Books

Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Salty

A Novel

by Mark Haskell Smith

“[Mark Haskell Smith’s] characters include a not-so-usual suspect lineup of hustlers, sex addicts, supermodels, failed rock stars, wine-buff cops, psychos and flakes. Haskell Smith writes well, especially about sex and food, and the multilayered plots move so fast they feel fresh. Think Elmore Leonard meets Mario Batali.” —Richard Rayner, Los Angeles Times

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date June 19, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7034-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Publication Date June 19, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4878-1
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Turk Henry is overweight, unemployed, and unafraid to have a cold beer for breakfast. He’s also a rock star (the bassist for the defunct megaplatinumselling Metal Assassin), married to a supermodel, and rich beyond his wildest dreams, and right now his pampered paunch is plopped on the beach in Phuket. Turk has discovered that Thailand is probably the last place a recovering sex addict should go on vacation, yet here he is, surrounded by topless groupies and haunted by the stares of hundreds of luscious bar girls. It is a catalytic environment cranked up to eleven. What would his therapist say?

Turk’s struggles with monogamy pale beside a greater challenge when his wife is abducted by a group of renegade, shipless Thai pirates. The U.S. government won’t help—they suspect the pirates are terrorists—and the law forbids Turk from paying the ransom. As Turk, his life skills limited to playing bass and partying, navigates the back alleys of Bangkok and the deadly jungles of Southeast Asia to save his wife, Salty heats up and sweats bullets.

Featuring skinflint American tourists, topless beaches, a hypochondriac U.S. government agent, suitcases loaded with cash, an overeager “full service” personal assistant, a horny Australian commando, inventive prostitutes, and an urbane pirate with a fetish for alabaster skin, this is a hilariously entertaining, thoroughly debauched novel—with a happy finish.

Praise

“[Mark Haskell Smith’s] characters include a not-so-usual suspect lineup of hustlers, sex addicts, supermodels, failed rock stars, wine-buff cops, psychos and flakes. Haskell Smith writes well, especially about sex and food, and the multilayered plots move so fast they feel fresh. Think Elmore Leonard meets Mario Batali.” —Richard Rayner, Los Angeles Times

“The integrity of Smith’s skillfully guided third person narrative is quite admirable. It is never manipulative in its execution and never condescending when dispelling stereotypes of pirates, rock stars, prostitutes, and The War on Terror. If that does not give this book enough singularity in its rendering, treating sex in moral and sane manner (no violence or mental instability soon after orgasm) while never resorting to juvenile reactionary consequences, seals the deal; rare for a work of American fiction. . . . An exquisitely written thriller that is as entertaining as it is intelligent while also being confidently garnished by Smith with copious amounts of humor: a perfect prose concoction that is fit for any literary palate.” —Walter Reichert, Entertainment World

“Graham Greene meets the Marx Brothers and the result is Salty, Mark Haskell Smith’s riveting new novel of unquiet Americans on the loose in Thailand. Profane, endearing, and just absurd enough to be totally convincing, Salty is both a comic thriller and a thoughtful meditation on love, lust, and the American way.” —Tom Drury, author of The Driftless Area

“There is one word for this farce about a fat alcoholic rock star whose wife is kidnapped by Thai pirates: vulgar. . . . On further thought, a couple of other words describe this book—colorful, satirical, and hilarious!” —Library Journal

“Smith alternates spoofy, lush travel-writer prose with dead-on dialogue and jibes at the lives of the undeservedly privileged. A romp to relish.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Smith gets the details of midlevel rock stardom just right—his bumbling hero is a pot-bellied bassist for Metal Assassin—mixing laughs and satire like a cross between Carl Hiaasen and Ross Thomas. A-” —Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly

“For Turk, saving the day is almost as impossible as staying monogamous. Luckily, being funny comes easily to screenwriter Smith, who writes like Carl Hiaasen, cheerfully skewering Homeland Security, heavy metal, compromised Hollywood morals, American arrogance, fetishes and anything else worth taking a shot at, i.e. . . . everything. Through it all, Turk rocks on. Smith just plain rocks.” —Connie Ogle, Miami Herald

