stars cats, but who’s counting?
The road back into The Creek bent and curved for what seemed forever, split off one way toward Walnut Gap and cut off another toward Yellow Mountain. That forever is part of what gave the place its lore. Folks that far removed had seldom associated law and justice with badges. The old time stories told tales riddled with bootleggers and murder, stories of copper stills on the fingers and branches of cold mountain streams, heads bashed in and buried before the blood had time to cool.
yes, it’s another one of those kinds of books. an isolated southern community doling out its old-school justice without need for the law to intercede – where police are paid off to look the other way so the meth business can continue unobstructed. jacob mcneely is eighteen years old, and the son of charlie mcneely, the undisputed meth king of cashiers, north carolina. they have a relationship that is based on blood, not affection, and jacob has been sucked into the family business without having either the aptitude or the heart for it.
I’d been around crank my whole life, so it had never been a drug, only money. When I was young, Daddy would put it to me like we were carrying on a family tradition, a matter of course that started with moonshine runs in chopped cars to make enough bread to survive the winter. It didn’t seem so bad when he put it like that. Outlawing was just a way of earning a buck. By the time I was nine or ten, Daddy had me helping him break down big bags of crystal into grams, never anything smaller, and I got a cut just like most kids got allowance.
jacob has grown up knowing this was his birthright and that his path is inevitable, but although he does what needs to be done; what his father dictates – including acts of violence in the name of business, he is more of a resigned participant than an enthusiastic one. he has given up expecting anything apart from following his father’s footsteps.
That was my reality: the hurt, the shame, and everything else entailed. So, waiting around to die was something I’d known for a long time, and it wasn’t the dying part that ate at me. It was the waiting.
his mother has become an addict herself, and has lived apart from the family for a number of years, and since he dropped out of school and broken up with his girlfriend maggie, jacob has essentially been alone, plodding through a life he does not want, knowing there is no escape from his fate.
his father, apart from being a criminal, is also a real dick – this is no “rooting for the antihero” situation, no secret heart of gold, just a hardened, bitter man who gets a couple of moments of residual humanity, but is mostly just callous and unlikeable.
“I don’t really think they wanted me there, and I don’t really know why I went. But one thing led to another, and I left Avery Hooper spread out on the floor.”
“Shit doesn’t just unfold like that, now. Would be out of your character to just walk in and go hitting somebody. Wouldn’t put it past me, but you avoided that kind of meanness some how or another. No, I reckon something had to have happened for you to just haul off and hit somebody.”
“And there it is, a goddamn woman.”
“She ain’t just some woman first of all and you know that.”
“Well, I know a lot of things. I know you two were tighter than a burl growing up. I know you two were together a good while, and hell, you might’ve even popped her cherry. But I know that a woman’s just a woman, and there’s no changing that. If they didn’t have pussies, the dumpsters would be full of them.”
jacob has too much sensitivity to be a true heir to his father, who sees him as a pussy, and it becomes a real struggle for him to balance his father’s demands with his better nature, his loyalty to his mother, and the feelings he still has for maggie, whom he left in order to avoid holding her back and tying her to their town, when she is one of the few he sees with the brains and aptitude to escape her own birthright.
his mother is rarely lucid enough to be a true mother to him, but they are allowed a few shining moments in which the kind of relationship they could have had is achingly glimpsed
It was the closest thing to a normal conversation I’d ever had with her. It was the closest thing to a mother she’d ever been. And if we’d been normal I reckon that would have been the time we’d have hugged one another and she’d have kissed me on top of my head. I reckon that would have been the tie that we looked each other square and said we loved each other. But we were a far cry from normal. There had never been any room for that sappy shit. There was a part of me that was happy for that, a part of me that thought the hardness that came with it helped to protect us from all the other bad that was in this world. But there was a part of me that knew the downfall. There was a part of me that understood that with that hardness came an inability to ever let anyone worth having get close enough to love.
which, of course, is a big part of the reason he is unable to remain with maggie, his childhood best friend become more in their adolescence. the book also grants them a few moments of possibility:
I wouldn’t call it our restaurant or some sappy shit like that, but it was a spot we’d shared when the world seemed slower, a place that seemed to hold an energy similar to that spot in the creek where we stood as wide-eyed children with spring lizards squirming in our hands. In the two years that had passed, both of our lives seemed to have lost that simplicity. Both of us carried things now that we hadn’t carried before. But being there, being there with her beside me, seemed to bring back all that old feeling. When we were together it seemed like everything else, all the bad shit that surrounded us, stopped and we were all right for a moment or two. It was never a thing that felt like forever, but sometimes all a person needs is a chance to catch their breath.
but these hopeful scenes are few and far between, and the realities of jacob’s inherited outlaw lifestyle are more typically characterized by violence, betrayal, and helplessness, as this family/crime story smashes everything lovely in its path in grim delight.
it’s gritty and bleak, and while it’s not the best of its kind, it is definitely worth your time. it’s a perfect introduction to this type of story for newcomers to the genre, but for someone like me, who has read A LOT of backwoods noir, it lacks a little of the spark that is found in, say, woodrell or mccarthy. but for a debut?? it’s very impressive, especially those scenes where jacob is trying so hard to take initiative and do what he thinks needs to be done, only proving how inept he is at being a criminal mastermind – View Spoiler »planting robbie’s mail, for goodness’ sake, and unfolding and draping the tarp – it broke my heart a little with how transparently staged it all was. such great details there. « Hide Spoiler he’s one to watch, for sure.