Wednesday, September 30, 2009

missed it the first time: Arkansas by John Brandon

by John Brandon
McSweeney's, 2008

This book was a highly anticipated experience for me. Not sure why.

Maybe it was the title.
Arkansas. I read in an interview that Brandon imagined Arkansas as sort of a malleable place, open to whatever whims he could make of it. And that's mostly true. Most of the book is set in a state park, that could be in any state of the union, only the shuttling between different cities would be different.

Maybe a good comparison would be the movie
Fargo. Its rooted in a place, but not to exploit the place, but to just have it in a place that where not a lot of cultural connotations are set. The only connotations are regional--a funny accent here, an extra moose joke here. But really, nothing hinges on Fargo the place, just as in Arkansas nothing hinges on it being in Arkansas, it just is.

So yes, the Razorbacks are mentioned, Ft. Smith is mentioned, Little Rock and Memphis are important places. But "southernness" as it is usually defined in literature is not defined here, just like the "midwest" is not simply typified in Fargo.

Another similarity--crime and bodies. Arkansas is about drug smuggling, but the characters who populate this world are not necessarily those of The Wire--it's a level or two higher than the street. It's situated in the world of Swin and Kyle who are drug runners, the act which usually occurs in beat-up Camrys and minivans, not glamorous limos or well-trimmed Escalades.

Instead Kyle and Swin pose as park rangers, taking care of small duties while waiting for the instructions to come from on high. There's also the atypical crime boss, told in a convincing second person fashion, as he builds his empire from bootleg cassette tapes to grander schemes.

In a clever bit of insight and situation, Frog, the drug boss, is able to monitor Kyle and Swin closely without them knowing it, not in some high-tech video way, but more through the way of pawnshops and chili cookoffs. Perhaps that is as southern as the book or anything, for that matter, gets.

Ultimately, the book rests on the shoulder of Kyle and Swin who serve as unusual foils. Swin goes from Tampa, FL to Nashville's Vanderbilt University, only to drop out when the work gets too hard. Kyle is an adrift loner from Athens, GA and they eventually fall into this and that and eventually into working together.

Once Swin and Kyle are firmly ensconced in Arkansas, Swin starts dating a local nurse which makes him confront whether or not his intellect will be used for good or evil. However, Swin is obsessed with tracking his sisters in Kentucky, a quirk that is never fully explained nor is really ever paid off--as if Brandon's character traits spooled out in front of him too quickly.

Kyle is more of the cold-blooded killer type--the one who squashes and kills opponents with little forethought, but possesses plenty of calm to dispose of the bodies after the fact. Brandon never writes Kyle as being overly gruesome, just matter-of-fact. Kyle firmly recognizes that killing and the drug trade go hand-in-hand, a fact that unnerves Swin. But Swin lacks the courage to kill and the courage to leave, which paralyzes him intellectually.

Everything in Arkansas moves at a nice, measured pace, even the few instances of murder. Brandon adopts a blase tone for most of the book--similar to the calmness exerted by Kyle who moves from being the second banana to the main course in the progression of the novel. More and more the story depends on Kyle, a development the reader is subconsciously aware of, as Brandon writes Frog and Kyle in the same detached manner.

Rarely do I want to read a book again, but I want to read this again, just because the characterizations, the places and the situations go against what is typically presented in literature on these subjects. The violence is never suspenseful or tense, the drugs are very rarely portrayed or even discussed. Arkansas deals with the practical, business side of drugs much in the same way a neurotic office assistant may handle the mismanagement of a pencil shipment.

Thankfully, the tension between Swin, Kyle, Frog and Swin's girlfriend Johnna are so effectively realistic that the book never lags.

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