“No doubt about it, Smith knows how to spin a good yarn.” —Reviewingtheevidence.com

“Salty is a loud, drunk, sexy party which, like its main character, reveals a golden heart.” —Chris Simnett, The Calgary Herald

Salty is a delicious blend of humor, intrigue and sexiness. . . . It’s rare to find such an intelligent thriller that balances action with humor.” —PopSyndicate

“Shady dealings, wry political commentary and a steady dose of humor make the romp a heady treat. Now giddily into its second printing, Salty is a bromide with a beat.” —Susan Compo, Pasadena Weekly

Awards

Chosen as one of the “100 Best Beach Books Ever” by NPR
A Book Sense Selection

Excerpt

One — Phuekt

The Andaman Sea stretches out for 218,100 square miles along the southern peninsula of Thailand, extending south until it tickles the shores of Indonesia, flowing west where it mixes with the dark water of the Indian Ocean. It is one of the most beautiful expanses of salt water in the world, teeming with pristine coral reefs and home to thousands of exotic sea creatures. Not that he gave a fuck.
Turk Henry stood on the beach and looked out at the ocean. It was amazingly clear, so clear it wasn’t even blue or green or any of the colors you usually associate with ocean. It was like glass. You could see right through it, right down to the bottom. Clumps of seaweed, rocks, and sand; the occasional shadow and flash of fish darting beneath the waves. It wasn’t like the water he’d seen growing up near the Jersey Shore, that was for sure.

Turk craned his neck, peering through his massive sunglasses—the kind that make you look like you’re recovering from eye surgery—and looked for the boy.

Turk liked the boy. The boy brought beer. Hand him a couple baht and he’d go sprinting off to the end of the beach where his parents and grandparents sat around giant coolers filled with beer, soda, green coconuts, whatever you wanted. He’d come racing back and hand you a beer. Ice cold beer; the three greatest words in the English language.

His wife had told him they were eight degrees north of the equator. She liked facts. Eight degrees north of the equator, for the layman, translated into unbelievably fucking hot. A zillion degrees Fahrenheit and humid like the inside of a dishwashing machine. Turk had never felt anything like it. The only thing that had even come close was when he and the rest of the band were stuck in an elevator with ten or twelve groupies. A couple of the girls decided to get frisky, and suffice to say an orgy broke loose. With all the fucking and sucking, the groaning and heavy breathing, the elevator got hot and humid in a hurry. A couple of the girls even fainted. Passed out from the sex. When the elevator doors were finally opened by the fire department, there were six or seven naked groupies lying in a pile on the elevator floor. That’s how you become a legend.

But it was even hotter here, and Turk wasn’t dressed for it. He’d rolled up the legs on his black linen slacks, the kind with the drawstring that hang loose and baggy and made him look thin, and dunked his feet in the water. The sea wasn’t cooling or refreshing, it was warm. Almost like a bath. His wife had told him that the average water temperature in the Andaman Sea is seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit. That felt about right.

Turk unbuttoned his black silk shirt, letting his large pale gut leap out into the sunlight, his skin so white that it bounced the light up, casting reverse double-chin shadows across his face and making him look vaguely vampirish. Despite the hiking of the pants and the unveiling of the paunch, he wasn’t any cooler; sweat rolled off his body like he was melting. Fuck, he was melting. Where was that boy?

He turned around and looked for his wife. It was her idea to come to Thailand. She had nagged, pleaded, and cajoled until he finally broke down and agreed to sit on a plane for twenty-three hours—he watched five movies—as they flew from Los Angeles to Osaka to Phuket. It was her fault he was here, burning and roasting and sweating like a pig in an oven. Normally she was easy to spot—she was the only one here who actually wore a top. The rest of them, the Europeans and Australians, all lay out in the sun with their tits hanging out. They’d read books or play cards, sometimes get up and jump in the water to cool off; a couple of women were even throwing a Frisbee around, all of them topless. Not that it bothered Turk. He liked tits.

