlikely of sources, and even his minor characters have bits of brilliance. My favorite is Tish Fielding, their nosy, Nazi-like neighbor in Old Stone Fence Posts Estates, who worships the covenants of the HOA like the parishoners do the huge stone (or, rather, concrete) cross outside the Virginia Cathedral of Love.
Laughs aside, Byrnes has a keen sense of pacing, a sharp eye for telling character details, and a great talent for the set-up. He builds a solid foundation of suspense, always placing that Holy Grail just outside the reach of his crooks and snatching it away whenever they get too close. Do they actually get the seven million? Well, yes. And no. I can’t say more for fear of spoiling Byrnes’ wonderfully written finale.
Holy Rollers is a laugh-out-loud, pee-your-pants funny caper story that will have you seeking out his other efforts as soon as you finish this. And smiling long after the last page has been turned.
© 2012, Jerry L. Wheeler