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by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam's Sons, July 2021
464 pages
ISBN: 0593328396

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Tell you what. After I closed the back cover of this novel, I wanted to take a bath. Being as my bathtub is still on order from Kohler, I had to accept a shower in its lieu, and I still don't know if that did the trick. Although my dislike rides on deep disaffection for the almost, not quite, comically stereotypical white trash characters, I think some other wall keeps me from entering this novel wholeheartedly.

Dramatis personae: Foul-mouthed Tanya Jane—TJ—Byrd, 17, who has been supporting her little brother by stealing things for most of her life, accused of killing her mother, and on the lam; John Wesley Byrd, 9, her brother; Gina Byrd, their mother, a hooker, unfortunately cut in little teensy pieces and put in a barrel, so we never are allowed to meet her as a whole person, so to speak; Ladonius McCade, whom TJ loves, not the least because all she has to do is crook her finger and he steals a car, presto!; Chester Pratt, lazy lowlife, loved Gina, Gina's money, and his liquor store; Dusty and Flem Nix, beetle-browed and cruel, whose physical short comings are used as markers for their emotional emptiness; Johnnie T. Stagg, ex-con who hires thugs to do his dirty work, and who finds peace in knowing that, if the thugs have a bit of fun with the thugees, it's no skin off his teeth; Deputy US Marshall Lillie Virgil—her truly foul mouth belies a decent heart; Quinn Colson, sheriff of Tibbeha County, ex-Ranger in Falluja; war buddies, sheriff's deputies, big mammas with hearts of gold, little rich girls and their sugar daddies, &c, &c.

This novel has three point-of-view characters, all somewhat at odds. The first is TJ, along with Ladonius, plunging westward in one, then another set of stolen wheels, lying low in cheap hotels, counting pennies to feed Wesley and gas up the car. TJ has spent most of her life stealing things to feed and clothe her brother. Uneducated, scheming, desperate, deeply cynical, canny, she leads readers to those atavistic corners of our intelligence. We hope we never have to go there. In fact, we declare to ourselves that TJ's sort of life can never happen to us. The second point of view is that of US Marshall Lillie, who believes that TJ and her hangers-on are guilty. Lillie has a daughter of her own, and thus she knows the quarry she is hunting is some other mother's daughter, nevertheless, she pursues a series of stolen cars with a determination to put a stop to their crime spree. Sheriff Quinn, his war buddy Boom Kimbrough, and their normal families who sit down at dinner tables, drink iced tea, play ball with their children, and face the worst that is in us from some unshakeable right place within themselves offer a lever-arm which balances TJ's family experience. Quinn, the protagonist of eleven Atkins novels, is the third point-of-view character. Atkins has loaded it on, too: Quinn is a US veteran, great daddy to his child, never angry, cool under dangerous conditions. He opens his arms to welcome strong women and cross-racial friendship, love, and respect. Importantly for the plot of this novel, he thinks TJ and her group of friends are innocent.

The novel's action rotates between Sheriff Quinn and friends stepping through the police procedures necessary to find Gina and then, once they realize that Gina is in a lot of pieces, to track down her killers; TJ and her hangers-on madly plunging across Arkansas, then south through Louisiana, running on fumes, and barely escaping those who pursue her as a matricide; and Lillie, whose pursuit of the delinquent children is followed everywhere she goes by a blue streak of words, many of which may be spelled in four letters.

As I turned the pages in this novel and realized, with a sinking sensation, that to write this review I would have to read all the way to the end, I tried to analyze my visceral dislike. If I may be quite honest, perhaps it is that members of my family once lived in a tar paper shack on very little means. Was I afraid to revisit those lives? Was I afraid that that blood ran in my veins, and that somehow I would become that ignorant, that poverty-stricken group, the mother having child after child because that is all there is, the father abandoning his young children to hunger, destitution, ignorance? Or is it a fear that those places, hunger, racism, hate, cold, sleeplessness, poverty, drug dependency, and ignorance, can suppress dignity, hope, love, generosity of spirit, not to mention manners, ambition, and cleanliness?

I believe that the depredations of poverty can take away our humanity, if we let it, and that is a scary thought, one that makes me want to take a bath. Or a shower.

But then I thought to sift Ace Atkins' characters: every last one of them is a stereotype. I do need to hasten to say, the stereotype is necessary to nearly all literature! Unless the writer is a Tolstoi, a Faulkner, a Morrison, a Joyce Carol Oates, a Garcia Marquez, in short, a novelist who can fill a canvas full of lovingly drawn, full-bodied characters, some characters will need to be drawn as stereotypes in order to give the semblance of a living community through the medium of words on white pages.

Maybe Ace Atkins can't help himself. Maybe he is over-booked—having published novels at a dizzying speed. In the present work, the bad guys are all fat, grotesquely so. Bellies are a-hangin' over belt-buckles all over Mississippi, a sure sign that stuff is missing betwixt the eyes. It's probably all that bacon. Eating bacon also probably leads to drug abuse. Can't be helped. And those empty little brains? Racist. You can tell a racist by his belly-fat. And, umm, honey, I am telling you, it is amazing how many women in the South spend their evenings pole-dancing.

Having read one of Ace Atkins' imitation Spenser novels (and I only made that mistake once), I realize that Ace's failure is one of love. Every character one lays on a page dies there unless the breath of love is breathed into his or her paper body and he or she is raised up to become human.

Atkins's characters are going through the motions, doing what characters of their race and class are supposed to do. Hey Ace! Slow down, look around! There's a whole world out there of marvelous beings, not all of whom are following a script and marking time until the next commercial break.

§ Cathy Downs, Ph.D., once an American Literature specialist at a university, now spends free time looking at rocks, working in wood, and seeking the perfect whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, April 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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