Sheila had told him that it was a five-star resort, superluxe, first class all the way. It was nice, he had to admit. It was isolated, away from the run-down little tourist town, smack in the middle of some kind of jungle with a private cove. The main part of the hotel was a modernist structure on top of a hill. It didn’t fit with the local architecture, looking more like a billionaire playboy’s fortress of evil than a Thai temple, but then Turk wouldn’t know Thai architecture if it fell on him and besides, he thought the concrete and glass building looked pretty cool. The main lobby was a big open room with a soaring atrium. This was connected to a restaurant, a swimming pool, a fitness center with a personal trainer on standby, and most important, a bar that overlooked the beach and the tranquil little cove. The resort’s rooms were actually freestanding cabanas dotting the beach and hillside surrounding the main building. You didn’t get a room, you got a little house with a thatched roof, amid coconut palms and beautiful flowering orchids and other plants that Turk had never seen before.

He had to agree, it was very nice and if you were going to vacation in a third world country there was no better way to go. But it wasn’t like he had never been in a fancy hotel before. Metal Assassin only stayed at the best hotels. It was in their contract.

If Sheila had told him that it was wall-to-wall breasts—like a nudist colony where only the women were nude—she wouldn’t’ve had to nag him so much. There is nothing more relaxing for the stressed-out heavy metal musician than to kick back, drink a few cold ones, and watch a parade of nature’s greatest triumph on display. If only Sheila were here to join in. Turk would be the first to tell you, his wife had a great rack. She’d put these other women to shame.

Turk remembered that she was off on some safari or something. She’d wanted him to go with her; she’d wanted him to ride an elephant. But he couldn’t think of anything less appealing than straddling the massive gray hump of some monstrous beast as it lurched through the forest belching and farting like a sick Harley-Davidson. That was Sheila, though. She was always off doing something. She liked go to yoga retreats in Mexico or bungee jumping with her friends in some dusty canyon in Ojai; she’d spend an afternoon in an authentic Navajo sweat lodge or attend something called an “inspirational tea.” Sheila made fun of Turk for not having an “adventurous spirit.” But Turk liked to take it easy. Didn’t people always say “take it easy”? Wasn’t that something you were supposed to do?

He didn’t mind that Sheila had her adventures; it was fine with him. That was the great thing about their marriage—they tried hard not to be codependent; they respected each other’s space. Turk and Sheila were a mutual support squad, helping each other cope, keeping each other on their respective wagons. It may not have been the most passionate coupling in the history of the world, but it was certainly the most stable. Turk was happy to see Sheila go on her fulfilling adventures. He just preferred to putter around the house, listen to music, practice his bass, and maybe watch a movie in their home theater. Sometimes he swam in the pool. It was a quiet life, but it made him happy. Going snorkeling or jumping out of an airplane just didn’t interest him. He often thought Sheila should’ve married an extreme-sport athlete, or maybe that guy who owned the airline company who was always jumping out of a hot air balloon on a motorcycle. She needed someone who enjoyed taking risks. That wasn’t Turk. He enjoyed playing it safe. So while Sheila rode through a jungle on the back of an elephant, Turk did the safe and sensible thing and sat on the beach drinking beer.
His feet sufficiently soaked, Turk walked back to his umbrella and slouched into a chaise, grabbed a towel, and mopped the sweat off his head. He heard a voice speaking English with a light German accent.

“Excuse me, sir, but aren’t you in Metal Assassin? You play the bass guitar, is that right?”

Turk looked up and saw a wispy young woman wearing nothing but a bikini bottom, her blond hair stuck in pigtails, her blue eyes gleaming at him from behind some Persols, and her perky little breasts pointing at him, looking almost accusatory, like he’d just done something wrong.

“Yeah. That’s me.”

“I love your music.”

