Review: Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love, by Carlos Allende
by Trey Burnette
Making mortgage payments, paying off credit card and student loan debt, and season tickets to the opera are excellent reasons for becoming an accomplice to your revolting non-boyfriend/boyfriend’s murders. At least they are for Charlie from Leitchfield. And even though his sort of love interest, Jignesh, is “a pompous sea monster from the depths of the Indian Ocean,” who can blame Charlie for his bad decisions as he falls in love with Jignesh’s “wealth and his ravishing South Asian skin”?
Carlos Allende’s novel, Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love, is set in 2012 ne’er-do-well Los Angeles with a couple of excursions to Mexico. Allende’s characters are the worst Los Angeles and the LGBTQ+ community have to offer, but only in the funniest of ways. Charlie, a mess from Kentucky, and Jignesh, an Indian from the Valley, go on a journey of bad choices, shopping sprees, embezzlement, and, of course, murder in this dark romantic comedy.
The book’s prologue opens with clueless Charlie lost in the Mexican desert, wearing “fabulous camo pants and [a pair of] hyper-chic hiking boots from Salomon Quest (50 percent off at Neiman Marcus)” that he can’t afford. Of course, Charlie isn’t to blame for being lost or for his irresponsible shopping; the blame can all be traced back to his melodramatic, albeit traumatic, numbered list of childhood events related to being self-conscious, bullied, or taunted for being gay. But don’t feel sorry for Charlie; he’s dealt with his psychological scars. He says, “You would think that self-loathing doesn’t help, but it does. Ask any gay person.” Charlie admits, “Self-pity is addictive [because] the more you feel sorry for yourself, the better it feels.” Isn’t that a country-Western song? This dialogue of Charlie’s shows him at his most self-actualized. And yes, in his twisted mind, his theories make sense and justify his belief system and behaviors.
With Charlie, Allende addresses internalized homophobia and its repercussions in a humorous way. The emotional scars of Charlie’s childhood traumas are serious and still present. Allende lightens Charlie’s sadness by heightening his coping behavior to the superficial and absurd. Charlie doesn’t get angry or depressed; he goes shopping. But he is still lost, literally, in the desert.
Allende shows Charlie’s need for growth and healing through his shortcomings. Charlies is passively racist: he fetishizes men of color and takes in the first man (credit not checked) to answer his Craigslist ad for a roommate because the guy is “half-black, half-Japanese, one hundred percent stud jughead.” Charlie is materialistic: every poor decision he makes begins with trying to obtain, through credit card debt or sex, something he can’t afford. Charlie is needy and a bit of a stalker: he texts Jignesh forty-seven times after meeting once and without ever getting a response. Other men threaten to get restraining orders against him. And Charlie definitely lacks judgement, hence why he is an accomplice to murders.
On first impression, Charlie is a dreadful human being; but his racism and other faults aren’t for the sake of cheap laughs or because Allende has a shortage of creative skill. He shares the unhealed pain of many marginalized people, particularly LGBTQ+ people, and therefore is relatable. Because Allende writes Charlie’s outrageousness as having originated from a place of hurt and not malice, Charlie is humorous and likable. Through satire, Allende shows that a marginalized person, too, can still have things to learn and room for growth, unlike many marginalized characters who become all-knowing, self-actualized caricatures who bestow wisdom on the world.
Jignesh is also a hot mess. He is “the Chief Financial Officer at [a] shitty vacation rentals company” in Venice Beach as well as a thief and murderer (everyone has two careers in L.A.). He ponders whether to threaten text-stalker Charlie with murder, but sees something of value in him through his Facebook post about selling a freezer big enough to store a couple of bodies. Jignesh also fancies himself as a talented writer, but no one takes him seriously, and deservedly so; his writing is terrible. An excerpt from his book: “Princess Salmonella looked at the Roman mercenary feeling a vivid rage through her flawlessly boned spine all the way up to her head crowned with the wavy, red curls. She hated that man.” Allende uses this excerpt to show how Jignesh processes the world—a funny tool that unfortunately Allende drops after the first chapter; it would have been fun to see Princess Salmonella travel along with Jignesh and his chaos.
Jignesh, like Charlie, is emotionally stunted from bullying and homophobia. He hates when people point out that he is overweight or call him fat, but he willingly uses his big booty to suffocate a waifish German intern who mocks him. Jignesh is deranged and socially awkward but lovable, like Charlie, because his behavior is driven by his pain and, in many ways, a defensive response to fear. He is further driven into the world of “other” because he is not out to his family. The protective choice of not being seen as a whole person is the motivating factor for Jignesh to do many of the things he does. He must hide his homosexuality (in addition to the bodies of his victims) because being gay could bring about his own figurative (alienation from his family), if not literal, death.
Again with humor and absurdity, Allende highlights that all people are flawed and feel distress, that no one gets to be the magical marginalized person who shows others that traumas can easily be turned into greatness. Trauma makes people make poor choices. Jignesh wants to live his best life, but one unfortunate choice after another takes him farther away from it and into pure comedic chaos.
Charlie and Jignesh are a match made in oddball heaven. Charlie wants a sugar daddy and believes Jignesh is rich, and Jignesh wants to hide bodies and knows he can manipulate Charlie into being an accomplice. Ain’t love grand? The book follows these two as their lives intertwine, they run from the authorities, and find new careers, if only due to their incompetence.
Each chapter flip-flops between Charlie’s and Jignesh’s point of view, a style that heightens the comedy and gets inside each character’s head. And just when everything is about to come crashing down, their own misguided decisions save the day, leading to more mayhem and comedy. Allende is good at keeping the mess alive.
Allende’s novel is outrageous, but his writing is dry and witty, which serves to ground the comedy and keeps the story engaging. His characters are flawed in all the right ways for their humorous entanglements.
Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love does what it is meant to do—engage readers and make them laugh. Readers will enjoy the ride, seeing just how much trouble the characters make for themselves and others. If only crimes of the real world were as funny as those in Allende’s world—where it’s hard to tell if someone is having a seizure or just needs coffee but at least can get a 20 percent discount for their troubles.
Trey Burnette, a writer and photographer, has an MFA in creative writing and writing for the performing arts, from the University of California at Riverside-Palm Desert and a BA in psychology, from the University of Southern California. He served as the nonfiction editor for The Coachella Review and has written for the Los Angeles Times, NBC News/NBC THINK, Los Angeles Review of Books, Kelp Journal, and Cheat River Review. His photography will appear in the August issue of The Sun Magazine. treyburnette.com