Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith

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Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An atmospheric tale of two lives destined to crash into each other – but not a love story, a story of violence, loss, and a seeking for redemption. An ex-junkie and an ex-con each on their own road to the future.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2017
Publisher: No Exit Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781843449874

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Maben is on the run. For a long while it's not clear whether she's running from something or towards something, or simply back to where it all started. She's got her small daughter with her, and they've been walking for a very long time. It's hard on the child, but it's also clear that if it wasn't for the child Maben would stop running, and it's clear that that would not be a good thing.

Along the way, some people help in small ways. Other people do the opposite, in big ways. If Maben was in trouble to start with, one small error not-quite-made is enough to get her into an even bigger fix, leaving a dead Sheriff miles off his beaten track, his gun missing.

Meanwhile, Russell is someone who did make a mistake. One simple mistake and it cost someone their life. It cost him eleven years in prison. Long, hard, time-served – time in which he sought, but didn't find, god and/or redemption or at least a sense of justice. But now he's out, and going home. Out and home, but not free. If he had any illusions about that, they are settled the minute he gets off the bus, where the unforgiving are waiting for him.

The Mississippi swamp is the perfect setting for this slow story. The place is as much character as geography, and the low lyrical style embeds the place and heightens the tale. Long passages describe the wakening of the world as the pale yellow sun edges itself between the trees and moss and widewinged cranes.…where Turtles situate themselves onto stumps that will later become sunsoaked and hidden things slide beneath black water with murderous patience and kill. Limbs too old to hold themselves up any longer bend and break like old men accepting their marshy graves. Reptiles slither and blackbirds cry…

The land is itself, but maybe it is also a metaphor for the people who live there.

Whilst the telling is as languid as the swamp and as slow as desolation (a word that comes up time and again), it snaps at intervals with desperate violence. Violence born of the madness that is a need for revenge, but also the violence born of opportunity, of a sense of entitlement thwarted, or merely of entitlement – violence born of the sheer excitement of being able to exercise that kind of power.

But also the violence born of the need to respond in kind to any or all of that.

If the point of stories is to make us ask questions, then the question is whether there is any difference.

If the point of stories is to make us look at humanity in the round, then there is goodness too. An old man giving a lift to a lost-looking young woman and simply helping her on her way. A young woman trying to draw a line, maybe to help her own salvation, but with one eye on the example to her child. For the cops who exploit their position for evil, there are those who agonise over using their silence, for its opposite.

The whole is redolent of what I would expect the south to be. Small towns and wide empty spaces and long winding backroads that seem to go nowhere. A lazy way of talking that economises on words, like each one is too much effort in the heat. Kids growing up the way they do, playing ball, drinking at the lake, fishing. Adults killing time, doing their work, fooling around. Simple pleasures mostly – but leading to some serious complications sometimes. Much like anywhere else in most ways, but entirely itself in others.

It's about how a family can root you, or rot you. It's about friendship. Above all it's about limits, and how we all struggle to define where we set them.

To be fair, it took be a little while to get hooked on this. For the first few chapters, I wasn't sure what I was going to make of it…but I read the last two thirds of the book at a sitting, staying up in the early hours to finish it and really caring about how it would turn out for these people. Possibly the greatest compliment you can pay an author: that you cared about his people.

And finally, a plea to the film-makers: when you option this one, don't turn it into an action movie…keep the pace, the sense of impending doom. Slow, and sinister. It cries out for Hitchcock.

Much of the stories of the US ‘south’ hinges on race, so it’s always good to find powerful stories like this one that take other backdrops…we can also recommend The Appeal by John Grisham. For a different take on the desperation of being on the road, we suggest you take a look at Armadillos by P K Lynch.

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