She smiled at him; beamed really. Turk was used to women throwing themselves at him. He knew it wasn’t because he was super good-looking; it was because he was a rock star. Not that he was ugly. He had a chunky body—as round and expansive as the sound he conjured out of four strings and a massive Marshall back line; the kind of body a real bass player should have. It wasn’t that he was out of shape; he worked out, and his arms and legs looked young and powerful, his articulated muscles standing in sharp contrast to his protruding beer gut. He had a large and colorful dragon tattooed up his right leg and his left bicep was inked with the Metal Assassin logo, the words written in flaming Iron Cross Gothic.

His face was fleshy, but handsome, with mischievous blue eyes and large curly muttonchops on the sides. His head was topped by a full mane of long stringy rock star hair that he had to dye to hide the serious streaks of gray sprouting from the temples. All in all he looked the part. He just kept his shirt on.
Turk smiled back at the girl. He’d had his teeth straightened and whitened just this year, for his forty-fifth birthday, and they looked so clean and gleamy that they appeared fake.

“Thanks.”

“Really. You guys are my favorite band. I have all your discs.”

Most of them did. Turk studied her nipples; they stood out like bright pink bits of Play-Doh that had been pinched into shape. He looked up at her face.

“Which one’s your favorite?”

She bit her lip, appearing slightly stumped. Then she giggled.

“I don’t have a favorite. I like them all.”

Turk smiled and nodded. Sweat flipped off his head, scattering like he was some kind of wet dog.

“Cool.”

The young German, or perhaps she was Swiss, on vacation from Zurich or somewhere, bit her lower lip, summoning up the courage to ask the big question.

“So? Tell me. Is it true?”

“What?”

“You are no more? Steve is really going solo?”

Turk nodded sadly, putting on that grief-stricken faraway look that the fans seemed to expect on hearing the news that Metal Assassin had finally called it quits.

“Yeah. He wants to do his own thing.”

And not share the royalties. Selfish fucker.

“So, what are you going to do?”

Turk saw the boy trudging through the sand and waved to him. He then turned and looked at her. Normally, before he was married, before the years of therapy where he learned to recognize when he was in a catalytic environment and stop himself from fantasizing and ritualizing his sexual compulsions, he would’ve invited her back to his room for a quick shower and a longer blow job. But he’d learned to break that cycle. His therapist had drawn all kinds of little charts mapping out how his sexual addiction worked. The charts always ended with anxiety, despair, shame, guilt, and self-loathing.

It wasn’t easy for him; he was a rock star, after all, his entire life spent in a catalytic environment, but Turk had learned to control his destructive urges. He’d been surprised at how good it felt to have some power over his desires. His therapist had suggested that the behaviors and compulsions came from his having low self-esteem, and indeed, controlling those behaviors made him feel good about himself. In other words, Turk had discovered that denying himself a good piece of ass actually made him feel like a worthwhile human being. Go figure.

On top of that he’d taken a vow to be true to his wife and he was going to do it, even though it’d been the longest year of his life.

“Are you starting a new band?”

The Swiss-German girl seemed genuinely concerned, so he gave her an honest answer.

“I don’t know. For the time being I’m just going to drink a beer.”

The boy arrived, grabbed the baht from Turk’s outstretched hand, and then went sprinting off down the beach.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide By Chino Braxton

1) Turk Henry is from New Jersey. Is this important to the book? Does this explain anything?

2) Turk considers “ice cold beer” the three greatest words in the English language. Do you agree? Can you think of anything better? Consider “meet my twin,” or “it’s so big!”

3) “Sheila made fun of Turk for not having an ‘adventurous spirit.’ But Turk liked to take it easy. Didn’t people always say ‘take it easy’? Wasn’t that something you were supposed to do?” Discuss.

4) “The young German, or perhaps she was Swiss” who wants to “rape” Turk is ultimately disappointed when he won’t show her his famous member. Should he have done it?

5) “When something was so ripe and ready, so juicy and sweet, it took superhuman rock star strength to say no.” Do you agree? What constitutes “superhuman rock star strength”?

