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Tucson Weekly Minnesota Muck-About

Pete Hautman's Entertaining Novel Turns Small-Town Living Into Big-Time Adventure.

By Stacey Richter

APRIL 26, 1999: 

Mrs. Millions, by Pete Hautman (Simon & Schuster). Cloth, $23.

THERE ARE TIMES when a reader has had enough of Russian winters and giant dung beetles and middle-age angst and just wants to read something fun. Thankfully, there are books like Mrs. Millions, the new, immensely entertaining novel from part-time local author Pete Hautman.

Hautman is known for writing crime-caper novels in the Elmore Leonard/Carl vein, the kind of books where the characters are, according to the author, "just minding their own business when something comes along and drives them into a more exciting life than they bargained for."

Mrs. Millions is the story of Barbarannette Quinn, a small-town school teacher who is driven into thrills and adventure after hitting big on the lottery. On national TV, she follows an ill-advised impulse to offer a million-dollar reward for the return of her handsome, bad-boy husband, Bobby, who went fishing one morning six years earlier and never came back. And with that, pretty much all the creeps and loons from Barbarannette's past crawl out of the woodwork to vie for the reward.

With a deft hand, Hautman sketches out the actions of the dozen or so colorful, crazy and appealing characters who live in Barbarannette's home of Cold Rock, Minnesota. The town is peopled by strong, driven women and ineffectual, idiotic or psychotic men. Hautman's plot is fast-paced, and he gets to the point swiftly. Before we know it, tires are squealing, chair legs are thumping heads, and puddles of blood are spreading.

Though some novels that are heavy on plot skimp on characterization, Hautman has negotiated this syndrome gracefully through a refreshing sense of misanthropy that seems to say: If you look more deeply, you will find that most people are really stupid. Mrs. Millions is filled with some of the most wonderfully dumb, eccentric characters that ever inhabited a small town.

There's JayJay, a pretty boy who makes his living by writing famous people, telling them he's a cripple, and asking for money. ("Dear Mr. King, I read your book Misery and it changed my life. Previous to reading Misery I was in a deep clinical depression...") There's Andre, a prissy humanities professor with the soul of a psycho-killer slumbering inside his well-groomed exterior. There are brain-dead townsfolk like Rodney, who can't quite understand a second-grade essay with lines like, "My Dad is strong and he can beat up other kids' Dads and he can drink a whole case of beer."

These folks swarm around the town of Cold Rock, trying assiduously, and by any means necessary, to squeeze the reward money out of Barbarannette, stopping only long enough to fill up their tanks at the Kum & Go convenience mart. Barbarannette, meanwhile, exhibits a kind of practical, Midwestern common sense that begins to seem as over-the-top and absurd as the craziness around her. The Coen brother's movie Fargo kept popping into my mind when I read Mrs. Millions--what with the small Minnesota town and the bludgeoning and so on. Barbarannette has some of the preternatural level-headedness of Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief in Fargo. She is the picture of practicality--she won't even stop icing her niece's birthday cake when she suspects she's won the lottery, because she knows if she wins, she'll be too excited to finish.

Hautman's story is very tightly structured: this almost seems like one of those novels that might have a map in the front where you can chart the character's movements. This kind of authorial grasp can strangle possibilities, but Hautman leaves himself plenty of room to be playful within this structure. Funny, goofy and moving incidents continually pop up--Barbarannette's mother Hilde escapes from the nursing home in a stolen Porsche, or Professor Andre learns how to "neutralize" police officers. All this is told in Hautman's dry, deadpan tone in a way that's often very, very funny. And then, at the end everything is put back into place. It's so satisfying.


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