The Wheel of Doll by Jonathan Ames

Early in this book, our narrator (Happy Doll, an ex-cop turned private investigator/security specialist) notes that he’s “become an armchair Buddhist,” which relates to the book’s title (which relates to the wheel of dharma). Happy thinks about karma and dharma and samsara, and co-exists with the ants in his sink rather than killing them, but (because he’s a man of contradictions and this, like the first book featuring him, is very noir) he also does a remarkably bad job of breaking free from things like violence and vengeance as the story proceeds.

When the book opens, in January 2020, he’s on his way to his office for an appointment with a woman named Mary who has contacted him to say she wants “help locating her mother”. Mary, who’s in her twenties, says her mom is homeless (and has been for about five years) and hasn’t been in touch for the last few months. Mary says her mom is a junkie, up in Olympia, and then comes the kicker: she mentions that her mom was Happy’s “girlfriend for a little while”, more than a decade ago, before she left Los Angeles. This woman, Ines, was someone Happy loved deeply, though she was in a bad place in terms of drug use and mental health at the time. And so, despite advice from a cop friend who notes that “things with junkies never turn out good,” Happy takes the job and heads up to Olympia to find Ines.

From there, well: to say that things go wrong would be a massive understatement. And while I saw some plot events coming from miles away, I was still totally caught up in the narrative, reading quickly and staying up way past my bedtime one night to finish this book. This book has fewer sweet moments with Happy’s dog, George, than the last one—though there are still a few great passages/phrases, like when Happy talks about coming home and George being super-excited to see him and then says this: “and then he attacked one of his toys, pretending to kill it as a way to work through his good feelings.” And there are fewer descriptions of lush LA scenery, though there are a few, and we get some vivid descriptions of other places (including Cannon Beach, in Oregon, and Joshua Tree) as compensation. This book feels even bleaker than the first Happy Doll book, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting, and I’m curious about whether this series will continue and where it will go from here, if so. “I simply had to burn this whole thing down so that someday I could start again,” Happy thinks to himself at one point, and there is definitely a scorched-earth recklessness to this book that feels quite dark. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like this one—I liked it a lot—but I think the next book I read is going to be something lighter/happier.






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