6) Ben, the ICE agent, goes to the bar in Patpong and sees the bar girl’s trick with the Ping-Pong balls. One lands in his beer, and his buddies insist he chug the beer. Would you drink it? Is it worse to get an infection from a Bangkok bargirl or look like a pussy in front of your friends?

7) Captain Somporn’s life as a pirate, before his boat was sunk and he was forced to kidnapped Sheila, consisted of getting a cut of a score, putting some in the bank, visiting his tailor, and then slowing blowing the rest of the money on single malt and gambling in Macau. Does this sound like fun? Put yourself in his shoes—would you become a pirate?

8) “Right now I’m a pirate without a ship,” Somporn tells Sheila. Consider this statement. Is he still a pirate, then?

9) Does the cheap American couple get what they deserve?

10) Ben decides to keep the million dollars. If you were in his situation, would you try to keep it? Consider the possibilities of outwitting Turk Henry. How hard could that be? Really?

11) After getting a massage with a surprise happy finish, Turk feels guilty. It leads him to consider a number of questions: “Is a happy finish the same as sex? Or is it part of the massage, just on a different part of the body? Is getting a massage the same as being unfaithful? Or is getting a massage okay? Turk supposed that if you called it a hand job then it could be considered infidelity. But this was a massage.” What do you think? “Happy finish good”?

12) Is Bangkok the “worst place to be in the world” for a recovering sex addict? Consider the alternatives. Turk “muses” that “only a roman orgy would be a more catalytic environment.” Do you think he’s been to Las Vegas?

13) Is Ben crazy? Does he really believe that the kidnappers might be terrorists?

14) Ben concludes that “everyone knows that two million dollars is twice as good as one million dollars.” Do you agree?

15) How many beers do you think Turk drinks in the book?

16) Out on his boat, delivering the ransom money, Turk sees a group of dolphins and remembers something Sheila once told him about them tending “towards wanton group sex with multiple partners—like a rock band on tour.” It makes him think “What if having multiple partners was how things were supposed to be? What if society’s demand for marriage was actually unnatural?” What do you think? Is Turk “just kind of slutty. Like a dolphin”?

17) Turk eventually decides that “we are all sluts; we just don’t want to admit it.” Do you agree?

18) Bass players in metal bands are often anonymous. Why is that? Can you name the bass players in Metallica, Megadeath, Scorpions or AC/DC?

19) Captain Somporn, the Thai pirate, becomes obsessed with Sheila’s pure white skin. Could you relate to that?

20) Turk’s wife, Sheila is a supermodel. What real life supermodel do you think she looks like?

Author Q&A

Q: If Turk Henry was real and Metal Assassin had been a mega platinum band, what would they sound like?

A: You can go to www.myspace.com/metalassassinmusic and hear for yourself.

Q: What inspired you to write about Thailand?

A: I once went to hear the Dalai Lama give a talk and he said “Everyone should go to a Buddhist country, just to see.” And my kids saw Bangkok on the Amazing Race reality TV show and really wanted to go. I’m glad we did. Thailand is a fascinating, beautiful place. It was never colonized or invaded so Thai culture emerged completely unique, original, and unlike any I’ve ever seen. I try to show that in my novel, the idea that the architecture, the food, the language, the customs, everything is absolutely distinctive. I also have to say that traveling in Thailand I just got a good vibe off the people.

Q: Where did the recovering sex-addict rock god and Thai pirate come from?

A: The inspiration from the book came from a really simple thing. I was eating breakfast at the hotel in Bangkok and at a table across the room were this British couple. They were middle-aged, heavy set, dressed all in black and wearing sunglasses indoors at breakfast. The looked like rock stars in exile. I had been reading the Roman poet Ovid’s erotic poetry and he had become a kind of rock star in exile for his time and somehow it all just kind of clicked. And putting a recovering sex addict in Bangkok, one of the most sensual cities in the world, was too delicious to pass up.

The pirate is based on real modern day piracy that occurs in the South China Sea. I wanted a cool, new antagonist and really, what’s better than a pirate?

