Monday, July 26, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Arkansas and an Update

Last week's book was John Brandon's Arkansas, a novel that exists somewhere between literary fiction and neo-noir.  Or maybe it doesn't exist between them at all: it's a blend of the two.  The book follows Kyle, Swin, and Frog, three characters involved with the drug trade in the South whose stories run towards each other and intersect violently.

Swin Ruiz is a college dropout who still considers himself something of an intellectual.  When he runs out of money, he finds himself working with Kyle, who isn't the brightest, but is more suited to a life of crime.  The two become drug runners for Frog, who installs them at a state park where the ranger is his employee.  They never meet Frog, but he's an important character, with a significant portion of the book allotted to his backstory.  Every other chapter is written in the second person, forcing you to identify with Frog, whether you'd like to or not.

Swin and Kyle spend their days at the park, working for the ranger, Bright, between runs.  He's a strange character, with a collection of half-empty whiskey bottles and a box full of burnt bones in his house.  They have to do random work around the park between visits from Bright's other boss, a woman who dresses only in pink and gets a cut of the drug money.  While they're kind of idling around, Swin meets Johnna, a nurse who he begins dating.  The narrative, which is kind of loose and episodic, threatens to slow down at a few points early on, but the sections with Frog drive things forward leading to the moment things go wrong for Kyle and Swin.

You could say the idea behind the second half of the novel is that a criminal can be undone either by his stupidity, by emotions, or by chance.  When Bright is killed by a runaway, Swin and Kyle do their best to carry on without him, but neither one knows enough about the situation to really lead.  Everything they do leads Frog to suspect their motives, and as his backstory races toward its intersection with their plotline, you just know things are going to end poorly for them.  I guess the big surprise is what becomes of Frog at the end of the novel--if Kyle and Swin are destroyed by their own stupidity, Frog is nearly killed by his emotional investments in his employees.

But maybe the idea isn't just about what destroys the characters, because it's also about what saves them.  Kyle and Swin, Frog and his closest employees: they are family, in a strange sense.  Kyle and Swin realize this late in the novel and know they are the only ones they can depend on, to carry on their stories and to protect one another.  Frog is almost driven to madness when he realizes this about his own story.  If there's any redemption for the characters, it's through the people they have randomly wound up with. 

Brandon's writing is really engaging because it is so spare.  He seems to only want to give you enough to have a complete image of these characters, and his description of their actions and their internal monologues is at times off-putting because it is so clear and to the point.  Putting Frog's sections in second-person was a really wise decision--he would be a really difficult character to identify with in third-, or even first-person.  Brandon has a new book, out this summer, called Citrus County.  Based on the strengths of Arkansas, it is definitely one to check out.

Now, the update: I am going to post sections of a new story here next week!  It's one I've been editing for the past week, attacking with red pen.  And I'm really excited about it.  Check back here next Monday for at least part of it.

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