Squirrel Days by Dustin Costa is the hard-to-classify but always-entertaining satire about the so-called US drug war. Renegade disc jockey insults the wrong people on the radio and flees to the marijuana capital of Northern California with his one-legged girlfriend, Juanita. There they find refuge with a wide variety of eccentric characters, each more insane than the last: wizards, an alien, a mad scientist, among others. Harnessing a powerful quantum weapon, this group of misfits thinks they have what it takes to defeat a bloodthirsty drug cartel.
The novel is madcap at times, hardboiled at others, and then absurdist sci-fi down the line – it seemingly shifts genre from chapter to chapter, while inventing some new ones along the way. It’s wholly inventive and just crazy enough to work…sometimes. Given that it’s so liberally playing with convention, it’s sometimes hard to track people’s motivations if the narrative is going from serious to comic to completely insane. In other words, there’s a reason authors don’t generally jump around with tone like this. It’s an ambitious attempt, but it doesn’t always work. When it does work, it’s gripping.
I’m not sure there’s another way to put this, but Squirrel Days may be best enjoyed, and understood…inebriated. Certainly, it’s best enjoyed if you’ve got some familiarity with drug culture, as much of it reads like an acid trip – the marijuana leaf on the cover should be a tip-off. One gets the sense that the book might be a whole lot funnier, and make more sense, if you’re glad to see the world melt away and be as crazy as humanly possible. Squirrel Days accomplishes that, and then some.
The book calls itself a satire, but I’m not sure that’s the case so much as a send-up – a comedy set within the world of the drug war isn’t necessarily a satire of the drug war, it’s just the vehicle for absurdism to take place. But then you could look at the book in a Pynchonian way, in which absurdist fiction mixes with Kafkaesque frustration to exemplify just how maddening the drug war is – arresting people who don’t deserve it and fomenting violence instead of curbing it. The feeling of reading the novel is the same twisted feeling of being caught up in bad policy. One has to take a fairly long view of the novel to get this perspective, as so much of the book has the appearance of being insane for the sake of it i.e. because it’s funny, not because it’s satirical. Funny it is though, so mission accomplished.
Rolling in at over 400 pages, the novel does meander too much and a fair bit could have been cut out without sacrificing Costa’s core message or mood. It would also potentially help the book seem less uneven. Overall, it’s a uniquely weird and creative novel – you won’t really read another one like it, which is high praise. If you’re in the market for a book with drugs, aliens, and criminals, you can’t do much better.