Q: How do you come up with so many wild ideas?

A: They all start out based on real life. Like I said before, there really are pirates and in the book I accurately depict how they take down supertankers. The fetish for alabaster skin is something that came to me from a cab ride in Bangkok. The taxi driver went to great lengths to tell me that he loved the color of Caucasians because “white skin is the best.” He was a freak but he inspired me to have the pirate become obsessed with the supermodel’s tan lines.

There’s a scene in this fascinating documentary about Metallica called SOME KIND OF MONSTER where the band comes back to the recording studio from a hiatus and you see what they’ve been up to. One went bear hunting in Siberia. There’s a photo of him kneeling next to the corpse of a gigantic bear holding a bottle of Stoli in one hand, a huge hunting rifle in the other. Another just kicked back on his 200 acre Napa Valley horse ranch. They’re like bad-asses multi-millionaires who lead these ridiculous lives and I thought it would be interesting to contrast these pampered tough guys with people and an environment that were more difficult than anything they’d been exposed to.

So, to answer your question, it’s kind of a synthesis of natural curiosity and the fact that I have, historically, attracted all kinds of freaks and weirdoes who want to tell me their life stories. I just take reality to its logical extreme.

Q: What about the ICE Agent? Is that real?

A: I have a friend who’s a special investigator for diplomatic security for the State Department and I ran all this stuff by him. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the agents actually refer to themselves as ICE Agents. They’re part of Homeland Security and it’s their job to enforce the Patriot Act in all its absurdity. I really wanted to show how, again taken to extremes, the Patriot Act could actually punish innocent civilians.And I suppose a little bit of it is personal revenge. I was recruited by the CIA out of college and after acing a series of tests I was supposed to meet an agent in a hotel in Seattle. They had me fill out a questionnaire on my history of drug use and, after I did that, I never heard from them again.

Q: What exactly is a rambutan, and do you like them? Your bio seems to suggest that you do.

A: Rambutan is a tropical fruit that looks, on the outside, scary and inedible. It’s covered with brown spiky hairs. I refer to it in the novel as looking like a “rodent scrotum” which is fairly accurate. But once you crack it open and peel it, you find a translucent fruit that’s sweet and mildly acidic. The flavor is somewhat hard to describe. I find them—and most tropical fruits—sexy and utterly delicious.

Q: Do you let your kids read your books? If yes, what do they think?

A: They’re teenagers so they can handle it. And for them, there are lots of inside jokes in the books. For example my daughter was with me in the cab in Bangkok where the driver went on his “white skin” rant and both my kids were with me in Phuket where, in the Muslim section of town, we saw a giant mural of Osama Bin Laden painted in a café and took a ride in a tuk tuk covered in Arabic writing with “death in the Service of Allah is the Highest Honor” scrawled in English on the roof.

Q: Are there any good beers in Thailand?

A: Yes! Mostly we get Singha here, but in Thailand they have all kinds of fantastic beers. Unfortunately I can’t read Thai so I have no idea what they’re called.

Q: You have now written three novels, all featuring crime and possibly perverse sex. How do you think the novels relate? Do you think of them in association with the others?

A: There are some obvious themes that run through my work. Dolphins, Mormons, people struggling with their identity and a kind of hedonistic celebration of sensuality in all its forms. So thematically I do feel like there’s a kind of resonance between the books. I like writing about criminals because they’re operating outside societal norms—in opposition to society—and from that perspective our culture, American culture, seems to come into clearer focus. Perhaps it’s as simple as contrast and compare.As for the sex, as long as it’s between consenting adults, I don’t think there’s anything perverse about it.

Q: Each of your novels has a single adjective for a title. Was this a plan? Are you worried of running out of adjectives?

A: Absolutely not. It just sort of happened and now people seem to expect it. I know my foreign publishers love the one-word titles. I was talking about adjectives the other day with Arthur Phillips (author of Prague) and he was trying to convince me that “spankily” was an adjective. But I think it’s more a made up adverb.